Last year I read and very much enjoyed Axiom’s End (2020), a debut novel by film critic and YouTuber Lindsay Ellis. It’s the first book of her Noumena series, which is about powerful aliens showing up on an unsuspecting Earth. It made the New York Times Best Seller list and generated a fair amount of favorable attention.
Earlier this year I preordered the second book, The Truth of the Divine (2021), and it finally dropped last month. I had high hopes and much anticipation about where Ellis would take her story. Sadly, I found myself sorely disappointed by this second installment. This isn’t a positive review.
For balance I’ll mention two books I did enjoy, Neuromancer (1984), by William Gibson, and a new comedy by David Brin.
Let me start with a strong caveat that taste is always a big factor in any review, or even in just enjoying something. Famously there’s no accounting for taste. We like what we like. A review says as much — if not more — about the reviewer as it does the reviewed. Our taste may not be accountable, but it is revealing. (No doubt why some disguise theirs.)
I did not like this book. But it could be that it just didn’t meet my expectations. For me the key sin was that it bored me. I skipped or skimmed a fair number a pages; never a good sign. It also somehow felt very claustrophobic and confined. The ratio of action scenes to internal mulling of thoughts or static dialog scenes didn’t work for me (hence the skipping and skimming).
There is also that the two main characters from the last book are severely psychologically damaged in this book — to the point Ellis introduces two new central characters so we don’t have to spend too much time wallowing in what Cora and Ampersand are suffering. (See my post Ellis: Axiom’s End for some backstory.)
Speaking of unaccountable tastes, explorations of damaged minds, especially ones where those minds don’t get better, are very much not to mine. I read fiction for imagination and creativity. Tight psychological stories like this are too real-world, too ordinary, too mundane. I know these horror stories too well. My heart breaks for those who suffer, and I don’t enjoy that as fiction.
In particular, it’s not what I read science fiction for. It’s true that good SF examines the human condition and what it means to be human, but I lean towards uplifting stories about using intelligence and technology to confront problems. I also favor some sense of adventure.
Which is all to say my negative take here might be rather biased.
I’ll note that I re-read Axiom’s End as an intro to reading The Truth of the Divine and enjoyed the former as much as I did the first time. My disappointment with the latter surprised me.
I recall Ellis, either in an interview or on her YouTube channel, saying the second book of the series does take a left turn that might surprise, even disappoint, some readers. I assumed it would be new characters or a shift to the alien’s planet or something along those lines. I was not expecting a dive into the broken minds of Cora and Ampersand. Ellis’s left turn definitely surprised me.
In the second book, Ellis introduces two new characters that mirror the human-alien pairing of Cora and Ampersand from the first book.
The human is Kaveh Mazandarani, an American journalist of Iranian descent. He has some past connection to Cora’s father, and he ends up becoming romantically involved with (the much younger) Cora. The alien — newly arrived — is another member of the hyper-paranoid superorganism that it seems very likely will sterilize the Earth of all life once they get here.
Mazandarani is at first looking for a major story, but he ends up being sucked into a partnership with the new alien that changes his point of view. His relationship with Cora complicates things, because he has past ties to her father, the notorious Nils Ortega (whom Cora loathes).
It’s hard to discuss the plot without spoilers, so very briefly, the new alien, given the name Nikola “Nik” Tesla by Mazandarani, has come to Earth seeking Ampersand. They are the last members of a phyle — a bonded group of individuals — the only analogue for family in the superorganism. The bonds, in fact, transcend spacetime — they’re part of the noumenal dimensions beyond our four (3D+time). Nik turns out to be a drug addict, another complication.
Ampersand has big problems of his own. He is mentally ill, and his symptoms are visible. In the superorganism that means termination, so his fear of being on Earth (among seven-billion flesh eating monsters) is at fever pitch that the other Fremda will find out.
In the first book, Cora, who was effectively killed by the alien named Obelus and repaired (over a two-week period) by Ampersand, is suffering the ‘I almost died’ form of PTSD. (I confess to not understanding that form; to me that seems cause for celebration.) The mental bond Ampersand formed with her is causing their mutual mental states to feed each other.
If I had to summarize the plot: We find out Cora and Ampersand are very messed up; Nik shows up (with his own issues); it turns out Obelus is still alive — saved by Ampersand who is still obsessed with him; Mazandarani gets involved with Nik; there’s a lot of running around; some people die; and cliffhanger.
It wasn’t that nothing happened. More that, in almost 500 pages, nothing interesting or important happened other than Nik showing up. Cora and Ampersand (and Nik) are still messed up, and the situation looks bleak for Earth.
It’s a pretty joyless book. Axiom’s End was fun and an adventure. This one wasn’t.
But I emphasize again it may be exactly the story Ellis wanted to tell. John Scalzi, in his afterward to The Interdependency series confesses that world events were a severe distraction that he acknowledged affected his storytelling. (See my post Scalzi: The Interdependency for details.) Ellis, in her Acknowledgements indicates no such stress and every pleasure with the book.
I wondered if the claustrophobic and lack of action sense I got might have been due to COVID confinement leaking through. But Ellis seems to say she’s been working on this text for many years, so that sense I get might be more from the tightly psychological nature of the story. That sense may have been fully intended.
