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When It Comes To Light: Lindsay Ellis’ “Axiom’s End”

No one spoke for a long, tense moment. The book, dog-eared and missing its Saul-Bass-inspired dust jacket, sat on the coffee table, showing the wear and tear of a book that had been passed from person to person, shoved into bags, read on breaks at work.

All three –– Dania and Gwen on the couch, Eleanor taking the stuffed chair –– had powered through the book in turn, wanting to get the conversation moving as quickly as possible. Eleanor was last to read, after Gwen took a few days and Dania spent one unbroken day going cover-to-cover. But now, with everyone up to speed on the story of Cora and Ampersand, the conversation they hoped would flow easily was stalling.

Eleanor coughed, and looked to the others. Gwen and Dania locked eyes, but neither spoke.

Finally, it was Dania that kicked things off.

“So,” she began. “…Cora and Ampersand are just Sam and Optimus Prime, right?”

“Wow, okay,” said Gwen, reaching for her phone.

“What? Am I wrong, or is that not the dynamic? Giant alien creature and their human counterpart?”

“It’s more complicated than that,” said Eleanor. “Optimus has no personal investment in Sam. Cora has a connection to Ampersand that’s mutually beneficial.”

“I’m a few seconds off, but it was about forty-one seconds,” said Gwen. She held out her phone: a timer onscreen was stopped at 40:56.

“Until what?”

“How long it would take before someone brought up Transformers.”

Eleanor laughed, brightly. Gwen smiled, even as Dania hit her in the shoulder.

“Stop it!” she cried out, as the others laughed. “What, were you not going to bring it up?”

“I think Lindsay Ellis deserves more than having every discussion of her debut novel bring up endless references to her video essays,” said Gwen. “She is a woman of many talents, this is not just name-swapped Starscream fanfic.”

“Is it not, though?”

“It’s not!” said Dania.

Eleanor, still laughing, continued. “I mean, yes, it’s obviously more than that. It’s a whole different take on the ‘first contact’ story, one that’s more wise to its own tropes than a lot of the genre has been prior.”

She paused, but then looked directly at Gwen. “But you have to admit that it’s got similarities to Transformers.”

“I was agreeing with that!” Dania said.

“Of course there are similarities,” said Gwen. “But I was hoping the conversation could take the book on its own merits. You don’t need to know about Ellis to enjoy the book.”

“What, did you watch her ‘Death of the Author‘ video again?”

“Talk about the book!”

“Okay, okay,” said Eleanor, sitting up. “Well, I think it’s very smart. Enjoyable, even if the details of what’s going on with the Amygdalines and the Fremda isn’t entirely clear.”

“It’s clear enough,” said Gwen. “Reading science fiction, you develop a glossary of replacement terms for the proper nouns. I have no idea what ‘Pequod-phenomic’ means, but I understand it as ‘one of the languages that the aliens speak.”

“Well, yeah, I mean, you sort of have to do that,” said Dania. “Honestly, I thought the book had too much explaining.”

“Too much?” asked Eleanor. In her view, the book dwelled just long enough on the technical elements, before always returning to the narrative.

“Too much,” said Dania. She reached out to the book, hoping to find the passage. “It felt like most of the chapters had at least one instance of Ellis dropping a paragraph of explanation into the middle of a scene. It broke the flow for me.”

“I know she’d struggled with that in early drafts,” said Gwen. “She talks in her Titanic video about how the initial draft had much less explanation, but she included more when the worldbuilding wasn’t as clear to readers.”

“Well, now who’s citing the video essays?”

“It was relevant!”

“Either way,” Dania continued, “here’s a section from Chapter 19, when Cora finds her bunker at the…site.”

Dania read: The room was perhaps thirty feet wide by sixty feet long, and was designed to sleep forty people. It contained ten sets of doubled-up twin metal bunk beds, painted a delicate baby-poo brown that time had chipped away. Perhaps 60 percent of the fluorescent lights in the room were still operational… “You see my point?” said Dania.

“It’s a serviceable description of the room.” Gwen observed. “What, would you have just written, ‘She entered a room with a ton of old beds?'”

