After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall by Nancy Kress

In the year 2035, all that’s remaining of humanity is a group of twenty-six people who live in the Shell, an enclosure built two decades ago by the alien race known as the Tesslies when an environmental cataclysm made our world uninhabitable. The six genetically mutated children who were born inside the Shell are mankind’s final hope of survival, also because they are the only ones who can use the Tesslie technology known as the “Grab”: a brief ten minute trip back into the time before the Earth’s environment was destroyed, during which they can gather precious supplies and capture other young children to augment the survivors’ gene pool.

In 2013, Julie Kahn is a talented mathematician who is helping the FBI investigate a series of mysterious kidnappings. Thanks to her algorithms, it gradually starts to become clear that the strange break-ins and disappearances follow a pattern, allowing investigators to close in on the next crime.

And in 2014, a new bacterium appears deep underground, setting off a far-reaching chain of events….

Superstar SF and fantasy author Nancy Kress returns with After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, an elegant novella that combines several wildly different science fiction ideas into a tight package. There’s a little bit of everything here: time travel, hard science, environmental collapse, aliens, post-apocalyptic dystopia. It may sound hard to combine all of these in such a short format, but Nancy Kress makes it work.

The novella’s slightly unwieldy title refers to the three plot lines described above: the survivors in their Shell in the future, the mathematician trying to solve the “crimes” happening in the present, and the environmental changes. What makes this much more than just another story told from three separate points of view is the time travel angle: as the novella progresses, the stories occasionally connect and weave through each other. After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall is really a series of interlocking flashforwards and flashbacks that continuously provide new information and different perspectives about each other to the reader.

Pete, one of the six children born in the Shell, is the story’s most interesting character and one of the most tragic figures I’ve encountered in SF in a long time. He’s a fifteen-year-old boy born in the surreal captivity of the Shell. His only knowledge of life as we know it is based on a few scavenged books and the brief jumps back in time. With a spindly neck and a too-large head, he’s at one point mistaken for a demon when a panicked parent catches him in the process of kidnapping two young children — something he considers a normal activity. He deals with all the confusion and hormonal urges of a typical teenager, but his world is limited to the Shell and the twenty-five other people living there with him. Pete’s story is simply heartbreaking and unforgettable.

The entire mini-society inside the Shell is a dystopia that’s been boiled down to its highest concentration level. There are a few high tech amenities such as endless streams of clean water and disinfectant (and obviously the “Grab” time travel device), but there’s no furniture or, for that matter, no toilets, so people are forced to collect their own waste. Everyone lives together in claustrophobic proximity, which is a constant source of tension because the survivors were obviously not picked based on mutual compatibility. The habitat has such an institutional, barebones quality that this part of the story feels as bleak as a prison drama. The relationships are complex and dysfunctional in the extreme, but thanks to the duress the characters are under, the tension frequently remains under the surface, taking a backseat to the need for survival.

After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall provides two main stories — the survivors in the future and Julie Kahn’s investigation in the present — but the third one, which connects the others and shows how we got from here to there, is its real strength. This is one of those novellas where the reader, who has the benefit of knowing all sides, gradually loses the misconceptions built into the story by the author. The characters eventually lose them too as everything inexorably works its way to a convergence, but until that happens there’s constant tension between the three plot lines. It’s this tension that ultimately makes After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall a great success. Expect to see this one on the final ballots of the major awards next year.

I wrote this review for Tor.com. It was originally published there on April 3rd, 2012.

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