Take Them to the Stars Series
by Sylvain Neuvel
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted January 8, 2021
Edits and Addendum on March 29, 2022
1. A History of What Comes Next / Until the Last of Me
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I'm using part of the first book's title in the URL for this page, but the collective name of the series as the header for this review. I may change one or the other when it comes time for the sequels. If I read them. A History of What Comes Next will be published next month, February 2, but I received an e-ARC from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. I was interested because I've enjoyed four previous titles by Neuvel, but I have a mixed opinion of this one. Its premise is interesting but hardly original, and there are breakdowns in logic along the way. The main action takes place between the early 1930s and 1961, along with flashbacks to previous times. If the second book was ready now I would be inclined to read it, but it's likely that interest will fade over the next year or so. It is unfortunate that trilogies and longer series are so prevalent now, since this is not a long book and could have been expanded to complete the story. Then again, the story may extend way into the future, so we'll just have to wait and see.
Even though they used different names before, and will again later, Sarah and her daughter Mia emigrate from Germany to America in 1932, due to the rise of fascism in Europe. Less than a decade later Sarah will have become an operative with the OSS, America's precursor to the CIA. Sarah and Mia are exceptionally brilliant women, Mia able to embed herself with German scientists in 1945, an assignment orchestrated by her mother. Under a variety of names, Mia ingratiates herself with Werner von Braun, Major-General Walter Dornberger, and other scientists at Peenemünde, convincing them to leave before the Russians arrive. After von Braun is secured by the Americans Mia's assignment shifts to Russia, with her mother joining her. There Mia works with historical figures such as Sergei Korolev and Mikhail Tikhonravov developing Russian space capabilities. Mia is ostensibly just a secretarial assistant to Korolev, but she's actually directing a lot of the research, including writing a paper credited to Tikhonravov on the viability of multi-stage rockets. Russian military thinks they're working on missiles but Mia's focus is eventual manned space flight. While this is going on, Sarah researches climate change, primarily the rise of CO2 emissions, including historical levels trapped in old ice bores.
Sarah and Mia call themselves the Kibsu, their mission being to "take them to the stars," although it seems they're not entirely sure of the reasons. They know they aren't human, or at least they think they aren't, but they have no memory of their origin, except the vague notion they are descendend from a long line of women who have had the same goal. Sarah is the Ninety-Nine, Mia is The Hundred, their legacy going back nearly 3000 years. Another vague notion they have is that they are being hunted by someone, or a succession of someones, they only know of as The Tracker. Each generation of the Kibsu has had a daughter fathered by a human, but all of the genetic heritage is from the mother, which leads to one of the rules they have to live by: "There can never be three for too long." That's one of the first lapses in logic. Each of the Kibsu are a genetic match with their mother, they all look alike after maturation, which is not that noticeable for a mother and daughter, but three or more generations would make it too obvious, especially to anyone who had known the mother or grandmother when they were younger. Sarah's mother killed Sarah's father when he learned the truth, then killed herself, leaving her daughter and granddaughter to carry on the work. Most of the Kibsu pick a random man to impregnate them, since it doesn't matter who they are, their DNA will not be passed on, but I can't see how that's possible. Dominance of certain chromosomes makes sense, but 100% inheritance? Whether or not the Kibsu are extraterrestrial in origin, it would have been more believable for them to reproduce through parthenogenesis. But if Neuvel's scenario it correct, why don't they leave the man before their child is born, eliminating the chance they will learn the truth?
Other rules the Kibsu try to live by include: Preserve the knowledge; Survive at all costs; Always run, never fight; Don't draw attention to yourself; Don't leave a trace. Yet Sarah and Mia break those rules several times, most especially the third and fourth ones. In the flashbacks so do many of their ancestresses. Besides, since they don't know much about their origin, how can they "preserve the knowledge"? How can one woman do that much to advance the goal while also trying to raise a daughter until she is of age and can contribute? Those are not little, inconsequential plot elements easily dismissed. The core story is interesting enough, but those inconsistencies kept nagging at the back of my mind. Not to mention The Tracker(s), whom the Kibsu call the Radi Kibsi, perhaps of the same species, or at least from the same planet. However, their reproductive lineage is the exact opposite, using a female human to gestate, but all genetic inheritance is from the father, and each generation of Trackers consists of the father and three of his identical sons. Their mission seems to be to retrieve a device, perhaps a communicator, from the Kibsu, even though Sarah has no information about that to reveal, even under torture.