“Well, there’s some middle ground between those two,” said Dania. “The writing overall trends towards saying more than saying less. Like, all the alien descriptions, yes, please, be as verbose as possible. You’re describing an alien.”

“A very unique alien, I’ll add,” said Eleanor. “If you were doing an adaptation of the book, I’d barely know where to start with designing them. Ellis only provides a handful of details.”

Flipping through, Eleanor located the main alien –– “Ampersand,” as the protagonist Cora referred to him –– and the initial descriptions: It’s body leaned forward like a raptor…with long arms curled in front of it…an oblong head like a dragon…and even had a sort of crest that jutted out from the back of its head like a feather headdress.

“Maybe that’s one of the many benefits of Ellis telling this story as a novel, instead of a film,” said Gwen. “After all, she’s directed films before. But the novel allows for the reader to fill in the gaps with their own imagination, which also brings them deeper into the story. Like Cora, we figure out the plot as we experience it with her.”

“Well, that,” said Dania, “and designing an alien on film is way more expensive than describing one in a novel.”

Gwen pouted. “That, too.”

“Like I said, it’s a smart novel,” Eleanor added. “I sensed a little hesitation in the writing during the first few chapters, a hesitancy to use contractions for some reason. But by the time the plot really got moving, it’s got twists and turns that feel earned and well set-up by the narrative.”

“The twists don’t feel quite like traditional ‘gotcha’ twists, either,” said Dania. “Even the final reveal of why the aliens arrive…by the time it’s clarified, you barely care about the answer to the question anymore. By then, it’s about how to get Ampersand home.”

“Well, it’s a mystery, you’re expecting some reveals,” said Eleanor. “It’s also a story all about conspiracy theories and whistleblowing. Thematically, the issue of who deserves to know the truth is a huge element of the story.”

“Not just who gets to know,” said Gwen. “But what do you do once you do know?”

“Right,” said Eleanor. “The initial conflict, between Cora and her whistleblower father, is about her belief that he’s only revealing this information as a way of propping himself and his brand up. The more that Cora discovers about the conspiracies, the more she learns about cover-up after cover-up…the harder it gets to pretend she doesn’t care about the transparency issue.”

“It’s like, she keeps getting more conspiracies proved,” said Dania. “Which she initially wants. Cora’s goal at the start is just to figure out what exactly the Ampersand and Obelus events are. But once she does, that knowledge forces this immense responsibility onto her, and she has to decide how to shoulder it.”

“There’s a discussion from –– okay, all is forgiven from before,” said Gwen, shaking her head. “I have to cite another video essay.”

“You see what I mean?”

“In her video about War of the Worlds, Ellis talks about how fictional aliens always represent some cultural anxiety that the reader is presumed to have. Not that the amygdalines are a one-to-one ratio, but that they represent something. As I read the book, I kept coming back to that question: what anxiety does Ampersand represent?”

Gwen paused, and looked to the others.

“So…did you have an answer?” asked Dania.

“A roundabout one,” said Gwen. “It’s hard to word it, but it’s something like ‘the anxiety of discovering that all the conspiracy theories are true.'”

“Well, that’s certainly a safe message to send today,” said Dania. “When flat Earthers and 5G truthers are running rampant.”

“No, I get what Gwen’s saying,” said Eleanor. “I mean, that is a sort of unique thing about the early-to-mid 2000s, when the War on Terror was getting going and the Internet was only just gaining popularity. The increased oversight of government personnel, records, and history led the public to see further behind the curtain than they ever had before. That renewed knowledge, the process of finding out that the government had been lying about something for years, and knowing that you can never go back to not knowing again –– that’s the anxiety that the Amygdalines represent.”

“And the thematic tension,” added Gwen, “the protagonist character arc, is Cora’s growing willingness to rise to the responsibility of having this knowledge, and do what’s right for the country, and humanity at large.”

“Well, yeah,” Dania said. “I guess so. But is that too broad? I mean, anyone in her specific position –– literally captured to be used as a translator for an alien ex-pat –– she’s doing it more out of a need to survive than for the good of the human race, right?”

