After having done giant robot on robot action in his Themis Files trilogy, Sylvain Neuvel embarks on something a little different in his new book A History of What Comes Next. Set between the dying days of the Second World War and the launch of the first man into space, this is not so much an alternate history as a shadow history. And Neuvel takes great pleasure in putting a new spin on a true story.
Sara and her daughter Mia are Kibsu, the last of an alien race that have lived for many generations on Earth. The Kibsu live by a number of rules aimed at achieving their mission which is to “take them to the stars”, the “them” in this case being humanity. The Kibsu are not only highly intelligent but also preternaturally strong and able to enter a rage state in which they become killing machines. Each generation of the Kibsu is female and is a genetic copy of the last, one of the rules being that there can every only be three. Another rule is to keep out of the hands of the Tracker, similarly powered male aliens intent on killing them, so that the Kibsu are constantly on the move at the slightest chance of trouble.
When the book opens it is 1945 and Mia has been sent to Europe to help the Americans grab German rocket scientist Werner von Braun. Following this mission the two decamp to Russia where Mia is embedded in the Russian space program, trying to ensure it not only succeeds but also spurs the Americans to greater advances. At the same time (for no apparent reason except scientific curiosity) Sara is carrying on her grandmother’s research into climate change.
As noted above this is more of a “shadow history” than an alternate history (although we may get there in future volumes of this series), Neuvel goes to great pains in a lengthy afterword to describe how the events in the story are mainly true. The only difference being that those events were not, in the real world influenced by hyper-intelligent alien clones. For those who know the story of the Space Race this takes a lot of the interest out of the story, the question ultimately being – why not just write a history of the space race. And while the deepest nerdy cuts are left for the afterward, the book is full of technical passages about fuel loads and ice cores.
But the biggest issue in this book is its characters. While Neuvel gives them plenty of agency, they feel a little like they are running on tracks, and their “alienness” comes across as coldness. This is reflected also in the Trackers, who get occasional point of view chapters as they close in on Sara and Mia. This loses the essential humanity that underlay the Themis Files series despite its focus on giant alien robots.
So where does this leave Neuvel’s “slightly-homicidal-alien-clone-space-race story” (his words)? With everything happening pretty much as described, A History of What Comes Next sometimes feels little more than a subversive attempt to teach readers about the space race (and a bunch of other interesting historical stuff). But the Themis Files managed to take a different tack with each book in the series. So hopefully A History of What Comes Next is, in the way of many trilogies, a lengthy set up to a story that pushes this endeavour into new territory when Neuvel returns with the follow up.