Crossfire, by Nancy Kress

By Nancy Kress (Tor, 2003, 364pp, $24.95)

Nancy Kress’s talents are in extrapolating from suppositions about physics and biology, and in exploring the relationships between highly diverse characters. Unfortunately, Crossfire is the wrong arena for those talents. It is a space opera about the clash between two highly different space-travelling races, with poor little humans caught in the — you guessed it. That kind of scale demands a sense of wonder, an idea of the big picture which unfortunately Kress doesn’t deliver. At least, not here.

Until the aliens come, there is very little to distinguish Crossfire from any of a hundred adventures where a diverse group of humans settles a virgin, Earthlike planet. The planet is Greentrees, the settlers are a corporation led by Jake Holman and Gail Cutler. Jake and Gail are partners purely in the business sense: Jake has a suitably dark secret that he is running away from, Gail too has her own reasons.

Other key characters are the Quaker William Shipley and his infinitely slappable brat of a daughter Naomi; a troop of superhuman Swiss mercenaries whose presence leads to the most egregious “as you know” line uttered in sf since the 1950s (“You probably already know a lot about Rebuilts, but let me explain them anyway”); and about 1000 wannabe Cheyenne who are going back to their roots, despite each being at best about 1/16th Native American.

All the settlers were once immensely rich on Earth but have had to give it all up to come on the ride. Spaceflight isn’t cheap in this future. The expense, the distances involved (limited, telegram-like FTL communication, STL travel) and an apparent social breakdown on Earth all serve to isolate our heroes quite nicely.

So far, so good, but there’s a distinct sense of seen it all before. By far the most interesting and involving characters are Shipley and Naomi: they carry the scenes they are in and frankly leave you wondering why the other characters showed up. Shipley is a benign, well-meaning and only slightly ineffectual pacifist who confronts every problem that comes his way head-on. If his pacifism doesn’t seem to work in the immediate face of things, he makes it work — nicely — and it is his obstinate, unyielding Quakerism that provides the key to many puzzles. You can well believe that this man sired the venomous little monster that became Naomi out of sheer counter-reaction. She is a wilful, spiteful little shrew who would make Gandhi want to thump her, and Kress is only able to make the reader remotely care about her by detailing the effect her actions have on everyone else.

As for the other characters … well, each is well drawn in his or her own right, but none of it seems to hang together. There is no synergy between these people, absolutely nothing in common that would make them fit together in the same story. Granted that this would be exactly the case with an interstellar colonisation effort where the sole criterion for entry was immense personal wealth, but that’s the real world. This is a story. These are the people who will be at the forefront of First Contact, swept up by one group of aliens and set against the other. There should be a reason for them being there, and apart from Shipley and his hideous spawn there is none apparent.

And into this hive of simmering so-whatness come the aliens, the Furs and the Vines.

Without going into details and to save spoilers, the Furs are somewhere between Klingons and Wookies: mammalian, aggressive and recognisable to any human. The Vines are (or perhaps, is) plant-based and very alien. And here is where Kress starts being Kress. The Furs loathe the Vines and wipe them out wherever they find them. (There is a very moving scene where our heroes are captured along with a Vine, and the Vine is going to be executed. Everyone knows it. There is nothing they can do about it. The Vine can’t run and the rest can only stand and watch.) The Vines themselves are ardently opposed to any kind of life taking, so their sophistic response to the Furs’ threat is to breed captive groups of genetically modified Furs, each with different behaviours, to develop a nicely pacifist race that they can live with. And it is the vile Naomi who puts her finger squarely on the button: are the Vines really that different to the Furs? The rest of the humans instinctively prefer the Vines due to their not slaughtering them on sight, but does either side really have a moral high ground over the other? At least the Furs are honest about what they do.

The argument would be stronger if Kress raised the possibility that on the Furs’ home planet there are pacifists and beatniks and tree-huggers. After all, we only meet the crew of one ship, and they are monumentally pissed off by the Vines’ experiments on their people. But no, we gather that the entire race is pretty genocidal by nature, and there seems no question that they started the conflict. Sadly, it lowers them from Potentially Morally Complex Protagonists to Standard Nasty Aliens.