“Not by the end,” said Eleanor. “I’d argue that, by the end, she’s acting with the best interests of the human race in mind, rather than her own.”

“Which is ideally what a society that gains this sort of leaked classified knowledge would also do,” said Gwen. “Rise to the responsibility and hold leaders to account for it.”

“Sure,” said Dania, with a cynical shrug. “Though they don’t, always.”

“They don’t, often,” sighed Eleanor. “Remember the Snowden leaks? Everyone found out that the Government might be spying on them? That’s the real-world equivalent of the Fremda memo in the book. But we didn’t rise to the responsibility in 2013 –– it got swept under the rug.”

“Well, Snowden never knocked out the L.A. power grid.”

“But it’s the same anxiety,” said Eleanor. “My major takeaway from Axiom’s End is that knowing everything is more terrifying than knowing nothing –– because the former gives you the responsibility to act on it.”

“Although we never find out exactly how things end for the aliens by the end, do we?” asked Dania. “The book has a bit of an abrupt ending, just a discussion on the limits of human language.”

“Well, Ellis has already said that Axiom’s End is only Book 1 of a series,” said Eleanor. “Hopefully, there will be enough human language in the upcoming books to reveal everything else.”

Image Source: SyFy

Foundling Mothers: Kerry James Marshall’s “Rushmore”

“My instincts tell me to stay indoors, is all,” said Gwen, swerving away from another stranger on the street, who wore no mask.

“It’s better to be outside anyway,” Eleanor said, pulling Gwen closer to her. “It spreads more easily in an enclosed space.”

Eleanor still looked with hesitancy at the other pedestrians on West Randolph, doing their best to go about their day as though the plague was not roaming the streets alongside them.

“Yeah, besides,” Dania chimed in, “Millennium Park has enough space that you can actually distance while you’re there. It’s not a grocery store or a concert hall.”

Gwen smirked. “Well, it includes a concert hall.”

“An open-air one,” Eleanor countered. “And nothing is playing there.”

“It’s a shame,” Gwen recalled. “All the free art that isn’t going to happen this summer. The concert series in the park, sure, but also the MCA’s Tuesdays on the Terrace concerts. Honestly, I’ll never take museums for granted again––”

“What’s that?” asked Dania. Stopping on the sidewalk, she looked down the alleyway of North Garland Court.


“The fountain?” Gwen suggested. “I don’t know. Probably a public works project. Is there a plaque nearby?”

“No, not the fountain,” said Dania. She pointed up towards the top of the Chicago Cultural Center building, on the side least visible to the public.

“There’s something green up there,” she said.


Gwen and Eleanor both saw it at the same time. Amid the tan brickwork that lined both sides of the alleyway, a swirl of brown and green paint peeked over the trees.

Dania turned, and walked quickly down the alleyway. The park could wait –– there was another green space that needed attention.

As Eleanor and Gwen followed, the scale of the image kept growing and growing. The mural extended from the roof, 100 feet down to the sidewalk, and across 132 feet of wall space. It surrounded a loading dock, and a vent high up on the wall –– higher than anyone would have looked up, were it not for the towering trees now painted beside it, and the single word that had been “carved” into a tree limb that extended in the narrow space between window and vent: “Rushmore.”

“What is this?!” asked a very surprised Gwen, as she found a place against the wall where the whole of the mural could be seen. It wasn’t easy––she pressed her back up against the wall, craning her neck upwards to catch all the detail in the mural.

“It looks sort of new,” Eleanor observed. “I mean, the paint colors are all clear, and stuff.”

“Well, it’s in an alley where it almost never gets direct sunlight,” Dania said.

It was true. Even now, the sun was only shining in a thin beam against the far right side of the mural––a single allowance from the apartment complex that looked down from the other side of the street.

“‘Rushmore,'” read Gwen. “I suppose it’s based on the idea of Mount Rushmore, but from the look of it, it’s all women.”

“Can you read the names?” Eleanor squinted, attempting to make out the names on the white banner that unfurled in the upper part of the image. Held aloft by eight blood-red robins, it was their only hint about the identity of the twenty faces that were seemingly carved into the trunks of the five trees that populated the mural.

