Ellis: Axiom’s End

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.

Which brings me to Axiom’s End (2020) a debut novel by Lindsay Ellis.

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!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

12 responses to “Ellis: Axiom’s End

  • Wyrd Smythe

    A while back I wrote about being disappointed in books 4 and 5 of The Expanse. I thought I might be done with the series, especially since the local county library the Cloud Library app knows about doesn’t have book 6 available.

    But I found a different library app (Libby) with access to another local library system. And it turns out, with a few emails, I could register my library card with that system and use that app. And that library had Babylon’s Ashes.

    Which I just finished and liked a lot better than books 4 or 5. Not sure if it’s a case of “forewarned is forearmed” or if this one really was closer to the sort of story I prefer. It was definitely more hopeful. It had the crew of the Rocinante on board the ship doing stuff, which I definitely prefer. It didn’t seem to repeat notes of former books. Plenty of “flying around in space” stuff. And I like Bobbie (and even Clarissa) on the Roci, so all around it was a success.

    If the nine books are a trilogy of trilogies, this book is the final book of the middle trilogy, and it has that satisfying end-of-arc feel. And despite hooks into the on-going story, it has a nice feel of finality.

    Only note: I was expecting a more gruesome end to the villain. A bit Deus ex machina there at the end. And, FWIW, the middle trilogy really isn’t about the protomolecule at all. That was part of my disappointment, but at least now I wasn’t expecting it.

    Kind of reminds me how some trilogies switch the main POV character between books. For example, the second book will center on the former main character’s grand-child (the third book yet someone new again). The change tends to derail my engagement at first, but once I catch up I’m fine. Same thing might have happened here. Story changed on me, didn’t love the new direction, but I’m catching up.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Axiom’s End sounds interesting.

    I think War of the Worlds predated First Men by a few years, although it’s more in the alien invasion genre. (I guess it created that genre.)

    Glad you liked book 6 of The Expanse! Just a reminder. Don’t expect book 7 to be a happy tale, but it definitely brings the protomolecule back into the story.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Oh, good catch, of course! (How did I miss that?) ((Funny, my first impulse was correct. It was second-guessing myself that led me astray.))

      Yeah, I kind of know what I’m in for with The Expanse now. The authors are telling a different story than I realized at first. Just took me a minute to get with the program (although most of my objections to books 4 and 5 still stand). I’m already 100 pages or so into book 7 — it’s weird having the characters be old. 🙂

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I’ll be curious to know what you think of it as it progresses.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’m about to return to it now. I finally finished Carroll’s Something Deeply Hidden. I read the whole thing hoping he’d address my energy concern, but it amounts to a single line that’s a hand-wave about how the “weighting” of different branches factors the energy.

        But how does E=mc2 go on working then? I’m really bothered by the problem, but MWI seems to ignore it.

        The probability thing is weird, too, although it doesn’t have the falsification power that the energy issue seems to. Remember how Carroll has that string of (64?) bits he produced with his splitter app? He uses it in the chapter about probability. Granted, most versions of Carroll got roughly expected results, but some of them got very unexpected results. As Carroll says, most of them would have been surprised, tried again, and gotten expected results. But some fraction of them would continue to get bizarre results…

        And that’s the thing. There is a version that got all 0s no matter how long he kept trying. (That version became increasing certain MWI is correct!) There’s another version that got all 1s. (And others that got alternating 1s and 0s or other striking patterns.) If MWI is correct, then all these bizarre versions, although vastly outweighed by more “normal” ones, have to exist. (It’s another version of “quantum suicide” where no one has to die.) There are myriad worlds where MWI has raised its head in no uncertain terms.

        To me this utterly wipes out any claim MWI has to parsimony, but both the parsimony claim and the probability claims are just arguments that appeal to our intuitions. (The energy issue is not, and I really want clarification on that one.) But I do think (and always have) that MWI’s parsimony claim is self-evidently false, and to me the way MWI proponents try to decouple the instant creation of infinite new worlds from the theory is just one more indication the whole thing is a load of snake oil.

        The more I’ve thought about MWI the more it seems like voting for P45 to me — I just cannot fathom the logic involved.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I agree that Carroll’s handling of the energy issue is disappointing. Although I don’t see it as the showstopper you do. Dark energy seems to imply that, at the cosmological levels, the energy balance isn’t what it is on smaller scales.

        On MWI and Trump, I actually think there is value in trying to understand the perspectives of both. In the case of MWI, it provides a local, deterministic theory. For someone seeking a realist interpretation, that makes it pretty attractive.

        But I always keep in mind that the waves might be the equivalent of celestial spheres, something we’re projecting into a reality we don’t comprehend yet. There’s an argument for keeping things instrumental until we have better data. Although as Baggott noted, it’s the realist interpretations, even if they turn out to be wrong, that inspire experimental research.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        The thing about dark energy is that it comes from something. Right now “dark energy” is just a placeholder for an observation we can’t understand, but a full theory would explain where the energy comes from. (Most accounts use metaphors like stretching a rubber band or throwing a ball up in the air in suggesting the energy comes from the expansion itself. Those don’t seem to account for what is stretching the rubber band or throwing the ball, though.)

        There is also that the energy contribution of dark energy isn’t that great. It can’t overcome gravity, for instance. Creating entire new universes at the drop of a photon is a whole other thing, though. It took a Big Bang to create one, but the path of a photon creates infinite numbers of new ones? To me that’s a clear ontological bolt-on.

        When it comes to understanding why people believe in MWI or P45, I agree the study may be interesting from a social point of view, but that doesn’t change that both groups are arguably objectively wrong. More importantly perhaps, I’m not at all arguing we shouldn’t study or understand something — I’m talking about adopting the belief — something else entirely. (I quite agree that we probably just don’t know what’s really going on.)

        I recently watched a “from home speech” Jim Baggott gave for the Royal Institute to promote his new book. I do like that guy. MWI is his least favorite realist interpretation. He and I are eye-to-eye on that one. 😀

        It makes sense realist interpretations begat experiments. Science is all about falsification. 😉

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Simpler way to put it: I do understand the logic in both cases (supporting MWI or P45). But I find it illogical.

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