Cover Image: Sea Change

Sea Change

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Member Reviews

I am a member of the American Library Association Reading List Award Committee. This title was suggested for the 2021 list. It was not nominated for the award. The complete list of winners and shortlisted titles is at <a href="">
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Half science fiction and speculative, half thriller, Sea Change is an intriguing story that also has politics, biology and some thoughts on how the future could look like. I did not engage much with one of the timelines, but in general it was an interesting reading. One good thing is that the lenght of the book is perfect for what Kress wants to talk about, so this is nice. I'm getting quite interested in continue reading climate change related books.
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This is a fairly engaging tale of an underground group of scientists and helpers who secretly work to develop genetic engineering solutions to enhance global food crops to address starvation in the developing world.  It is 2032, and already global warming has led to widespread desertification, much human and economic devastation from rising seas, and large ocean blooms of toxin producing algae.  In the past, agribusiness had focused GMO work more on profit-making than improving the food supply, and lack of care in production of a medicine from a GMO crop led to an unplanned gene transfer with toxic effects that caused many deaths around the world.  The extreme reactions of opponents to GMO put the companies out of business and further escalations that lead to food shortages and economic recession.  

The novelty of this tale is in making GMO work a subversive, heroic activity.  Their goals include producing and disseminating products like salt-resistant carrots, other foods resistant to drought and insect or fungal diseases, and interventions for toxic algae blooms.  Another goal is to improve public perception of GMO through an information and social media campaign, including even disinformation to counter the rampant negative propaganda.  We follow the personal life of Renata, whose day job is working as a lawyer for Native Americans and causes in Washington State while carrying out covert illegal work under an alias for the “Org.”  For the latter, we experience her travel as a courier and communications channel among secret labs and greenhouses.  Despite use of a cell structure that limits knowledge of group members and activities, federal police raids and prosecutions of Org members as ecoterrorists lead to the conclusion that they must have a mole in their midst.  

Overall, the narrative speaks to the quiet forms of courage and effective action an average woman like Renata can rise to in the face of the impending global threats from climate change.  Her struggles in day to day motivation and balancing her work with challenges in her family life demonstrate an admirable form of resilience and creative adaptation.  Maybe I am jaded from reading too many thrillers or sci fi adventures, but my emotional engagement in the story and characters was limited.  I have a dim memory of liking but not loving her "Beggar's Ride" in the 90s.  I suppose you could put her work in the category with Emily St. John Mandel and Becky Chambers as speculative fiction in which the personal lives and interactions are focused on a lot more than dramatic plotting.  

This book was provided for review by the publisher through the Netgalley program.
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I really enjoyed this novella about genetic engineering and eco-terrorism. I hadn't come across this author before, but I discovered that she has been writing science fiction very successfully for many years. I hunted out some of her older books and really enjoyed reading them.

This little novella was really very good. It is well written. The plot is good and well paced. The characters are real and well rounded. All in all, it was a superb novella and I would recommend it to anyone.

Thank you to netgalley, the publisher and the author for sending me this ARC. These opinions are my own.
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This book wasn’t for me, primarily because of the off-kilter pace at which the story progressed. The modern day story felt slow and the history felt extremely fast. I wish her backstory had been better incorporated into the present day and that I could better understand the goals of the organization earlier in the book. The terror of the world events is very real and portrayed intelligently alongside a character who is committed to doing the right thing.
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Thanks to Netgalley for an ARC of this book, in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Let's start with this - I have been a huge Nancy Kress fan ever since I first read [book:Beggars in Spain|68333], years ago.  And this book did not disappoint.

Like her other books, there's science involved - I'm not a science person, but it's clearly enough written that I get what she's explaining.  Hey, makes me feel smart!  Her characters, as usual, are interesting and well developed - even minor characters in the book feel real.  Mixed motives, people who are not saints or demons, people who I understand.  I may not agree with what they do, but what they do makes sense in the context of the book.