“I see Gwendolyn Brooks,” said Dania. “And Barbara…Gaines?”

“Barbara Gaines?” Eleanor repeated. “Doesn’t she do something in Chicago?”

“She’s the Artistic Director of Chicago Shakespeare Theatre,” said Gwen, automatically. “What is this?”

“Jane M. Saks,” Dania continued to read. “Ruth Page. Sandra Cisneros.”

“It’s all Chicago women,” said Gwen. “Dancers and actors and writers.”

“Oprah Winfrey!” said Dania, recognizing the name even as it was flipped upside down on its banner.

“Her show filmed in Chicago,” Eleanor recalled. “So, yeah, it’s all Chicago women artists.”

“Wow,” said Dania. She looked up at the top of the mural again. The faces, carved into the trees, only dominated the lower half of the image. High above them, the trees expanded their branches to cover the teal-blue sky, nearly blocking out the orange and pink rays of the sun, sitting dead center atop the wall.

“It really forces you to look up, doesn’t it?” said Eleanor. “Like, if it was somewhere more public you’d be able to see it from a distance, get a better view of the whole thing. But here…I mean, it just dominates the alleyway.”

“That’s my first question,” said Gwen, shielding her eyes. “Why here? Of all places to put this mural, why choose the back of the Cultural Center? I didn’t even know it was here. How long has it been here?”

“Is there a plaque?” asked Eleanor. Squinting to see the other side, Eleanor could just make out a rectangle affixed to the wall. “That’s gotta have more info.”

Eleanor carefully walked across the street. Dania and Gwen watched her go, becoming one of the few bodies who passed by the monument. From her vantage point, Dania realized that the slow passage of people walking by the mural, or the quick movement of cars and trucks coming into the adjacent parking garages, seemed to compliment the stoicism of the mural. The women looked down on the people below (“Only five are actually looking at the viewer,” Gwen pointed out), but whether the people looked back at them reverently, or passed by oblivious, was a matter of choice.

“Maybe there’s some symbolism to the placement,” Gwen suggested. “It’s a mural on the side of a cultural museum––these are cultural figures who have been pushed aside by history. Pushed to the fringes, where they might not be noticed.”

“Ah, yes, fringe figures like Oprah,” said Dania. “And Margaret Burroughs.”

“You understand,” Gwen sneered. “Women who have build a cultural foundation for the city, but don’t have statues of themselves. Its a way of redressing the balance, to paint the mural––but placing it on this back wall seems to signify the erasure they’ve experienced before this. You may have never considered them, just as you’ve never considered this alley before. But once you get here…”

“It’s really hard to ignore,” Dania finished, nodding. “Yeah, that might be it.”

“Otherwise they just wanted to fill this wall, and whoever the artist was decided on this idea,” Gwen added.

“It’s impressive,” said Dania. “All the colors. The faces are so realistic, but everything else is almost abstract. Look at those trees, the way the leaves are drawn. And those little sprigs of grass at the bottom.”

“It’s not a particularly light palette,” said Gwen. “Most of the colors are already dark, or are shifted to a dimmer tone by the shadow. Only that grass, and I suppose the sky, stand out.”

Across the alley, Eleanor had walked away from the plaque, and now stood directly below the mural, looking up the wall. Dania and Gwen watched her shrug, then turn to walk back across the street.

“You can’t tell what it is from that side,” Eleanor said. “This is the right vantage point.”

“What did the plaque say?”

“I took a picture,” she said, holding her phone out to Dania. “It is called Rushmore, that’s accurate. Commissioned in 2017, by the city and some group called Murals of Acceptance.”

“And the artist?” asked Gwen, still looking up.

“Kerry James Marshall,” Dania read. “Do you know her?”

“What?!” Gwen said, shocked. Dania handed the phone to Gwen, and sure enough, Marshall’s name was listed under the title.

“What else has she done?” asked Dania.

He done,” said Gwen. “Kerry James Marshall is one of the best living Black painters. He had a retrospective at the MCA a few years ago, Mastry. He painted this?”

Gwen looked up at the mural again, in a new light. The faces bore none of the signature historical bite of Marshall’s well-known work. The lines were cleaner, more polished, than his most famous mural, Knowledge and Wonder. And the scale––had Marshall ever painted something as large as this before?

