In the age of Trump it’s easy to forget the turmoil of the Bush years. Earlier this year I read Agency by William Gibson which was, in part, an alternate history that posited, among other things, a timeline in which the Trump and Brexit votes went the other way. Alternate histories are a way of examining what happened, sometimes wishful thinking, but also a way to examine how we got where we are. All it takes is one or two events rolling a different way. Axiom’s End posits that a long lived cover up of alien presence on earth comes to light during the Bush presidency. But the table setting for that aspect of the alternate history takes place in the background. This is above all a novel that moves at a relentless pace.
The protagonist is Cora Sabino, the daughter of a notorious whistleblower/leftist conspiracy theorist/publicity hound named Nils Ortega (triangulate between Julian Assange, Alex Jones and Michael Moore). The novel opens with emails Ortega leaks showing that the US government knowingly covered up the presence of aliens on earth. Ortega is safely ensconced in Germany. Back in California Cora and her family receive a visit from their estranged father’s sister, who works for the agency hiding the alien’s presence. At this point an alien, soon known to Cora as Ampersand, shows up. Cora gets implanted with a tracker and an internal earpiece that lets her communicate with the alien, a representative of a spacefaring species who are advanced far beyond our capabilities. She becomes the de facto point of communication between humans and the species that poses both philosophical questions and existential threats. I won't’ describe the plot further to avoid spoilers.
Thematically, other than undoing the endgame of forty years of republican strategy a decade before Gibson’s book did, it seems mainly concerned with the difficulty and vital importance of communication across differences. As Cora says to Ampersand late in the novel, “You were right…about us only being able to understand each other through the prism of our own existence." While the fate of humanity in face of possible extinction raises the stakes of breaking through barriers to communication by an order of magnitude, given the political situation in which the book happens, and the nod to conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns this theme could not be more relevant. But, the book is here to take the reader on a ride, moving so fast that the themes and the implications of the alternate history hit after the fact.
I am not familiar with Lindsay Ellis’s video work that brought her to prominence, but I will be seeking some of it out after reading this, her first novel. I’ve heard a lot of good press for it, and I have to say that I enjoyed it thoroughly. It is relentlessly paced and well written. At the very least I will be reading the sequels.
Everything Else 2020 12/35