Lindsay Ellis’s Axiom’s End, a smart and thought-provoking first-contact thrill ride

I am a big fan of Lindsay Ellis and her video essays analyzing film and literature. I can’t click “play” quickly enough when one of them appears on my YouTube feed. Thanks to Ellis’s piercing intelligence, keen social observations, and abundant wit, they are smart, insightful, and entertaining, Needless to say, I awaited the arrival of her debut science-fiction novel “Axion End” with the highest of expectations. I am pleased to say that I was not at all disappointed.

The merit of this book, I’d have to admit, wasn’t apparent in its opening chapters. It starts off as a rather conventional “monster from outer space” tale set in Los Angeles in the fall of 2007. And it offers us at first an apparently lackluster protagonist Cora Sabino. When we first meet her, Cora, an early twenty-something college dropout, fits the stereotype of a millennial slacker to a tee. She is literally stuck, without a functioning car, in L.A of all places, and without a functioning career or any inkling of one to come.

To make matters worse, Cora’s life is filled with bickering. She also seems to be stuck arguing with her housemate mother Demi or with her aunt Luciana, Demi’s sister. These arguments center around Cora’s absent father Nils Ortega, a proto-Julian-Assange champion of transparency who is doing electronic battle with the George W. Bush administration from an outpost somewhere in Germany. Estranged from Nils, Cora is put off by her father’s narcissism, yet still seems to long for some sort of reconciliation with him.

At this point in my reading, I feared that “Axiom’s End” might be headed in the tired old direction of “science fiction story as a pretext for broken family healing saga.” Let me out of here, I thought. But just as I was about to pack it in, the book began to take unexpected and exciting turns.

I realize now that Ellis had been messing with me; what I took to be an stale treatment of first contact between humans and extraterrestrials, was only an opening variation of one of the many ways that story has been told over the decades. What followed were callouts to everything from “E.T.” to “Starman” with a bit of “Close Encounters” tossed in for good measure. This was the deep-diving, genre-analyzing Lindsay Ellis that I had come to know and love through her video essays. In this tour-de-force debut, Ellis had managed to transform a first-contact novel into an exploration of first-contact narratives. I was hooked.

And so began a rollercoaster ride of fast-paced science-fiction adventure with a fair amount of hard science thrown in, at least enough to allow for a quite comfortable suspension of disbelief, as well as profound philosophical reflection on subjects ranging the variety of interpersonal bonding that might exist within an extraterrestrial species to the challenge of ever fully grasping an alien language. A number of ethical conundrums are also included as grist for the philosophical mill. In addition, the action sequences are riveting, but, unlike so much science fiction fighting, also immensely affecting. This is because Ellis has crafted characters whose fates and feelings we come to genuinely care about.

Which brings us back to the aptly named Cora, the heart of “Axiom’s End.” To say that she goes from zero to hero in the course of the novel is a drastic understatement. Propelled at first by overwhelming concern for her family’s safety, Cora uncovers the vast reserves of confidence, courage, resourcefulness contained within her, while never forsaking her compassion and vulnerability.

“Axiom’s End” therefore is, to a large extent a hero’s journey for Cora, a Bildungsroman of sorts. And in reading it, we discover that we do indeed need another hero, a hero like Lindsay Ellis’s Cora Sabino. Ellis’s book is a smart, compelling, and original story of first contact between humans and extraterrestrials that leaves your heart pumping and your head thinking.

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Marc Merlin

My interests include science, politics, philosophy, and film. I am the Executive Director of the Atlanta Science Tavern a grassroots, public science forum.