And, most of all, her books always make me think.  Even if I start the book with a specific preconception (like about GMO food), she makes me re-think my preconceptions. I like reading that challenges me and makes me reconsider my own biases.  No matter how I come out in the end, I like having other ways to think about issues - and Nancy Kress does this very well.
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I enjoyed reading several aspects of this book! The pacing was wonderful, characters were well drawn, and the reading experience on the whole was delightful.
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The writing of Nancy Kress frequently reminds the readers that biology is a hard science and that rigorous science and great characterization can coexist. She pulls this off once again in Sea Change, a new lengthy novella (or short novel, at just under 200 pages) set in the near future. Kress, who is scheduled to appear at Capclave in October 2020, successfully combines secret societies/conspiracies, genetically modified organisms (GMO), Native Americans, climate change/environmental disaster, celebrity culture, and personal tragedies.

Kress jumps readers right into her future world of 2032 and trusts they can figure out the situation from the clues she plants as the story progresses. In this near future, America is still recovering from The Catastrophe, an economic crash that destroys entire companies after genetically altered plants used to make an anti-dehydration drug mutated, killing 115 children. This fueled a national anti-GMO movement, food hoarding and riots, and the creation of a Department of Agricultural Security devoted to protecting the purity of good sources, even as millions went hungry. "Genetic engineering was Satan. It had brought Armageddon. This was a holy war." Fighting against this anti-GMO government is an unground secret society of scientists and supporters called simply the Org, devoted to saving the world though genetic engineering of crops so they can feed more people safely.

There is a lot on how the Org stays secret at a time of extreme government surveillance. It uses a cell structure so each person knows only a few members and avoids any electronic form of communication.

It would have been easy for Kress to present a story about GMOs being good or evil. Instead, she more subtlety shows both the benefits and potential liabilities. The Org is as much against large multinational organizations focused on profit as it is opposed to groups calling for environmental purity.

As in Beggars in Spain, Kress' trilogy of genetically modified people, her characters are real people coping with the problems and potentials of genetics. She gives her narrator and main character, Renata, a rich background. While an activist searching for a cause after graduating from college, Renata married an actor and had a son, Ian, who died on the Quinault Nation reservation after eating clams contaminated by toxic algae. After Ian's death almost destroyed Renata, only the need to work as a paralegal on sexual-assault cases at the Quinault Nation reservation and joining the Org on the recommendation of her ex-husband's brother brought her back to life. But the reader does not learn about most of this backstory until halfway through the book.

The plot begins when Renata, on her way to meet a new recruit, encounters a self-driving house with the Org's secret signal paint. But when she enters it, one step ahead of the police, there is no agent or message there. She goes to her rendezvous and shows her new recruit Org research on modifying carrots to grow in the future's increasingly salty soil. But later she gets a call that the authorities have found out about the carrots. So part of the plot is determining the leak in her cell. At the same time, a severe injury brings Renata's ex-husband back into her life.

Readers who like conspiracies and stories with both strong science and strong characters will enjoy Sea Change and wish it were a full novel.
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'It isn’t the past that creates the future. It’s how you interpret the past.'

I think that climate fiction is one of the most difficult SF sub-genres for any writer to tackle convincingly. At the moment we seem to be in a ‘frog being slowly boiled alive’ scenario. Hence CliFi invariably has to be apocalyptic by nature to grab the jaded reader’s attention. Of course, then it runs the risk of being disconnected from the prevailing reality, so that any message about the need for urgency and individual agency is often lost in the gee-whizz fallout.

CliFi also has to focus mainly on characters to drive the narrative and add a human dimension to the story – and we all know that ideas and characterisation often do not go well together in SF. A recent excellent example of a writer who manages to pull off this difficult balance with aplomb is Paul McAuley in Austral.

Apart from being a CliFi tale that really works – Nancy Kress hones in on the particularly contentious issue of GMO foods – Sea Change is also a master-class in world-building that is both urgent and relevant. It is set in the Pacific Northwest only a decade or so from now, which we all know is a mere eye-blink in SF terms, which prefers to work on a much larger canvas.

In addition to the increasing ravages of climate change, we also gradually learn about a devastating event known as the Catastrophe. In response to this event, the US government establishes the Department of Agricultural Security to crack down on fringe organisations promoting GMO foods. Here the main culprit is simply known as the Org, which is predicated on the idea that reducing food pressure against the backdrop of an increasingly unstable climate can only be achieved by means of gene-modification science.

Our main viewpoint character is Renata Black, a courier that flits like a ghost between the different research cells of the Org. A particularly fascinating aspect of the near-future world that Kress depicts here is that the Internet of Things has inadvertently resulted in a high-level surveillance state (one of the concerns about the tracking apps being developed now for Covid-19 contact tracing, for example, is that these can be used for Orwellian citizen monitoring in the kind of near future that Kress is projecting.)

