It’s the not too distant past of 2007. George W. Bush is still in power. You can buy My Chemical Romance t-shirts at Target. J.K. Rowling hasn’t yet revealed herself to be the absolute worst. For Cora Sabino, life could definitely be better. A college dropout doing soul-sucking temp work while still living at home with her mother, she’s trying her best to avoid the endless glut of headlines centered on her father, a noted conspiracy theorist who claims to have blown the whistle on the U.S. Government’s cover-up of first contact with extra-terrestrial life. Cora, of course, has no time for her estranged dad’s egotistical ramblings to his paranoid fanbase. That is, until, the alien in question turns up at her house.
Axiom’s End is the debut novel of Lindsay Ellis, the Hugo Award-nominated video essayist who continues to be one of the true bright spots on the ceaseless hellscape that is YouTube. Highlights of her work include a 40-minute explanation of why the movie adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera sucks, a deep dive into the creative, financial, and industry-wide mess surrounding Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy, and an ongoing series dedicated to exploring the basic tenets of film theory through the lens of Michael Bay’s Transformers series. Ellis thrives in those intersections between the thoughtful and ludicrous that make pop culture analysis so entertaining yet tough to detangle. Why not take Cats completely seriously, even when every groin-thrusting part of its mania practically challenges you to do otherwise?
This approach is found, albeit not quite as forcefully, in Axiom’s End. The book has already been compared numerous times to Arrival, the Denis Villeneuve movie where Amy Adams acts as an interpreter to visiting alien life forms. Thanks to some good old-fashioned advanced otherworldly technology forcibly implanted into her brain, Cora becomes the only person on Earth with the ability to understand the alien, who has been nicknamed Ampersand. Hoping to ensure her family’s safety from the CIA and desperate to figure out how deep this whole thing goes, Cora makes a deal to act as Ampersand’s interpreter-slash-token human, which leads them both into the deep recesses of governmental cover-ups, an ongoing interspecies conflict involving Ampersand’s nemesis of sorts, and the growing threat of a full-scale invasion.
The novel is less about action than an exploration of communication across boundaries both human and deeply inhuman. Every conversation Cora has with Ampersand is fraught with double meanings, misunderstandings, and potentially fraught mix-ups. It’s not just about language either. How do you try to form a trustworthy bond with someone, or something, who has no understanding or seeming desire to engage with basic human emotion in all its complex and rule-breaking glory? Axiom’s End is at its strongest when it balances that odd couple routine, that familiar ‘one person and their alien/monster/robot’ dynamic that remains so crucial to the genre, with the pair’s tentative but mutual respect. It turns out that it can be super lonely to be BFFs with someone that nobody else can understand. How do you get an alien to hug you?
Cora and Ampersand — who is kind of like a giant Invader Zim who has his sh*t together — are also bound together through their unresolved experiences with trauma. Ampersand is a refugee fleeing the violence of his own species’ cruel hierarchy while Cora is stuck in a state of constant precarity even before the aliens turn up, thanks to the chaos her father’s actions have wreaked on her family. Ellis shows the simultaneous comfort and depressing reality behind the notion that no matter where you are in the universe, you’re not exempt from pain in all its forms. As Cora and Ampersand’s relationship expands and develops greater layers of trust and ambiguity, their wounds aren’t so much healed as respected for what they represent.
The novel is technically a period piece, taking place a grand total of 13 years ago (yup, time is a harsh mistress and she makes fools of us all.) Still, it’s a story that requires a highly specific eye for detail, which Ellis provides. It’s not simply a case of language or pop culture references — yes, there’s a Nickleback gag in here — but of mood. The tail-end of the GWB era feels eerily perfect for an exploration of first contact in modern-day America. We’re long past the days of worldwide giddiness and open arms at the possibility of visiting aliens. Cora’s father, a turtleneck-wearing egomaniac who just so happens to be right about one of his conspiracies, ends up being the ideal opposition to a government defined by the Patriot Act, post-9/11 paranoia, financial instability, and politically mandated xenophobia, much to Cora’s chagrin. There’s no better time for a whistle-blower to reveal all, or for a government to try and create a scapegoat. Whoever gets there first. These sections are where Ellis’s well-trained eye for the oddities and political edges of various cultural contexts comes in very handy.
The faults with the novel are typical first book stuff, but not to the point of distraction or creative ineptitude. The fast-paced read stumbles a tad in the closing chapters as it tries to provide a solid resolution while setting up a sequel (the hook for which, by the way, seems pretty badass.) If you’re on the lookout for something more plot-heavy then skip this, but its deftly-drawn characterization of two polar opposites tied together through unlikely common bonds then Axiom’s End is for you.
Thanks, I like it!
~ Virtual Book Tour ~ announcement - it's still on, and it will be happening at all of the original bookstores it would have happened with! Just now it's over zoom and I don't get to go anywhere. But at least I get to do it with a bunch of cool people! https://t.co/mUICGmPs7z pic.twitter.com/ErYSI3Kfaa— Lindsay Ellis (@thelindsayellis) July 10, 2020
Axiom’s End will be released on July 21 by St. Martin’s Press. You can pre-order your copy now wherever fine books are sold. My thanks to the publisher for a review copy of the novel.
Header Image Source: St. Martin's Press