Ossus Library Index
Science Fiction Index


A novel by Nancy Kress
(2000, TOR Books)

Probability Trilogy, book 1

A team of anthropologists studies a group of humanoid aliens who share reality, while the military searches an artefact for a weapon.


-- First reading (hardcover)
July 28th to August 4th, 2003


Well written, with realistic characters, but I wonder if I don't have a strong enough scientific background for this book!

I suppose I should be following the scientific journals more closely, so that I can be up to date on what is going on in the field of quantum physics. The science of probability is so tied up with things that I know nothing about, that when the characters started talking about the details of their theories, I just had to nod and assume that they were right, much like the team leader.

Although I liked the shared-reality of the Worlders, I would have liked an explanation to their nature that was a little more understandable. Still, the concept was so well developed that it was only a small disappointment.

The book was well-written, for the most part. Even from the early stages of the book, the reader could tell what "shared-reality" was -numbing head-pains from people who were not in on the truth. In order for things or people to be real, they must be known by all, and cannot keep secrets or do things that are not for the common good.

Enli is our character from that point of view. She is also unreal, because she killed her brother. In fact, it gets worse than that: she and her brother were lovers. By their deeds, both of them were declared unreal, and forced to work their way back to reality, like a prison sentence (actually, her brother was forbidden from being buried until she atoned). I really wondered how the priests did this. For somebody to be unreal, they would force headpain on others, as well as experiencing their own. And yet the people of Reality and Atonement dealt with the unreal all the time. There were other people, like Voratur, who didn't know that Enli was unreal. How did the priests explain that? They used her as a spy, developed pills to control the headpain. But how was she unreal, and yet that fact was not shared with Voratur? The author allows for small shifts in local reality, which allows the traders to be a little dishonest, but surely that should have been Enli's first glance into the plurality of realities. She, however, doesn't notice until near the end of the book. I kept expecting the priests to be immune from headpain and shared reality.

It is from Enli's point of view that we see the humans, as well as her own society. I liked her interpretations of the human anthropologists, though her translations should not have been so complete. The completeness was for the sake of the readers, who knew the words that she did not, but since she did not know them, the meaning of the sentences would have been drastically changed.

We get to know the humans mostly from the point of view of the team leader, Bazargan. He is a practical leader, who does not share all of his knowledge with the others, for practical reasons. They study in their field, while he studies the people. He shares his theories with the others when it is relevant, and makes his own observations, of everything.

I thought his intuition came a little quickly, or rather unexplained, for the story. We should have seen him come to his revelations, rather than being told after the fact, like the others, especially since we were inside his head. It might have been a logical conclusion that Enli was a spy, but what events gave him the clues? How did he figure out that she was unreal?

Bazargan goes through the first half of the book trying to give the impression that humans have a shared-reality of their own, which would allow trade between the two worlds. Instead, from the evidence his team members give, inadvertently, and a slip-up on his part, they are found to be unreal, and thus it is required for the people to kill them.

I agree with Bazargan's assessment of humanity: with the fall of religion, people would go from restrained, while putting others first, to an enthusiastic selfish attitude. It has always been that way to a certain extent, but we see it happening more and more these days, and if continued, I am sure he is right.

In the universe of this book, this leads to people like David Allen, who follows a morning chemical mixture to ensure that his mind and body are up to the days' tasks. David is an idealist, who also has schizophrenia, which is masked behind the effects of the drugs, so he appears almost normal most of the time. He is very naive, and doesn't understand why people don't see the obvious that he sees. Even though he is the most unbalanced character, I think he was the best written. We see his thoughts, his patterns, and we can see where he is going with his arguments -at least in the first half.

I can also somewhat understand much of David's perspective about other cultures, to a point. With so many cultures in the world, it is often difficult to be tolerant of ones we are not familiar with. We might try to follow the cultures of a place that we visit, but it might seem that the favor or respect is not reciprocated. I think what we would usually expect -blending in- would be forsaking the original culture of the visitors. As David sees it, every culture should examine the others, take the best of all, and throw out the extraneous parts, to incorporate it into a better humanity. How much culture would we lose because of that?

David even goes further, in saying that we could destroy fledgling cultures on other planets, in effect violating Star Trek's Prime Directive, to enhance our own. This is where we see that he is at least a little unbalanced.

The other two people are less interesting because they do their jobs and are absorbed in gaining scientific research knowledge, and neither are unstable. Anne is a biologist, who doubles as the team's doctor. She takes brain scans of the natives, and studies the chemicals and electromagnetic fields in the environment, trying to determine what causes shared reality. Gruber is an excited geologist who is very passionate about his work, and doesn't take the rest of life too seriously, which annoys David greatly! I loved listening to Gruber talk, at least before he became too technical.

I enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second half. We learned a lot about the Worlders, and their culture, as well as the nuances of their shared-reality. However, once the Terrans are on the run, most of the action takes place in the radioactive mountains. This might have been necessary from a plot perspective, but it became a little tedious as they wandered about. David became more unstable, Bazargan became claustrophobic, Gruber went spelunking to find the source of the radioactivity and the likely cause of the probability field that Anne believes causes the shared-reality.

What Gruber finds in the mountains is an alien artefact, similar to the technology that allows starships to travel through tunnels throughout the galaxy. It is also similar to the artefact orbiting World, which the anthropology team didn't know about until they were on the run, and was actually the cause of them being declared unreal.

The military team doesn't care about the Worlders -all they want is the artefact, which appears to be a massive weapon left behind by whoever built the gateways. This is where we get a sense of the galaxy as a whole, but it is frustratingly sparse on the details. Much of what we learn is given by the author's exposition.

It turns out that humans discovered the gateways and followed them to other worlds, sometimes inhabited, sometimes not.

The aliens they encountered were all less technologically advanced than Terrans, but all of an origin that was distantly related. From a scientific standpoint, that doesn't make sense, because it took a very special set of circumstances to make humans dominant on Earth, and the laws of probability say that it is so unlikely as to be impossible that this would happen twice, given the same set of initial conditions. However, that is, I think, what the series is getting at. These aliens can affect probability on a large scale, using it as a weapon, possibly as a shield, and probably in many other ways.

The only race with non-human ancestors that were discovered were the Fallers, hostile aliens that were about as technologically advanced as Terrans. For unknown reasons, they attacked all of the human colonies that they found, but give absolutely no communications, no reasons, and are never captured alive. I really hope that we get a better glimpse of these people in the future of the series.

So when the military team starts to tow the artefact towards the gateway, it is inevitable that a Faller ship would come to watch, hoping to steal it away at the right time. The trick, however, is that the artefact is too large to fit through the gateway without becoming a black hole, an event that it perceives as being a very violent attack on itself. So in the end, this part of the plot seems to be for naught because both the human and Faller ships are destroyed. But the buried artefact, the "First Flower that fell from the sky to create World", shows evidence that it was connected to the other one through a quantum property that allows faster-than-light communications. It will undoubtedly be explored in the future.

Like I said, there is a lot of science in this science fiction. Maybe even too much. When authors start spouting out numbers to support the physics, I wonder how much of it was really necessary. I could follow a lot of it, but it could have been done in a less quantitative manner.

In the end, we get to know a culture and some humans from a future time, but we don't know what has changed. We don't know if the artefact's explosion actually altered things on World, or if the buried artefact protected the whole planet, the way it protected the team in the mountains. There were a lot of characters introduced on the Terran side of things, sometimes too many for me to handle, but only four of them ended up surviving. I hope we see them in the next book.


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