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'Axiom's End' is the most relatable sci-fi novel in years
Think you know anything about the Michael Bay Transformers film franchise? Watching just two minutes of any of Lindsay Ellis’ videos will make you reconsider your authority on anything Autobot or Decepticon. From here to Cybertron, Ellis’ geeky knowledge makes her work as a film critic both approachable and profound.
People who know a lot about why nerdy things work, in theory, should be able to make amazing nerdy things themselves. It doesn't always work out that way, so when someone excels at both, it's worth talking about. With Ellis’ first novel, that’s exactly what’s happened. She’s harnessed her knowledge and love of science fiction into a new series of sci-fi novels, the first of which — Axiom’s End — was just published this week by St. Martin’s Press.
Axiom's End takes place in an alternate 2007, in which a mysterious asteroid impact in the United States has been publicly dismissed as non-important. But, a network of conspiracy theorists believes this is part of a larger alien cover-up. The main character Cora's father, Nils Ortega, is a dissident who has published information on a WikiLeaks-style site called "The Broken Seal." Cora, meanwhile, eventually gets drawn into the conspiracy. She's the last person on Earth who cares about this stuff, but she gets sucked in anyway. Which is part of why the story works: She's the reluctant hero refusing the call to adventure and all that.
If you’re looking for a good sci-fi novel that also has at least one joke about Avril Lavigne's magnum opus, “Sk8er Boi,” this is your book. But, more broadly, if you want to read a serious sci-fi novel that feels like it was written by a fan who understands the pop culture side of fandom, you're in good hands.
Axiom’s End is one of the most unique science fiction novels in years. It’s a heartfelt story of alien first contact, but, luckily, unlike so many “big idea” sci-fi books, it’s utterly unpretentious. Basically, Axiom’s End is what would happen if Arrival were written by your most talkative and funniest friend.
Potential readers who've never heard of Ellis (and her impressive career as a video essayist) won’t be confused when they open up the book, though. It is not a non-fiction version of her various YouTube essays about various films. Instead, Axiom’s End is an honest-to-goodness science fiction novel about a young woman wrapped up in an Area 51-style conspiracy, which involves her estranged father and, eventually, aliens. On some level, the book feels like a response to very popular under-baked science fiction novels (I won’t name names) in which the chatty authorial voice overpowers the ideas of the book. In Axiom’s End, the chatty authorial voice actually helps to demystify the book’s central concept and ask a much more interesting question: What if secret alien contact was real, but also experienced by someone utterly relatable and for lack of a better word, fun?
In the proud tradition of charming alien books — from Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time to Carl Sagan’s Contact — Ellis’ central character, Cora, has some issues with her dad. But instead of a father taking the form of a kindly astronomer or missing physicist, the absentee dad here is like if Julian Assange was leaking stuff about asteroid impacts. Without betraying too much of the actual plot, Axiom’s End disguises itself in these somewhat familiar tropes to take the reader on a realistic and honest portrayal of what an alien cover-up would really look like.
This, oddly, brings me back to Transformers, a series of films that, again, Ellis is the undisputed expert on. In her video series “The Whole Plate,” she makes impressively insightful points about the Michael Bay Transformers series, which highlights both their triumphs as genre films and their failures as films in general. (This is a gross oversimplification of her video essays, of course. Go watch them.) While reading Axiom’s End, I couldn’t help but imagine that perhaps, Ellis’ impetus to write the novel was something like this: Let’s do the story of Shia LaBeouf’s Transformers character, and what he’s going through and learning about the world, but instead of the story becoming about the Robots in Disguise, it continues to be a story about Shia LaBeouf.
I’m not sure Ellis would like or appreciate me equating her multilayered protagonist Cora to LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky in Transformers, but then again, this is what makes the book cool. Almost all science fiction novels — especially good ones — struggle to be both character pieces that create a sense of realism while also delivering good science fiction. In Axiom’s End, Ellis is way more concerned about the characters — and that authenticity is what makes the book so special. It’s set in that previously mentioned alternate 2007, a time just before the ubiquity of smartphones and social media. In a sense, it’s a time very close to the setting of Bay’s first Transformers movie. This era gives the book some of its innocence and allows the science fiction trappings of the story to feel truly original. You’ve read other books about similar things, but you’ve never read them from this perspective.
Axiom’s End is a story about aliens but told in a way that doesn’t feel fake. Think about all the alien movies you’ve seen. This is hard. But because of Ellis’ background as a critic, there’s a self-awareness to some of the prose and plotting, which is part of why all this works. Critics of science fiction who also create science fiction successfully are somewhat rare; and in most cases (Harlan Ellison, Mark A. Altman), they belong to a different generation than the 20-something and 30-something fans who currently dominate geekdom.
To put it another way, you can’t imagine the guys who make the Red Letter Media videos putting out a serious science fiction novel or a collection of poetry.
And yet, Ellis has done it. She's leapt from a YouTube star with deep thoughts about Transformers to a genre novelist actively mixing aliens with family angst. Axiom’s End is the first of the Noumena series, and if you were placing bets on a series of books turning into your next genre TV series or movie obsession in the next five to 10 years, you’d probably want to start right here.
Axiom’s End is out now from St. Martin’s Press.