A Review of Lindsay Ellis’s Axiom’s End
Constructing genuinely interesting extraterrestrials and developing entertaining twists on science fiction tropes are difficult but Lindsay Ellis manages to deliver both in her debut novel Axiom’s End.
The problem with writing extraterrestrials is that the more plausibly alien they are the less interesting they become as individual characters. They occupy locations on a spectrum from Star Trek’s innumerable hominids with minor deviations in physiognomy from modern humans to machine intelligence completely indifferent to humanity like that in Stanislaw Lem’s 1964 novel Niewwyciężony or The Invincible.
Star Trek’s aliens communicate with humans easily and can therefore be woven into plots as characters. Lem’s horrifying machine cloud does not communicate with the human explorers it drives off its planet and is therefore more akin to a tornado or hurricane. That science fiction populated by human adjacent aliens enjoys much larger audiences than that populated by weather event aliens is unsurprising.
Humans are primarily interested in other humans. The plausibly alien but extinct Krell in the film 1956 film Forbidden Planet are not characters but instead effectively part of the technology that makes a monster out of the human character Dr. Morbius.
The extraterrestrial species in Axiom’s End initially appear to occupy a location closer to the weather event end of the spectrum, utterly unable or unwilling to communicate with humans. Half synthetic horrors looking like silvery shelled praying mantises, the aliens resolutely ignore entreaties to share information.
As the plot develops it seems the group of aliens secretly in the custody of the U.S. military are in reality rebellious refugees who adhere to the Axiom that interspecies interaction will lead to the extermination or modification of one species for the benefit of the other. The norm captures the pessimistic school of astrobiology that any contact between humans and intelligent extraterrestrials is likely to end in either frustration or disaster.
Yet hope triumphs over despair. Cora, a plucky young woman recognizable from recent young adult fiction, not only succeeds in communicating with the powerful alien named Ampersand, but develops a close personal bond with him. Love conquers savagery, even the alien variety.
As it happens, Cora’s absent father Nils is none other than a famous transparency activist on the run from the United States government for having published memos establishing that the Pentagon has made contact with the aliens. Julian Assange is the obvious inspiration for the obnoxiously self-aggrandizing Nils. Just as Assange’s Wikileaks publishes material about the War on Terror from hackers or whistleblowers, Nils’s The Broken Seal publishes hacked or leaked material about alien contact.
That Axiom’s End is set in an alternative time line during the second Bush administration flags the authorial intention to ‘get political.’ Science fiction writers have long done that. Thus the existentially threatening extraterrestrial Bugs in Robert Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers are metaphors for the communist East Asian hordes of the Cold War and George Lucas’s Stormtroopers in Star Wars are barely disguised WWI German Imperial Stormtroopers and WWII Nazi German Stormtroopers.
OK, so who are Ellis’ extraterrestrials? That they are metaphors for Islamist terrorists is a plausible answer. Their capacity to appear anywhere in America and wreck havoc is terrifying but secret divisions among the alien leadership mean that some can be won over to our side. Think al-Qaeda and its links to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Axiom’s End is still a fun read even though the extraterrestrials are ultimately revealed as less than horrifyingly implacable. There is gooey emotional tenderness inside their synthetic shells. Readers wanting science fiction horror with more despair should consider Wil McCarthy’s 1998 novel Bloom, which describes a future in which humanity has been driven to the periphery of the Solar System by a malign machine intelligence that knows our weaknesses.