A true “what-if” tale Steal Across the Sky introduces a mysterious alien race that commited a great crime against humanity somewhere in the distant past. Now the alien Atoners have set up shop on the moon and are calling for human “witnesses” to travel to distant planets. The exact nature of what they’re supposed to see is unknown only that it will supposedly reveal the exact nature of the crimes the Atoners commited.
The witnesses are divided into groups of three to two planets per group. One person witness on the surface of each world and one to stay in orbit and monitor things from above. The book focuses, initially at least, on a select group of witnesses: Cam, Lucca and Soledad sent to witness on the planets Kular A and Kular B. What they see and do there impacts their lives, and lives of humanity as a whole in profound ways. Steal Across the Sky is a difficult book to discuss without going into specifics and without going anywhere near spoiler territory so I’m going to be sticking to mostly generalities.
The characters in Steal Across the Sky are extraordinarily important since both their reaction and, as is often the case, intrepration of events hinges strongly on how the reader relates to each. Each character seems to represent a specific idealogical mindset: Lucca responds with cold reason and science, Cam responds with emotion and faith, and Soledad walks a line between both. Of course all three have had (or do have, over the course of the novel) events in their lives that influence the decisions they make and how the react to revelations that come about as a result of their witnessing.
The beauty of this approach only becomes apparent towards the end of the novel. Kress never verges into stereotypes in the characters’ reactions to the Atoners’ crimes and the truth behind that crime is left, mostly, uncertain (unconfirmed is perhaps a better word) until the very end of the novel. At the same how you react to each of the characters’ responses varies greatly on your own individual views and personal experience. By never presenting an obviously correct answer and obscuring the truth until the novel’s end Kress allows the reader to participate in the narrative by forming their own reaction.
The actual witnessing only takes up about the first half of the book with the remainder of the book focuses on the reactions of humanity and the means the Atoners employ to…well atone for the revealed crime. Where the frist half primarily focuses on Cam and Lucca’s stories on Kular A and Kular B we get the majority of the remainder of the novel from Soledad’s point of view in addition to a new witness, from one of the other planets, Frankie. Frankie is an interesting character. He is the only character that who gives the reader a religious take on events (Cam’s “faith” based response is an entirely different animal). You could likely write a whole essay on Kress’ portrayal of Frankie (who is some denomination of christian, I can’t remember if it is stated outright) it isn’t exactly the most endearing portrayal of christianity but it isn’t a scathing indictment either. It is a remarkedly even handed characterization that is more a testament to an individuals personal character than it is a critique of organized religion as a whole. I found myself turned off by some aspects of his character (i.e. comments about women) but at the same time respected his faith.
The thing about a book like Steal Across the Stars is that the fun is in journey more than the end result. By the time things start heading towards the climax things get pretty predicable. Despite that though the end result hardly cheapens the journey to get there. The book is less about the crimes of the Atoners than it is about how humanity reacts to those crimes. In addition to the more intense character portraits we get over the course of the book’s main narrative we also get to see more general reactions via short little vignettes that occur between the chapters. In the first half of the novel these focus mainly on humanity’s (the government especially) reaction to the presence of the Atoners and through transcripts of government document we get a glimpse how the Atoner’s witness selction process workesd. Later we get transcripts of conversations between the president and his chief of staff, advertisments, and a number of other odds and ends that give a glimpse at the broader picture without sacrificing the the more intimate feel of the narrative.
Steal Across the Sky is a book with a big idea. It is the type of work that makes science fiction so much fun. Despite the somewhat weighty issues that the book tackles the book remains a page turner thanks mostly to the strength of Kress’ characters and the mystery surrounding the Atoners. I like how the Atoners stay in the shadows (save for one brief appearance towards the end) which allows for a greater exploration of the ideas the novel espouses rather than an exploration of alien species that orchestrated everything. Steal Across the Sky is a novel an absolutely fantastic read with taught well-drawn characters who, despite the fact that they seem to each represent a specific idealogical viewpoint, are always believable. While the novel lacks in straight up action the emotional and sociological drama is so enthralling that those few action scenes we do have, in particular those towards the end of the novel, are almost a disappointment. High recommended for all fans of solid, idea-rich science fiction.