I actively try to avoid “the buzz” — for most definitions of the word (“beer buzz” is a whole other thing than I’m talking about here). I mean the buzz of current memes and all the popular things I’m supposed to think, feel, and be. As I’ve said before, I’m deliberately allergic to trendy — I refuse to swim in the main stream.
That applies especially to the books, TV shows, or movies, that I’m supposed to see. I’m even more resistant to things I’m supposed to either hate or love. (I still have never seen ET — never will.) I generally don’t read or watch reviews until after I’ve read or watched what they review.
I’d noticed articles in my feed about the book. Based on the tone of the headlines, people apparently thought it was pretty good. (Not to keep you in suspense: it is. Really good. Two thumbs up!)
I didn’t read any of those reviews. Especially the ones clearly touting it. As I mentioned, I’m strongly adverse to being told there’s a film I really need to see, or a book I just have to read.
But I also don’t like to be too predictable, and always being contrarian is predictable. More importantly, its boring — too reflexive. Ya gotta mix it up once in a while.
So when I saw Axiom’s End listed in Cloud Library — with a three month wait time (which I take to mean the Library doesn’t have the book, yet) — it seemed like a safe (i.e distant) bet to add it to my Hold list.
Then it jumped to five months. (Or maybe it was the other way around. I really wasn’t paying attention.) In any event, still a distant bet. About two weeks ago it suddenly went to 21 days (the checkout length, so someone had it), and then last week it became available.
When a book on Hold becomes available, one has three days to grab it, or else the next person who has it on Hold gets a chance. Or if no one has it on Hold, it becomes generally available.
Or not. There’s a Suggest button in place of the Borrow button sometimes. That seems to mean the library knows about it, but doesn’t have it. I’m guessing the licenses circulate between branches. Clicking Suggest puts the book in your Hold queue. Sometimes it becomes available within days; sometimes much longer.
Long story short, I grabbed it, read it, and really enjoyed it. I give it a strong Ah! rating.
(I’m very stingy with Wow! ratings; something really has to wow me to get one. That said, parts of this book came close. It very nearly is a fresh take on a very old SF plot.)
Axiom’s End is a first contact story. It’s an old form of first contact story, aliens visiting Earth in roughly the current time period.
[I originally wrote “oldest” but I thought of H.G. Well’s The First Men in the Moon (note: “in” the Moon!), which involves contact with the Selenites who live there. Then I thought of Bradbury and Borroughs on Mars, and then E.E. “Doc” Smith, so stories about making first contact in space or other worlds are just as old. That Wells story is from 1901, so maybe off-Earth contact stories are actually the oldest.]
What’s cute about Axiom’s End is that it takes place in 2007 in a slightly alternate version of our reality. So it’s basically modern day, but the alternate reality gives Ellis some elbow room, and the date lets her take advantage of history. That’s an effective combination.
The elbow room lets Ellis add Nils Ortega, a notorious whistle-blowing, leaked-paper publishing, serious thorn in the Bush government’s side. Ortega has published documents indicating the government is covering up having contact with aliens.
Before the book begins, Nils Ortega, to avoid (probably illegal) persecution, has fled the country, abandoning his wife and kids, who live in Torrence, Los Angeles. (Is it still paranoia if they’re really out to get you?)
That’s just the story’s frame. We only meet Ortega through a handful of short stand-alone chapters, each consisting of a document: a blog post, an email, a letter, a transcription of an interview, etc.
The protagonist is Cora Sabino — formerly Cora Ortega, Nils’s oldest child of three. (After Nils fled, wife Demi divorced him and returned to using her original name, Sabino.) Cora has a lot of hurt and anger towards her father and wants nothing to do with him.
The family, and most of the world, assume Nils is just another a lunatic. Cora can’t stand the idea of even being associated with him. She has her own problems (such as a busted car).
The last thing she expected (or wanted) was to become the chosen interpreter for a visiting alien with a mission.
Less then a month before the book begins, a supposed meteor falls in Altadena, California, a suburb nestled in the hills of northern Los Angeles county.