So I can’t say this was a badly written book. I believe Ellis to be too in control of her craft for that, too smart for that. I think it’s a matter of artistic vision and choice, and I’m just not enjoying that path. It is odd that I liked re-reading the first book, and I liked the book I read after (so it wasn’t my mood affecting things).
I do take issue with the typography used in some of the intermezzo pieces. Reading my Apple eBook version on my fairly large iPhone XR, some columns are compressed into widths of about 12-characters. Which makes them a pain to read. Others are too-small bitmap images I can’t expand to make readable.
I’ll also note Ellis leans a bit heavily into SF references. For example:
Ghasabian drew his mouth into a thin line, then turned to go, his Captain Picard bald head shining in the afternoon sun.
Does the Picard reference really add anything there? There’s a fair amount of that sort of thing. Some may enjoy it; I find it jarring. To me it breaks the fourth wall a little and takes me out of the narrative. (On this particular one, I found the insertion of the name disturbed the natural rhythm of the sentence. Try it without; you might see what I mean.)
A possible error in the Apple eBook: in the index the end sections are numbered ii, ii, ii, and iv. Obviously it should be i, ii, iii, and iv. (Also, why does Apple keep offering to sell me the first book when I already bought it?)
Bottom line, blame my taste or not, I’m disappointed to have to give this a thumbs down. Maybe there’s an element of middle-book doldrums here — a setup for the exciting third act (so far untitled but due next year).
The book somehow feels more personal than the first, as if Ellis is working closer to her own emotional bones. It’s possible her intended audience, those who can relate, may deeply appreciate the story. I’m just not among them.
William Gibson, along with Bruce Sterling, are considered the fathers of the cyberpunk genre of science fiction. Neuromancer is one of Gibson’s key novels and a major seed from which movies like The Matrix (1999) grew. (In fact, Gibson uses the term “matrix” for cyberspace in this book.)
The story involves a man named Henry Case, a former “console cowboy” — an elite computer hacker.
When the novel opens Case is living his own slow suicide because an attempt to pilfer from an employer resulted in having his nervous system poisoned by mycotoxins that forever destroyed his neural interface with cyberspace. He is a Cowboy no more, now just a street hustler doing ever more dangerous deals.
Then he’s recruited and fixed by what turns out to be an AI with the “Turing registry code name” of Wintermute who wants to join with another AI codenamed Neuromancer. They are akin to two halves of a brain, each with specialties of their own, and they want to be whole.
Well, Wintermute does. Neuromancer isn’t so sure it’s a good idea.
It’s a great adventure in an amazingly conceived reality that defined a new style of science fiction. Could not put it down!
All three are available at the library, but for months Neuromancer has been out on loan with a long wait list.
The thing is, I have a paperback copy, but I’m so spoiled by ebooks now I’ve been reluctant to pick up the hardcopy. But after The Truth of the Divine I wanted something really good to read (to double-check my mood, if nothing else), so I made myself pick up the paperback.
Glad I did. I’ve already checked out and started Count Zero!
It’s a silly goofy comedy overloaded with puns, and — as should be apparent by the cover art — is a parody of a famous and beloved science fiction TV show.
So imagine Star Trek told from Spock’s perspective among the illogical, impulsive, often astonishingly lucky beyond reason, humans.
What if Spock was the calm logical human advisor, an “ancient one,” a member of the race of early space travelers who brought technology to other younger races, and the illogical, impulsive, often astonishingly lucky beyond reason, crew were demmies, a race of short-lived, short-statured (pointy teethed) beings who just want to have fun going on adventures, usually rushing headlong into them without thought.
In other words, pretty much Kirk and crew.
The medical demmie is Guts, the engineering demmie is Nuts (a nickname she hates). The security walking dead are greenies after their lime-green shirts (which make just as nice a target as red ones).
Two examples of the humor:
At one point Guts injects a native with Alien Relaxxant Number One, a compound usually privately synthesized and provided to the doctor by the ship’s human advisor, an example of superior human technology. But Guts is sophisticated enough of a demmie to be in on the secret — it’s just highly distilled water because the placebo effect is universal. Upon being injected, hysterical aliens always calm down.
The transporter is a 200-mile hose they carry on a giant reel that takes half the mass and volume of the ship. They unwind it and let the nozzle down to the surface. The crew are converted to chemical slurry, shot down the tube, and reconstructed, usually successfully, at the nozzle. Non-organic gear is sent down in sealed tubes. The hose is invisible to radar, sonar, infrared, and most visible light because it’s painted the mystical color blue, which the demmies can’t see.
The planet they’re exploring, Oxytocin 41, turns out to have a serious problem. Due to a disease that began some time ago, when standards (normal people) die, they turn into either: Zoomz (zombies), Lik’ems (werewolves), or Nomorts (vampires). These are effectively the lower, middle, and upper, classes of undead.
Who generally prey on the living standards, but there is a giant hotel-casino neutral ground that lets them prey in a more… financial way.
I’m only halfway through this one, but it’s a lot of fun!
Stay reading, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.