Nancy Kress is the author of thirty-five books—twenty-seven novels, four collections of short stories, and three books on writing. Her work has won six Nebulas, two Hugos, a Sturgeon, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Her most recent works are a stand-alone novella about genetic engineering, Sea Change (Tachyon, 2020) and an SF novel of power and money, The Eleventh Gate (Baen, 2020). Nancy's fiction has been translated into nearly two dozen languages including Klingon, none of which she can read. She has taught writing SF at various venues including Clarion, Beijing, Leipzig (as a visiting lecturer) and the annual two-week intensive workshop Taos Toolbox with Walter Jon Williams. She lives in Seattle with her husband, writer Jack Skillingstead, and Pippin, a Chihuahua puppy who chews everything.

An Alien Light by Nancy Kress

Epic in scope, peopled by characters from every strata of profoundly different societies, An Alien Light is an unflinching look at the strengths and weaknesses of the genetic, evolutionary, and historical inheritance that all of us share.

Arys, a glassblower and outcast.

Jehane, a skilled female warrior.

Dahar, with a deeply inquisitive mind.

Grax, an alien with profound doubts.

These four and hundreds of others are thrown together in an experiment to determine the fate of humanity, both on Earth and in her galactic colonies. For the Ged, the stakes are nothing less than the outcome of a war. For the humans, ignorant of the larger situation, the rewards for participating are incredible riches. But no one except the alien Ged understands the criteria for being chosen.

When that knowledge comes, there is no agreement about if, how, or when to use it. Some will betray others. Some will sacrifice. Some will die.

And some must succeed, no matter the price.



  • "Deserves high marks for its original concepts, its world-building, and its characterization."

    – Booklist 12/15/88
  • "This heady mix of fantasy and sf explores humanity's infinite capacity for change. Highly recommended."

    – Library Journal 12/87
  • "An attractively complex portrayal of an alien species"

    – The Washington Post 2/28/88



The Central Paradox

All cities are founded on fear.

—John Anthony


"One," the Ged said. "From the third gate."

"What does it do?"

"It beats on the wall to escape."

"Already," the second Ged said, in the grammatical configurations of an observed fact. The two gazed at the wall screen, which showed a small, brightly lit, windowless gray room with a human pounding on the wall. The Ged closed all but his central eye, so high on his forehead that its field of vision extended to the zenith, against the hurtful brightness. His pheromones took on a faint tinge of discomfort, and the first Ged moved closer to him, his own pheromones smelling of sympathy.

"How many now have come inside the perimeter?"

"Five hundred seventy. We will admit thirty more," the second said, although of course the other already knew it; that was why he had asked. Both voices were low, vaguely growly, almost entirely uninflected. For a moment the first Ged let his pheromones smell of weariness, and the sympathy smell of the other grew stronger.

"This one?"

"Probably not. If he conquers this violent fear and returns to his mind, perhaps. But he has not even taken the gem. His very desire seems to be lost to his violence."

The human, who wore the drab tebl of a Jelite citizen, sank to the floor and curled into a tight, trembling ball. The Ged watched, each holding back the strong pheromones of distaste out of courtesy to the other. The room where they stood, inside the double perimeter wall enclosing the empty and waiting "city," was lit with the dim, orangey glow of the Ged sun; it smelled of the good, methane-based air of Ged; it was a suitable temperature for the seriousness of this Ged project. But it was not Ged, and both of them were homesick. They would have preferred to be on Ged, or else with the Fleet, were they not needed here. Each smelled the other's homesickness, one strain of pheromones among all the others, but they did not speak of it. There was no need. All eighteen Ged within the perimeter smelled the same.

The first Ged blanked the wall screen, returning the room to normal light, and the two opened their high central eyes. Although it had evolved to sight formidable dominant predators extinct for thousands of millennia and so was now mostly useless, there was still a feeling of discomfort when the central eye was closed. The Ged faces—bilaterally symmetrical, hairless, humanoid except for the three eyes and a lack of subcutaneous muscle—showed no expression. That had been one of the hardest things to grasp during the year spent observing humans outside the perimeter wall: that the grotesque distortions of the human facial muscles carried information. It had been hard for even the Library-Mind, which had taken much longer to find that pattern than the patterns of the language. The Ged had not expected the sophistication of pheromones, but neither had they expected muscle spasms. No other sentient race, anywhere, conveyed information by muscle spasms.

One more bewildering difference.

"Significant data," the Library-Mind growled softly. Both Ged turned to listen. "Significant data, Level Three. Biology confirms that all humans are indeed of the same species. Central paradox is not resolved by multispecies explanation." The Library-Mind offered the last two words in the configurations of an explanation discovered to be contrary to fact.

The first Ged hummed softly in exasperation. The other courteously stroked his companion's back and legs, radiating the pheromones of comfort.

"It would have at least explained their violence to each other!" the first Ged said.

"Yes. Harmony sings with us."

"Harmony sings with us."

"May it always sing."

"It will always sing. We are no closer to an answer than we were, Grax."

"No. Perhaps when the humans come inside."

The first Ged glanced at the darkened wall screen. The other did the same. In both minds ran the same thoughts—not because they shared mind, as some species did, but because the thoughts were the ones that all Ged, genetically similar and so capable of intelligent civilization, would have in this situation. They smelled each other's pheromones and they thought of Ged, they thought of defending their home, they thought of the Fleet, they thought of the importance of resolving the Central Paradox.

They thought of time running out.