So the most discrete and private way to communicate clandestinely in this hi-tech world is literally the stuff of spy novels: Dead drops, forged passports, edible messages, etc. This lends a kind of noir sheen to Kress’s world that is very appealing – and also alarmingly recognisable, given the way that the world is going.

This is very smart and thoughtful SF, riffing off of very real current problems, and the unintended consequences of the technology thrown at these problems. (If you’re wondering about the dichotomy of a tech-obsessed genre like SF casting a jaundiced eye on technology, welcome to SF.2, the genre of the future!)

In a powerful and perceptive review at, Russell Letson comments: “The science-fictional side is not that far-out, either: a hard-edged 21st-century cautionary tale of unintended consequences and the fragile, interlocking complexities of climate, biosphere, agricultural systems, and civilization.”

Yes, indeed. My only complaint – and it might seem like a rather strange one given the time pressure we all generally function under in today’s world – is that the book could have been much, much longer. We get such a tantalising glimpse at Kress’s near-future noir-tech world – for example, the breath-taking opening scene of a ‘smart’ house gone rogue and wandering unchecked down a road full of traffic – is that we just want to spend more time there! Even if it ratchets up the temperature of the water and brings us frogs that much closer to the boiling point.
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Kress’s near-future climate thriller follows Renata Black, mild-mannered Seattle paralegal who is also Caroline Denton, undercover eco-terrorist. The “terror” that Caroline and her compatriots are attempting to inflict on the masses involves growing genetically-modified crops to help mitigate the world’s food crisis (in this speculative 2032, GMOs have been outlawed after big agriculture’s profiteering led to a deadly toxin in children’s medicine). Caroline/Renata discovers there may be a mole in her cell, causing the carefully delineated boundaries of her double life to blur. Kress, a long-established master of conjectural sci-fi, renders a global-scale conflict in intimate terms. The obstacles Renata faces and the choices she makes have deeply personal consequences for her as well as world-changing implications, allowing the author to effectively whittle away the border between the macro and the micro.
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In Nancy Kress's Sea Change, this stand-alone sci fi novella is about the future outlook for our world and concerning our environment. This story is about Renata Black, a lawyer for the Quinnault Indian tribe, and her fight for changing the planet, one step at a time, starting in 2010. It's also how she fell in love with Jake Sanderson, a rising superstar actor, and how this fight for the environment had affected them and around them.  As an operative for a secret organization for the Department of Agriculture Safety (DAS), they're onto the Org, a radical company who used GMOs for their produce and in the ocean. Fast fast a decade later, it caused a disastrous mess and a bona fide catastrophe, including killing her only child Ian and a few other kids. As a secret agent, she goes by the name of Caroline Denton and searches for answers in the Org. When she gets too close to the answers she's been looking for, she's been found out and is on the run from the law for her quick escape to freedom.
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I did not love Sea Change, and I felt incredibly guilty for that for several days.  Usually I love anything by Nancy Kress, so it took me awhile to come up with the courage to write this review.  But it’s one miss out of dozens of novels for this author.  The writing was quality work, exactly what I would expect from Nancy Kress.  It was the story, the actual plot, that I felt was lacking.  It’s as if a lot more thought went into the agenda behind the story (promoting GMO’s) than into creating the story itself.  The main character of Renata was extremely unlikable, which is not always a deal breaker.  You don’t have to care about the characters if the plot is good enough to hold your attention; unfortunately the plot wasn’t that good
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Sea Change is a fast, exciting read that highlights climate change instead of pandemic as its apocalypse generator. In 2022, GMOs were banned. A biopharmaceutical caused the Catastrophe: worldwide economic and agricultural collapse, and personal tragedy for lawyer Caroline Denton and her son. Ten years later, reinvented as Renata Black, she is living in Seattle and a member of the Org, an underground group of scientists hunted by the feds. But the Org’s illegal food-research might just hold the key to rebuilding the world’s food supply.
This is another original take in the genre of apocalypse, with the focus on banning a particular type of science. There’s so much material out there floating in cyberspace conspiracy theory that has not been used yet in traditional fiction publishing, and this book is a good example of how one fiction can inform another. With its near-future setting and secret science labs, I was reminded of the spy shows of the 1960s (in a fun way). The book’s main theme, of course, is that science isn’t bad; it’s the way science is used that can be problematic. In other words, “science doesn’t kill people...”.
In the end, though, what makes this such a good novel isn’t plot, but character. Renata has always been an activist, but she’s not in the Org because of food science, but because of another project, connected to her son. Through Renata/Caroline’s story we discover no matter how much we wish the world were run by reason (particularly our own reasons and rationales)—our living into the future is propelled by our responses to our loves and losses. This may be both humanity’s greatest strength and weakness; if we could harness the power of the human heart—or set it free—that would be the greatest breakthrough of all time. This is a near-future thriller worth reading.
Recommended. (Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the e-galley for review.)
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The premise in Nancy Kress’s latest novel is chillingly topical: genetically modified organisms, run amok under the control of greedy corporations, almost devastate civilization. In the aftermath, people in undeveloped countries starve. Special police root out any effort at developing crops that might save them. An underground of scientists and their helpers, split into very small groups to avoid large-scale investigation, slowly begins creating new varieties of food crops and other organisms to benefit humanity. But – of course – the special police are hard on their heels. Dramatic, full of wonderful details and characters, all in all a satisfying and thoughtful read. But I would expect no less from Kress.
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***3.5 Stars rounded up***
I received a complimentary ARC copy Sea Change by Nancy Kress from NetGalley & Tachyon Publications in order to read and give an honest review.