The Furs kidnap our heroes and intend to use them as a Trojan Horse for penetrating the Vines’ camp so that they can perform a quick, surgical genocide. The remaining colonists on Greentrees are held hostage against our heroes’ good behaviour. A way out is found by the end of the book, but the shadow of Naomi’s ethical question hangs over the whole proceedings and over future novels. It will take several generations for the solution to implement itself fully. The stage is set for further books in the series, hopefully concentrating more on the crossfire clash and less on the personal crises of the colonists.

So, including humans we have three starfaring races, two of whom are locked in a bitter, genocidal war that has been going on for a very long time. It demands the vast perspective, the dot upon the dot. We don’t get it. If this was a film then the action would take place in one outdoor location and three studio sets, and that is far too restrictive for this kind of story. The outdoor location is Greentrees: mountains, plains, oceans, seas. Frankly it could be North America. The sets are two alien spacecraft, neither of them very large, and a deserted, barren planet (or at least a barren area of a deserted planet) where our heroes are stranded by the Furs. It is only in the latter that you at last get a real sense of the scale of the story, the fact that this crossfire involves a war that takes in whole solar systems. It lasts for, oh, a couple of chapters.

Another flaw is that Kress badly needs a sense of the ridiculous. You can have the ridiculous in a story if the author is aware of it and takes steps to deal with it — either making it into a joke or treating it differently. There is no such perception in Crossfire, where everything is treated with the utmost solemnity. It becomes wearing.

Those Cheyenne. They are frankly a joke. Colonists and readers alike cannot see the point or take them seriously: even the big chief is about as Native American as I am Norman. If the Cheyenne themselves could see the joke — yes, we know we’re mongrels, but we choose to recreate the lost civilisation of our very distant forefathers — then they would have a dignity and respect that is otherwise entirely lacking. Kress’s po-faced take on them just makes them look like a bunch of nutters.

And the Vines. In concept, a very satisfyingly alien race. In the depiction, hard to take seriously. They present an absurd picture in the mind’s eye and, like Niven and Pournelle’s parachuting baby elephants in Footfall, once you have the image lodged in your forebrain, any serious point the author is trying to make is doomed.

Being low-motility plants, they trundle around in little domed carts (reminding me of the Arcturus delegate in the Dr Who adventure “Curse of Peladon”, but that’s just me). They tend to exist on borrowed or stolen technology, and when we first meet them they are coming down the ramp of a Fur-built shuttle. Their carts aren’t designed for the steepness of the ramp, and they tend to slide or slither down the slope in an undignified rush. This point is made several times. Once we know it’s because of the incompatibility of the two technologies, it begins to make sense and we think, aha, Kress has been Giving Us Clues. Picturing it in the mind’s eye, however, just makes it silly. Later on, an irate Fur bounds into the Vines’ shuttle and throws one of the carts out of the airlock. The other is given an unceremonious shove down the ramp. From what we’ve read and seen, we know that the Vines are in terrible danger (it’s the lead-up to the aforementioned execution) and we are meant to be reading with bated breath. But from how it’s been described, we just want to giggle.

There is the distinct feeling of more to come in this series, and I’m sufficiently intrigued to want to read it. The Furs and the Vines are sufficiently different that you can be interested in their struggle, and in its outcome. I want to see if the Vines’ winning strategy, set in motion in Crossfire, actually succeeds, and/or what the Furs do about it. There have been broad but unexplored hints of big troubles back on Earth, that may or may not play a part in what comes next. And I want to see more of Naomi and Shipley, because I’m confident that we won’t be let down with a nauseating, big reconciliation scene. The limited perspectives of Crossfire might just be setting the scene in microcosm so that future books can expand the action out into the galaxy. I hope so. But I want the other characters to start justifying their existence.