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.
“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