To give the author credit, the book is well-written, clever and the author does write realistic, multifaceted and mature characters ...

This was the first work of fiction I have read from Nancy Kress. In the past I had read her non-fiction books on writing as part of a workshop I had taken and really enjoyed them.  I was really looking forward to reading this novella and although well-written in many ways, it just wasn’t what I expected. Coined a bio-thriller, although interesting wasn’t as dynamic or “thrilling” as advertised.  The author bases an espionage story around the benefits of GMO’s over traditional agriculture but much of it felt like a huge info dump interspersed with an interesting mystery and very character driven story.  To give the author credit, the book is well-written, clever and she does write realistic, multifaceted and mature characters.

The Protagonist, Renata Black is driven by her beliefs, all her life she has been championing for good, always looking for a cause even to the point of ruining her marriage to her Hollywood bound husband.   When her son dies because of a water issue attributed to agricultural run-off she makes promoting GMO’s her new mission.

Set in the future, an incident ten years prior involving an bio-pharmaceutical incident resulting the deaths of children causes major GMO companies to disappear and agriculture with pesticides and fertilizers to become the norm.  Looking for a cause to help her deal with her grief  of losing her son she joins “The Org” as operative Caroline Denton. The Org, a pro-GMO, ultra-secretive , underground organization is working to bring back GMO's to reduce starvation and ecological disasters around the world. When not working as an operative as Renata she works as a paralegal for a lawyer prosecuting rape cases for the Quinault reservation, where her son passed away.

The story opens with Caroline getting to investigate a runaway  self-driving house blocking traffic and its operator/owner believed to be an Org operative is missing, and it appears to be the result of a mole in “The Org”. When a splinter cell gets raided and her name becomes known, Caroline/Renata is hunted by the government and labelled a terrorist.

The hunt for the missing operator, a case involving the rape of a Quinault teenager and her grief over losing her son are the plot-lines running through this novella, but they all felt overshadowed by too many info dumps revolving around GMO’s which in my opinion took away from the story of this short novella.  Reading is subjective and although I found Sea Change hard to immerse myself in, doesn't mean it won't be appreciated by someone else.
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I am a big fan of Nancy Kress, and this book was not a disappointment. I would have liked it to be longer, because the character is someone I would like to spend more time with. Also liked the scientific background, celebrating rationality
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Wish I could read this, but no matter how much I enlarge the screen, the lines of type are too close together. I hope the epub version that is actually marketed is easier to read. You might want to correct the problem and try again.
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3.8 / 5 ✪

The year is 2032. A decade earlier, an event known as the Catastrophe rocked the world. A biopharmed drug—something—caused several the deaths of several children and fanned the flames of resentment already burning against genetically modified foods. In the fallout from the poisoning, protests rage, concluding in GMOs being banned. Ten years later, global warming is no longer debatable. Sea levels have risen, drought and famine rocked the globe, temperatures soar as the ozone slowly fades. Some few still use GMOs, but they are labeled terrorists and are hunted. But these radical outlaws may yet save the world.

