Long, long ago, I started reading Beggars in Spain. For whatever reason, I didn’t really get into it and gave up a little ways in. This probably had more to do with my high school homework load reaching epic proportions than any failing of the book, as I pretty much stopped reading for pleasure after that. But whatever the reason, I never read Nancy Kress again. This was probably a mistake, though to be fair, it wasn’t until I finished college that I read much of anyone else either. Many years later, I was perusing the shelves of the public library, found a book that wasn’t the middle of a series, decided that Probability Moon was as good a title as any, and decided to give Ms. Kress another shot. (Thank you Broadview Library, for never failing to have books two and three of something and forcing me to use interlibrary loan on a weekly basis.)
I’m genuinely curious how the Probability stories got off the ground (but not enough to dig for interviews at this late hour). Most books have one fairly clear Big Idea that kicks off the action, but Kress is working with three Classic SF Cliches: The long vanished elder race, the implacable and incomprehensible enemy race, and the noble savages. These three are tied together by a Big Mysterious Object (BMO = Cliché 4?), which was left by the elder race in the noble savages’ solar system, and will be used in the war against the enemy of all humanity. Any one of these could have triggered the story, but it is unclear to me which came first. I suspect that she started with World, the home planet of said noble savages, but the other aspects are integrally tied to World in such a way that it is hard to imagine it in isolation.
This could very easily get out of hand, but Kress keeps it all together. The first two Classic SF Cliches remain just that, but the third takes an interesting path. The noble savages are indeed noble, but it is only because they have no choice. The explanation is convoluted, but involves a lot of brains, quantum particles, and evolution, and is much more satisfying than a Dances With Wolves-esque “these magnificent, yet primitive, men live in perfect harmony with their surroundings.” (Of course they do – it’s hard not to live in harmony with nature when one doesn’t have a bulldozer, or at least some TNT. I digress.) They do like flowers, however.
Besides the multiple starting points, the scope of the series is unconventional. It would be easy to take the initial set up, where humanity discovers space tunnels that enable travel between the stars, only to bump up against the xenophobic and violent Fallers, and let loose a massive space opera. Ships blowing up, valiant men and women fighting impossible odds, scenes of individual and collective heroism, etc. Instead, the first book sends the reader straight to a planet full of flowers and populated by humanoids with neckfur and recurring headaches. In fact, the Fallers don’t really make an appearance until the end of the first book; mostly we learn about flowers and headaches. Especially flowers. The noble savages return in the second book, but the focus is clearly on the Human – Faller conflict. By the end of the series, the noble savages, flowers, neckfur and all, are a footnote. Even the Fallers are far less important in the last volume, as developments on Earth and Mars take center stage. Again, this narrative could blow itself apart at any second, but Kress makes it work.
To sum up thus far, Probability is a trilogy that starts in one place, ends up way out in another end of the galaxy, marginalizes most of the original characters by the end, and basically turns left every time the reader would assume it will turn right. It is also insanely hard Hard SF. Quantum physics is the science of choice, but there is a fair bit of anthropology and anatomy thrown in as well; the soft sciences are hard too. As far as I’m concerned, these are all good things. I am always happy to read unpredictable books, as the opposite are far too common. I am also all in for science, despite my inability to practice it myself. Hard SF remains my favorite subgenre. I also enjoyed World and its denizens, as well as what little was shown of the Fallers. I can’t really give the Probability books my absolute highest grades, though I enjoyed reading them. This isn’t due to any failings per se, just the difference between something that leaves me satisfied and something that leaves me blown away. That difference comes down to personal preference, I think, and is unrelated to the author’s skill/imagination/eloquence/whatever. So a strong recommendation for these, unless the reader has an irrational hatred of flowers.
Rating: Valencia. Solid team, good football, worth watching and cheering for, but overshadowed by more extravagant competitors. Are there flowers in Valencia?