The story starts strong but meanders along the way. The most interesting parts are when Sarah and Mia interact with historical figures, and are involved in events any history student should recognize. If not, google and wikipedia are your friends, dear readers. I'm rating it just 3 stars, but a more exact score would be slightly higher. It ends in 1961 with the flight of Yuri Gargarin, and Mia expecting a daughter, whom she plans to name Lola. 101a, get it? Yes, I would like to know "what comes next," so I hope there is not too long a wait for the sequel.
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Posted March 29, 2022:
Please scroll up to see my comments on the first book, for which I've made a few edits and additions. I will also repeat a few things here. I did say that my interest might fade before the second book was ready, but then I was tempted once again with an advance e-book from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. I accepted. That was way back in August of last year, and maybe before I decided to limit ARCs this year. Some of the same faults in logic continue, but overall I rate this above its predecsessor. Even though all of the Kibsu are essentially the same woman, due to 100% of their DNA being passed down to the next generation, there are differences in temperment, and in each woman's decisions as to how to continue the work. The same applies to the Trackers.
Sarah is gone, Mia and Lola are on their own, and Mia has a difficult time deciding what she should do. Lola is also brilliant, but she's just eleven, so her contributions will have to wait. The space race is going full bore, but the Kibsu don't care who the winner will be, they just want to influence decisions all around the globe. In the first book, Sarah and Mia had a direct impact on events, but now Mia finds that several things she had been working on have already been developed by others, several years before. That, and the slowdown of progress after the moon landing, leads Mia in other directions. She and Lola visit many different countries, including Russia again, but now the search is for more information about their progenitors. Historical figures are featured again. Mia reads a letter written to her mother from a former colleague at Caltech, one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Qian Xuesen. He is back in China, where he became aware of an archaeological find he was sure would interest Sarah. The artifact, an ancient bow, is based on a real artifact, although the engravings on it are fictional. Qian thinks they match symbols on a necklace Sarah always wore, which she later handed down to Mia, and Mia to Lola. Mia believes she has translated the few symbols visible in a photo Qian had sent, apparently a poem. She wants to see the bow herself and copy all the symbols for a complete translation, which she believes will lead her to the device the Trackers are after. So they are off to China's Xinjiang province, ancestral home of the Uyghur. It's the mid-1980s, and what is going on in that region now had been happening for many years. Also, Lola is in her 20s, so she contributes a lot to the mission.
The Trackers are also researching some of the historical Kibsu, hoping they will find clues about the whereabouts of the device that should be able to send a message to their home planet. The Kibsu want to find it too, but not for the same reason, since they think sending a message will lead to an invasion of Earth. Neuvel provides a lot of interesting information in an appendix, including links to various books or online articles. The flashbacks feature historical women, but he has twisted their stories so as to imply they were Kibsu. They aren't presented in chronological order; the first is Hypatia of Alexandria, Egypt, just prior to her death in AD 415. Next comes a woman named Emily in 1844, a mathematician and astronomer. Three flashbacks after that is Emily's daughter Annie. If I read correctly, Emily is fictional, but Annie is based on Annie Scott Dill Maunder, whose observations of sunspot activity led to her being the first woman admitted to Britain's Royal Astronomical Society. Another is Aglonike of Thessaly in the 2nd Century BC. She was alternately known as Aglaonice or Aganice. Both Neuvel and Wikipedia say Plutarch wrote about her, but she is not included in the volume I have in Britannica's Great Books of the Western World. Her observations were mostly about the moon, and her ability to predict eclipses had her branded a witch. She gathered many other women to teach and study with her. Mia and Lola think the bow and poem are from The Eight, who would have lived in approximately 760 BC. The Trackers are following clues about Mer-neith-it-es, an Egyptian priestess who died around 600 BC. She may have been a direct descendant of Hypatia. I'm not going to tell you which of them found what they were looking for.
In fact, I can't say much more without spoilers, so I need to wrap this up. Even though Mia didn't directly affect the direction of space exploration, she did keep up with what was happening. One of the things she thought was her original observation stemmed from something Lola had asked her, "When can I see all the planets?" Someone else beat her to the discovery concerning a unique allignment of the planets, which would occur only every 175 years or so, and which led to the Grand Tour of the outer solar system by the Voyager probes. The flyby of Uranus by Voyager 2 was a wondrous thing, but unfortunately it was bumped out of the news cycle by the Challenger disaster. This is a better book than the first, even though Mia was less sure, more vulnerable, than her mother, but that led her in a direction that would yield even more success. Alternate chapters are from the perspective of one of the Trackers, who initially seems less violent, less likely to want to harm the Kibsu, but in the end he proves just as ruthless. I will want to read the third book, which Neuvel implies will be a conclusion, but I don't know what direction it might take, which character(s) will be featured, or how far into the future the story will reach. The stars? We shall see.
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