Renata is an operative of one of such ecoterrorist cells, from an organization just referred to as “Org”. These brazen men and women work to save the world from itself, artificially engineering crops that will resist disease, flourish with limited water, even grow in salt water. Renata—known as Caroline Denton now—has lived many lives, but this is the most important. This is a cause she will rally behind, a cause she will die for.

Which she may very well have to.

A mole is in the Org, and no one is above suspicion. At only four to a cell, there is very little blame to go around. Renata knows everyone, but trusts no one, for as she keeps secrets of her own from the Org, she assumes they do likewise. And as secrets from her past and personal lives begin to bleed around those from her secret life, she will be confronted by a choice. One that will force her to choose where her loyalties lie, and what she truly desires. In the end, she will visit the one place she can never escape—to the Quinault Nation, the site of her son’s death—looking for answers.

I was presently surprised with just how much I enjoyed Sea Change. Though hardly perfect, it’s a pretty good read; the story begins in the present before jumping back and forth between it and the ghosts of Renata’s past. It does this until maybe the halfway mark, whereupon Renata’s past starts showing up in the present. I was able to cruise right through this—with never a dull moment. While it didn’t drink me in—with details missing or absent, description fuzzy—it never lacked encouragement to read on. 

The story is probably its strongest asset; between that of the Org and Renata’s own, hers’ easily won out. But in the end her own story and theirs’ became intertwined. Actually, I guess they always had been. It’s really Renata’s story we’re reading—it’s just that the Org is the life she wants, what she’s most invested in.

Despite bearing the title “Sea Change” and much of the book taking place in and around Seattle and the Olympic Peninsula, there is precious little about sea change. It’s mentioned early on that the sea level has risen, causing the tribe to move further inland, away from the sea. And that’s pretty much it. Nothing is said about Seattle, which sits on the ocean. Nothing about the rest of the world, or how the rise in ocean levels has changed it. In fact, there’s little enough present about the fate of the world at all. Yes, yes, we’re treated to some background on the Catastrophe, the standing of the US, a bit about climate change—but little more.

Honestly, I found the premise surrounding “the Catastrophe” a bit underwhelming. With the pandemic going on, I expected a near apocalyptic event: a great famine, flooding, earthquakes, a virus, something—but it’s just a single genetically modified drug. That kills a handful. Sure, this kicks everything else off, as GMOs even in this day and age are controversial. But it’s not… well, comparatively, I’m not sold on its sheer earth-shattering consequences. Could happen though, I guess.


With adequate characters, a sub-standard setup, and a vaguely eco-thriller backdrop, I really didn’t expect much of Sea Change after the first chapter. I was surprised, then, when the story took off and drank me in. While there’re several reasons I could criticize it (and DO, if you’ve read the above), the fact is I enjoyed the story, especially Renata’s. And since her story is basically the one told—not the GMOs or climate-change thriller we began with—that’s actually a good thing. In fact, I was so invested in this story by the end I was hoping it might continue on for a bit, but alas, t’wasn’t to be. Though, if you don’t enjoy the story like I did, it might be worth DNFing this and moving on. Because, while Renata tells a good tale, it’s really about her, not the world.
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This is an interesting study of how climate change might intersect a disaster in the food supply brought on by corporate hubris and political overreaction. Throw in a "terrorist" group, to which our hero belongs, a side serving of #metoo, a Hollywood movie star, and the death of a child; there's a lot going on in a short book.

But Kress makes it all work. She writes well; her characters are humans and not stereotypes; her science seems to be grounded (as best I can tell); and there is enough action to keep the story moving.

It's well worth a quick read if you enjoy character-driven speculative fiction.
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I LOVED THIS BOOK!!!! I was completely compelled by her narrative (particularly her relationship with her son). It's a beautiful, moving tale with a clever storyline. I really enjoyed the non-linear timeline, I thought it complemented her story so well. I found myself genuinely surprised by the twists, but looking back on the foreshadowing and context I was just blown away by how seamlessly everything fit together. This is a really tight and impressive work of fiction, with such a  well-established world. READ IT PLS
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