The day after, Nils Ortega’s website, The Broken Seal, publishes a leaked government memo from March 6 (of that year, 2007). The memo indicates the government has been secretly hosting aliens, called the Fremda, for 40 years. The memo also indicates, in all that time, they only have 97 seconds of (overheard) alien speech to try to translate (unsuccessfully). The aliens have refused all attempts to communicate all this time.
The implication is that the Altadena meteor is a spaceship, and the government is covering it up. A few days after, Nils publishes an article saying the CIA has code-named it the “Ampersand” Event and cleaned everything up. There are reports of people who seem to have lost their memory (in one case to nearly forgetting how to speak).
The government is, of course, very angry with Nils (and whoever is leaking to him), and they are almost openly following Cora and her mother, Demi.
At the end of the first chapter, another meteor falls very near to where the first did, in Altadena.
Reviewers have commented that the book moves along very nicely, and I second that notion. Cora hightails it home where she encounters her aunt, Luciana, Nils’s sister. It quickly becomes apparent Luciana seems to know a lot about what’s going on.
That night Cora encounters an alien. In their house, disassembling their computer. Things happen. The CIA shows up and take Demi and the two younger kids (Olive and Felix), but Cora is outside, so they miss her. The alien has run away after injecting something into Cora’s neck. (Turns out to be a tracking device.)
With Luciana’s assistance, Cora gets to a safe house containing a group of people who turn out to be the scientists charged with observing and understanding the Fremda. The leaked memo Nils published, it turns out, was addressed to Luciana.
Then the alien shows up at the safe house, things happen, and that’s the last thing Cora remembers.
Until she wakes up apparently being mind controlled and in the process of trying to invade the Google campus server location.
But since the controlling alien has a poor grasp of human protocols, she’s quickly spotted and taken by security. Who seem more puzzled than upset. She’s the third one today.
Then there is a bright flash of light (visible through closed eyes) and the lights go out. (It’s an EMP pulse.) Cora escapes and heads to the parking garage where she finds the van from the safe house. Inside it is an incapacitated alien — the one that had been controlling her.
And thus begins the journey of a human and a very alien alien — a post-natural life form more machine than animal. Cora names him Ampersand, as it turns out he was the first meteor. He came here with a mission.
Part of the charm of the book is that this is not a cuddly ET. This is a powerful, very advanced alien who doesn’t quite see humans as people. The degree to which he does actually brands him a genetic defect condemned by the superorganism — the totality of his species.
I got the sense that Ellis models the amygdaline, the actual species, after insects. Their form, post-natural and in some cases post-biological, is described as somewhat insect-like (and somewhat dragon-like). They operate on a caste system that includes different body forms and abilities.
The Fremda, it turns out, are the condemned genetic defects. Their crime is being unhappy the superorganism wiped out an entire planet it deemed a threat. So, to escape genocide, they fled and ended up on Earth 40 years ago.
One aspect of the book is a cross between (what I’ve heard about) ET and Enemy Mine.
Cora’s kindness to Ampersand when she comes upon him incapacitated, puzzles Ampersand. By his standards, she should have killed him. His species doesn’t show kindness or care. For that reason, he makes her his interpreter, as he fully realizes he doesn’t understand humans.
While the story is told entirely from Cora’s point of view, Ellis does a good job of letting us know that, for all his power and capability, Ampersand is terrified. He’s stuck on a planet with billions of flesh-eating monsters. Imagine being alone on a planet of billions of hungry wolves.
To him, Cora, at first, is just a kind wolf. To Cora, Ampersand is pretty scary.
It’s not a love story — it could never be a love story — but it is a story about growing a strong friendship across a very wide gap.
It’s also a damned exciting adventure. I found it well constructed. There wasn’t anything I had trouble buying. Everything made sense.
I recently mentioned I like self-contained stories, and this is a very good example. Despite global implications, Cora and Ampersand are the center and focal point. (One reviewer called it “unpretentious” — that’s a good way to put it.)
The global implications, by the way, aren’t just that aliens exist. The superorganism is guaranteed to see fast-developing humans as a serious threat. And it doesn’t seem Earth has much ability to stand up to a species that can casually sterilize entire planets.
The book is the first of what is to be the Noumena series. The second book, Truth of the Divine, is supposed to be coming out next year with a third in 2022.
Stay safe, my friends! Wear your masks — COVID-19 is airborne!