“I have to re-contextualize everything, knowing it’s by Marshall,” said Gwen. “It’s another piece, now.”

“Eh, it’s still the same mural, author or not,” said Dania.

“Yes, but Marshall wouldn’t ignore the placement,” said Gwen. “There’s a reason, why this mural in this spot. The angle of ‘unknown women in an unknown place’ comes to mind again.”

“Unknown women?” asked Eleanor. “Like Oprah?”

“That’s what I said,” Dania repeated. “Maybe it’s just creating a green space in the one section of the alley without any trees.”

“It could also be a subtle dig at monuments in general,” said Eleanor. “I mean, it’s called Rushmore. That it’s all women, that its in an urban space, that it’s hidden from regular view, that the women’s faces are carved into something living instead of rock –– all of that is refuting what the original Mount Rushmore is.”

“Plus, with people now calling to get rid of Mouth Rushmore,” said Dania. “I don’t think people would lobby to take this one down.”

“Right,” Eleanor agreed. “It’s another method of honoring great Americans––a better way of doing so, and honestly, a better group to honor.”

“Plus, you don’t have to go to the middle of South Dakota for it,” added Dania.

“That, too. With everything closed down, it’s certainly a nice piece of public art that’s still visitable.”

“And there’s barely anyone else in this alley,” said Dania, looking around. For the moment, the three of them stood unobserved, alongside Marshall’s mural.

“Here’s the question,” Gwen said, jumping back in. “Marshall’s work is always challenging the viewer. Always forcing them to consider the work more deeply than surface-level. So here’s a gigantic mural, hidden in the middle of a major world city, featuring twenty voices who may have not gotten the monument-based recognition they deserve yet.”

Eleanor and Dania waited for the conclusion of Gwen’s point, but the three just stared at each other.

Gwen shook her hands in front of her. “Where’s the subversion?” she asked, finally. “Where’s the challenge?”

“Well, maybe that’s the difference,” said Eleanor. She looked up again, back at the women who had no statues in Albany Park, no streets named after them, facing away from the largedst public park in the city, which was named for the era it opened, rather than for any of them.

“It’s simply making space for people who haven’t been represented in public art yet,” Eleanor suggested. “That, itself, is the subversion. A subversion of history.”

“And then…people walk past it without noticing?” asked Gwen. As she spoke, another figure walked along the opposite wall, not taking note of the paint.

“We walk past statues all the time,” said Dania. “Getting accustomed to statues being there, and slowly forgetting what they meant…isn’t that sort of part of it?”

“Maybe,” said Eleanor. “Let’s just hope we don’t forget what these ones mean.”

All three looked up again. At the roof’s edge, the teal of Marshall’s sky seemed to align with the real deal behind it, extending his vision of honoring Chicago’s artistic pioneers out, beyond the alley, into the air above.

Image Credits: Globetrotter Magazine (cover photo); all other photographs by the author.

Surface Preparation: Jennifer Muro, Thomas Krajewski, & Gretel Lusky’s “Primer”

“This has to be the first summer in forever without a major superhero movie,” said Eleanor, panting in the dry heat of July.

Dania nodded. “Well, how do you expect to release a superhero movie when no one can go to the movies?”

They were sitting out on the stoop in front of the house, the shadow of the building falling in front of their feet. Even under the shade, they fanned themselves. It was a slow summer day, the kind where a trip to an air-conditioned cineplex, to watch the latest batch of digitally costumed hunks punch things, wouldn’t have been amiss. But with the drive-ins needing the twilight to be seen, there were no heroes to shield them from the midday heat.

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Blinding Light: Audre Lorde’s “Sister Outsider”

Their timelines on social media had returned to normal in the last week, with less and less content that showed evidence of the great civil rights struggle still ongoing in the country. Videos of protesters clashing with police had been replaced with more pointed action items about donating to charities and petitioning for legislation. A series of surprise Supreme Court victories had given the country the momentary breath of hope that things weren’t entirely doomed, which only distracted from the fact that things very much still were.

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