First contact with alien species usually go one of three ways.
Either they turn up in ships beyond number and equipped with power and technology beyond imagining and invade the hell out of us; or they arrive bearing bouquets of world peace and the sharing of all knowledge and then attack and subdue us; or they’re warm and cuddly fellows like E.T. who simply want to get home and aren’t averse to a little Terran bonding on the way.
And now, thanks to the brilliance of Axiom’s End, the stunning sci-fi debut by Lindsay Ellis that shows there is room in the aliens arrive genre for all kinds of fresh thinking and remarkably original storytelling, we can report that aliens may simply be using us to hide out from insidiously genocidal powers that be, making us little more than a backdrop for eons-old battles among spacefaring species.
As outcomes from unexpected first contact go, it’s not so bad until you realise exactly what this might mean for a host of people including the political establishment, innocent passers-by and those caught on the frontline including the military, intelligence analysts and Cora, the daughter of Nils Ortega, a man who has dedicated his rather narcissistic existence to exposing the US Government’s decades-long cover-up of alien life here on Earth.
Yes, all those Area 51 true believers were right, according to leaked documentation which shows that a group of aliens arrived decades ago, effectively requested asylum and then said little to nothing, all while the government furiously pretends nothing more than a few meteor showers were responsible for strange lights in the sky.
“Despite deliberately trying to avoid all things Nils-related for her own sanity, she [Cora] was well aware of that conspiracy theory. People like Eli thought the Ampersand Event was a spaceship or something, a UFO or scout, or at the very least a probe. Cora, like most people, believed it was a rock that fell out of the sky and landed in the hills of Pasadena. ‘I don’t think that has anything to do with who’s in the parking lot.’
‘It might,’ he said. ‘What makes you think they’re following you?'”
Cora, unlike the vast majority of the world whose ears prick up with rapturous interest and fear that aliens are indeed among us, wants nothing to do with all these surprise revelations.
Traumatised already by the thoughtless, obsessed actions of her estranged father who has found asylum in Germany, and struggling to forge a meaningful life at the ripe old age of twenty, all Cora wants is for the harsh glare of celebrity-by-association to be switched away from her.
In our 24/7 media culture, that is likely to never happen or happens so suddenly you’re a viral sensation one second and ghostly 0s and 1s the next; unfortunately for Cora it is the former possibility that grows long spindly legs and manifests itself.
But that, as it turns out, is the least of her worries.
For by a series of events that have everything to do with her father’s crusade for governmental transparency, especially when it comes to our extraterrestrial “friends”, Cora ends up as the spokesperson for an intimidating alien presence known as Ampersand – aren’t code names endlessly weird and random things? – who may kill her, care for her or simply use her for his own ends until his mission is accomplished.
Quite what that mission is is best left to the reading with Axiom’s End possessing a fiendishly clever and yet emotionally resonant narrative that is as rich in humanity and thoughtful musing on a variety of subjects as it is full of edge-of-the-seat page-turning action.
But suffice to say, Ampersand, who is a victim of political machinations that show that for all our differences, humanity and aliens do have some uncomfortably brutal shared propensities, will stop at nothing to accomplish his goal and he is more than happy to take Cora, who in his and the other aliens’s eyes is little more than a barely-sentient life form of limited usefulness, along with him for a very frightening ride indeed.
The genius of Axiom’s End is the way it is able to seamlessly meld full speed ahead action with a heady, affecting dose of the kind of humanity that makes you gasp with its movingly affective impact.
This is not some empty-headed, coldhearted race to the aliens on Earth finish line; rather as Cora and Ampersand struggle to understand each other, the novel becomes as much a treatise on how different beings can be as it is a thrilling chase across the US in pursuit of a critical important item.
But this impressively substantial and compulsively readable novel is also a love letter to the idea that while we may encounter gaping chasms of differences between ourselves and alien visitors, should they ever turn up and not blast to subatomic particles before greetings are uttered, there are also commonalities should we choose to look for them.
“He was circling the Genome, and Cora wondered if that was the topic of discussion. It was hard to read emotion on something so foreign, but Cora wondered if both she and Luciana misread Esperas. Somehow, this didn’t strike Cora as anger but as fear. Perhaps Esperas was afraid. But of what?” (P. 239)
Thankfully in exploring whether bridging this chasm might be possible and if bonds can be formed between slight human beings and towering alien intellects of wholly different form, function and outlook, Ellis does not give into the twee temptations of movies like E.T. which while highly emotive in their own way, suggest a reasonably trouble free coming together of hearts and minds.
In Axiom’s End Ampersand and Cora must work hard, and often from a place of fear, self-protection and misunderstanding to forge some sense of connection.
Even then, as Ampersand reminds his captive and then maybe-possibly-can be ever be sure friend, there will always be limits to how close they can become and how well they can know each other because “… I am not human.“
The novel asks some hard questions about how we approach others of differing mindset, cultural experience and acceptable norms of emotional expression and thought, highlighting that we always, by necessity, will use our own understanding of the world to try to understand and relate to them, not always successfully.
In fact, often not successfully at all.
In fact, in Axiom’s End, while things progress to an interesting conclusion where the possibilities for some form of meaningful intellectual and emotional connection are realised, the truth of the matter is that we can never truly, completely, absolutely understand the other.
But, and it’s an important “but” especially in our fractured, shoot-first-and-don’t-bother-to-understand-things-later world, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, and in the chaotically enthralling messiness of Cora and Ampersand’s journey through glaring differences, shared values, geopolitics and alien political machinations, the message in this stunningly masterful debut seems to be that the trying is necessary and worth everything, for while it might not lead where you expect, it will go somewhere amazing and you don’t want to miss out being on this most unique and lifechanging of rides.