Lindsay Ellis’ debut novel teases other-worldly connections, and reviewers have described “profound ideas delivered with a sense of humanity”. But does Axiom’s End achieve all that its premise promises?
(Minor) SPOILER WARNING: This review contains a couple of gentle spoilers for Axiom’s End, but shouldn’t impact enjoyment of the book.
Truth is a Human Right
Anticipated by critics and Ellis’ YouTube fans alike, fresh Sci-Fi Axiom’s End introduces us to Cora Sabino, college drop-out and struggling loner. Determined to remain distant from estranged father Nils Ortega, the metaphorical lovechild of Edward Snowden and Steve Jobs, Sabino finds herself plunged into peril when he releases the ‘Fremda Memo’. This document, apparently confirmation of secret communications between the POTUS and an alien intelligence, invites unwanted attention from government agencies and alien ambassadors alike.
Axiom’s End‘s story concerns the aesthetics and tropes of the sort of mid-2000s science fiction that some would describe as “trashy” – Michael Bay’s Transformers films, or the more juvenile stretches of the Mass Effect games, for instance – and approaches them with the delicacy of more profound science fiction such as Contact or Arrival. The result is a wonderful collision of artistic sensibilities; it’s like discovering a Power Ranger in the background of a Bouguereau painting, and finding that it’s still beautiful.
The Three-Act Problem
Unfortunately, and in contrast to the forward-leaning extra-terrestrials of the story, Axiom’s End’s front end suffers from an almost-limp and strangely passionless start. Crucially, the actual distribution of the Fremda Memo happens before our first chapter. With little build-up and few opportunities to take stock of the premise, the result feels less ‘In medias res’ and more “wait, we’ve started already?”.
The problem is compounded by the fact that we never really get to know anybody disconnected from the central conspiracy. Nearly all of our human cast are working either to maintain or disrupt the cover-up that Cora becomes immersed in. As a result we never learn how these revelations (which the author herself admits have “broad, sweeping, philosophical implications”) affect the population at large.
This may sound like an attempt to bend the book into something it’s not, like critics who watch The Leftovers for an explanation for its inciting incident (thereby missing the point). But Axiom’s End spends a non-negligible amount of time explaining the specifics of the conspiracy and Fremda hierarchy. Future instalments could illustrate a stronger image of how this impacts someone removed from this inner circle – certainly it would lend the alternate history setting of 2007 a little more agency.
That’s not to say the first 50% of Ellis’ debut novel lacks merit; this could well be an intentional reflection of protagonist’s Cora’s desire to remain distant from her father, who in a way represents humanity’s engagement with the conspiracy. Nonetheless, it’s initially difficult to become invested in the story of this world when our only lens into its human impact seems determined not to care.1The ebook copy has every blog post URL link to Rick Astley’s Never Gunna Give You Up, which may have influenced my perception of the book’s attitude to emotional heft.
These ailments are quickly cured once Cora becomes fully acquainted with our secondary protagonist; an alien codenamed Ampersand.
Intimidating and ruthless, the wasp-like Ampersand chooses Cora to act as his interpreter via the novel medium of a text-to-speech translator implanted in her head. With the arrival of this fusion of Stephen Hawking and Transformers‘ Bumblebee, the plot’s wheels are set in motion, and the emotional core of the book begins to blossom.
…she was struck suddenly that he wasn’t unfathomable at all. They were both made of the same star stuff. The same primordial fires that had coalesced to form their respective planets had been so close, on a grand cosmic scale. A near-infinite universe, and they were practically next-door neighbors. Looking into his eyes was like looking into ten billion years of history, like she could see the particles and rocks and gasses coalesce over eons, until somehow, impossibly, here they both were.Lindsay Ellis, Axiom’s End.
It’s in Cora’s interactions with Ampersand that the book really hits its stride. Ellis’ consideration of the differences in culture between extra-terrestrial civilizations evokes similar conversations in Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet; while that novel’s discussions are more nuanced, the stronger sense of peril that Planet’s more domestic space opera setting precludes helps Axiom’s End feel urgent and relevant.
The more existential aspects of this novel were also fascinating and exciting. Ellis touches on potential solutions to the Fermi paradox in a clear and accessible manner, without boring people already familiar with the concept.
This makes apparent the sort of questions a certain toy-based franchise should be asking, rather than appealing to nostalgic nerds. Far from getting bogged down in dry, technical specifics, Ellis conjures thought experiments that should captivate any reader curious about our species’ place in the wider cosmos.
More than Meets the Eye?
Axiom’s End may suffer from an underwhelming start, but kicks itself into gear long before that becomes debilitating. The book quickly undergoes a kind of thematic puberty, with the latter two thirds welcoming the sentimentality inherent in the premise rather than casting them off.
Cora and Ampersand’s dynamic becomes a reflection of many kinds of human relationship; familial and romantic, protective and limerent, healthy and toxic. While not without its clichés, their growing connection is a contender for the most moving example of alien visitation found in recent prose.
Axiom’s End was a rewarding read, with purposefully easy-to-read prose that seldom becomes shallow, and important philosophical ideas presented accessibly as part of an entertaining and pacey plot.
I feel like an addict. Like if you leave, I’ll go into withdrawal.Lindsay Ellis, Axiom’s End.
The book never quite achieves the beauty that its most intimate moments seem to tease, partly because of the cynical attitude of its protagonist, and I’m not convinced that it fully delivers on the implications of its premise.
Nonetheless, the story remains moving, exciting, and a strongly suggested read for Sci-Fi fanatics and sceptics alike. I’ll certainly be joining the author for the second instalment.
Our Worlds are in Danger!
Fancy reading Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis?
Consider using this link to purchase it. That way, I’ll acquire the funds to purchase more of Lindsay Ellis’ books and become frustrated that she isn’t in charge of Transformers.
Axiom’s End is available as:
I also mentioned Becky Chambers’ Galactic Commons series, noted for its excellent LGBT and racial representation:
And new to pre-order: