The Atoners–an alien race–has set up a base on Earth’s moon and asked for volunteers to “witness” human populations on distant planets. They admit to having committed a wrong against the human race 10,000 years earlier. Having these Earthlings visit settlements is their first step in making atonement. The story is full of mysteries surrounding what the Atoner’s crime against humanity actually was, why they’ve chosen these people and what they are suppose to witness.
The novel opens with three of the volunteers–Soledad, Cam and Lucca–and their experience on twin planets with disparate cultures. Part Two sets up the fall-out from this journey on the volunteer’s lives. What they discovered has had a major impact on North American society. The third and fourth parts resolve, mainly through the action in Soledad’s life, what the atonement will be and the various human reactions to it. Much of the narrative is interspersed with ‘documents’ from the world-at-large that are related to the unfolding story such as Oprah interviews, newspaper accounts, advertisements, intelligence briefings. These serve to show the effect of the action of the story on the larger culture.
While engaging and fun-to-read, the novel suffers from some structural difficulties. Soledad is the protagonist but we don’t know that until well into Part 2. It’s also at that point that witnesses who went to other planets–one of whom becomes a major character–are introduced for the first time. It begs the question of why their story wasn’t important earlier in the narrative. Some of Soledad’s actions were not consistently believable, the characters of Frank and Lucca edged on stereotypical, and there were quite a few untied loose ends. Still, my review is weighted toward the positive because the story held my interest, was an interesting, fun and thought-provoking set-up and plot that came to a reasonable conclusion.