Axiom’s End is the debut novel from American author, Youtuber and critic Lindsay Ellis, and follows the experiences of former linguistics student and person-adjacent-to-significant-people Cora Sabino as her entire life is turned upside down by the sudden appearance of alien life, which thrusts her into the center of danger, and conspiracy. While suffering a little from the transition from long-form critical essays to prose, and some of the common debut novel flaws, Axiom’s End was a solid read, with a fascinating plot, a realistic protagonist, and a lot of potential for the later books.
Truth is a human right.
It’s fall 2007. A well-timed leak has revealed that the US government might have engaged in first contact. Cora Sabino is doing everything she can to avoid the whole mess, since the force driving the controversy is her whistleblower father. Even though Cora hasn’t spoken to him in years, his celebrity has caught the attention of the press, the Internet, the paparazzi, and the government—and with him in hiding, that attention is on her. She neither knows nor cares whether her father’s leaks are a hoax, and wants nothing to do with him—until she learns just how deeply entrenched her family is in the cover-up, and that an extraterrestrial presence has been on Earth for decades.
Realizing the extent to which both she and the public have been lied to, she sets out to gather as much information as she can, and finds that the best way for her to uncover the truth is not as a whistleblower, but as an intermediary. The alien presence has been completely uncommunicative until she convinces one of them that she can act as their interpreter, becoming the first and only human vessel of communication. Their otherworldly connection will change everything she thought she knew about being human—and could unleash a force more sinister than she ever imagined.
Chances are, if you’re reading this review, that you first learned about me from my article about Gary L.M. Martin’s steaming pile of garbage Phantom: The Ghost Within, reviewed here as An Open Letter to Gary L.M. Martin, the very worst author, and the broad reach of that review is owed pretty much entirely to Lindsay Ellis retweeting me after somebody pointed out to her that I described Gary Martin putting her in his book. So it seemed to me that the reasonable thing to do was to now buy and review her book as a combination palate cleanser, fuck-you to Martin, and thank-you to Ellis. Needless to say, it is superior in every regard so if for whatever reason, you’re only here for a comparison between the two, you’re good to go. For the people who actually want to know about Axiom’s End, welcome.
I think the thing that stood out most to me as a positive was the overall concept of the novel. There are a million ‘first contact’ novels, and a million ‘government coverup conspiracy’ novels, but the particular combination of elements, combined with what we uncover about how the alien society functions, and the role the alien characters play, was both novel and really well executed. It’s difficult to get too much into why without giving spoilers, but to me, Axiom’s End threaded a very tough needle.
I’ve seen some comments on other reviews suggesting that the structure of the alien race was somehow insufficiently alien, or was designed more to serve as a vehicle for criticizing contemporary society, and to that I say 1) nunh unh and 2) do you not know what science fiction is about? There’s an inherent difficulty in trying to make stories about things that are alien to us. If they’re too alien, the author is going to have a really hard time communicating anything of meaning about them and the reader is going to have a hard time making sense of what they’re being told. If we are to have any insight into what kind of being aliens are, what their motives are, and especially if we’re going to have any actual communication with them, they have to be enough like us for that to make sense, and that’s just good design, not bad writing.
And in response to some other criticisms I’ve seen levelled regarding the similarity in plot to say, Bumblebee, some even going so far as to characterize this novel as Transformers fanfic, yes and? I mean…for one, Bumblebee was a great movie. For two, if you think ‘this general story line was similar to another general storyline’ is a worthwhile critique, I have some bad news for you about the whole of media. And finally, the quality here is in the novelty of the background, of the nuts and bolts of the underlying elements, not the general shape of the plot. She didn’t tell a new kind of story, almost nobody does, ever. What she did was tell a good kind of story with a really cool hook that I hadn’t seen before and really liked.
Conversely, the biggest stand out to me in a negative way was that, for whatever reason, it seems that it is vitally, painstakingly, existentially important to Lindsay Ellis that we know this novel takes place in 2007, and maybe I missed it, but I really can’t figure out why it mattered so much. I sometimes point out, as a flaw in sci-fi, the overuse of explicitly dated cultural references when the story doesn’t require them. Early in the novel, Cora returns home to find her aunt is there, playing one of her video games. But she’s not playing ‘one of her video games’ she is playing ‘her copy of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion’ and yes, that definitely places us squarely in 2007 but…why? Besides changing a couple names like who is President, or which country Nils had fled to, to avoid extradition, I feel like this novel could easily be set anywhere from 1980 to 2010 without any real difficulties, and it would make for a more successful, and more enduring story with fewer of those references to end up tripping up readers later who don’t understand why it was lucky that a rock-band shirt somebody was provided wasn’t Nickleback.
But honestly? Beyond that, there really wasn’t anything to dislike about Axiom’s End. Some of the narration was a little bit stilted, but between the being a debut, and Ellis’ background being in media critique where completeness occasionally leads you to be a bit stilted, it was completely forgivable. This was a very solid debut novel, with a lot of really neat stuff going on. I’ll be reading the others. If you want a really interesting core concept with room to grow, without a lot of the pretension and navel gazing that seems to plague a great deal of recent cishet white dude SFF, with the assurance that as a snowflake, you will not in fact melt, check out Axiom’s End.
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