A Fun but Flawed Love Letter to the 2000s
By Leda Serikoglu
In her debut novel Axiom’s End, the first in a five-book series, Lindsay Ellis rewinds the clock to an alternative autumn of 2007: George W. Bush is still the President of the United States; the Iraq War still hammers on; but now the whistle has been blown on extra-terrestrial presence on Earth, and, to her dismay, university dropout Cora Sabino becomes the first human ever to converse with an alien. His name is Amperstand, and, as far as First Contact goes, he rather grows on you. Eventually.
Ellis gained fame for her video-essays on her YouTube channel. In a digitised climate where ‘influencers’, especially those prominent on YouTube, are publishing books left and right, it would be easy to attribute Ellis’ book-deal as a by-product of the same hype train. We often regurgitate the clichéd wisdom of not judging a book by its cover, but what about judging a book by its author’s influencer status?
I confess that I, too, had a knee-jerk tendency to dismiss such books, especially novels, as just another popularity stunt. However, after reading Axiom’s End I realised there was something I hadn’t considered. Ellis’ novel draws the eye, not despite of her YouTube contributions, but rather because of them. By integrating academic analysis with comedic flair and witty commentary, Ellis and her behind-the-scenes co-writer and co-editor Angelina Meehan have focussed on a wide array of media subjects – including Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise; Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Andrew Lloyd Webber’s film adaptations of his own musical, The Phantom of the Opera; and protest music of the 2000s – topics whose thematic influences and references are recognisable in Axiom’s End.
Ellis gleefully bombards the reader with a high-paced plot that almost borders on the surreal, propelling them through a plethora of cultural themes of the Noughties. Deliberately reviving the Bush Era’s pervading sense of conspiracy and paranoia, Axiom introduces an alternative to hacktivist collective Anonymous, here The Broken Seal. Hell-bent on information transparency – their quasi-religious chant being “Truth is a human right” – The Broken Seal claims that the US government has been knowingly covering up their knowledge of extra-terrestrial life-forms. By centring this narrative complot, Ellis pushes the decade’s defining crisis, the Iraq War, into the plot’s periphery, barely mentioning it, as if to make the reader wonder why it is absent. Axiom juxtaposes the real war with a fictive First Contact, a foil which seems almost incompatible with how thriller-esque the extra-terrestrial version is compared to the seriousness of the actual war in the Middle East, but in the end, both events are bound to the notion of existential threat. A threat which can be genuine, exploited, and even fabricated.
In Axiom, The Broken Seal is as co-dependent to this existential threat as the government. Led by Cora’s estranged father Nils Ortega, a Julian Assange-type character, The Broken Seal gains near technological omnipotence. Another Big Brother. By including notes, memos, and letters between chapters that are either by or about Nils Ortega, Axiom reminds the reader of an insidious panoptic possibility: Big Brother is watching you. In doing so, Ellis seemingly mockingly echoes former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld’s much-lampooned 2002 statement: “We know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Everyone becomes suspect, based on certainties and uncertainties, depending on what is known and by whom.
Axiom’s End’s extra-terrestrial characters and the hints to their civilisation are the most engaging aspects of the novel. Borrowing ideas from other science fiction narratives just as much as she borrows from pop culture, Ellis emphasises an unspoken question about Ampersand: what does the concept of “humanity” mean to a non-human? What does it mean to us? In raising these questions, Ellis ultimately reverses a long-standing science fiction trope: communication is a tool for peace. After all, the whole point of splitting that famous infinitive – “to boldly go where no man has gone before” – was peaceful exploration. What does it mean if communication inevitably enables conflict because it enables comparison? What consequences would that have for the conventions of science fiction as a genre? For Ellis’ novel it seems that the quintessential cliché in First Contact narratives, “We come in peace”, is more than a phrase: it’s a framework in which the act of language generates the modus operandi for conflict and dominance.
Axiom is, however, flawed. The novel’s core theme is based on the conventional motif of the misunderstood ‘monster’ figure and the woman who, after being abducted or detained, eventually empathises with him. Although this Beauty and the Beast narrative is an intriguing addition to the novel, the entertainment value of the action-adventure plot undercuts the sincerity and emotional weight of their dynamics. With Cora’s propensity of almost-but-not-quite dying multiple times over the course of the story, it becomes evident that Ellis’ plot only poses a danger to the metaphorical redshirts. It is unsurprising that the protagonist has some immunity, but with each implausible escape from danger, Ellis inadvertently reminds us of the real reason we shouldn’t worry: there are four more novels to come.
As a result, Cora’s plot-armour makes her seem passive and bland, pushed forward by the will of the author at the expense of her common sense. While it would be false to claim that we ought to identify with Cora, we should want at least to know more about her. Unfortunately, this was not the case for me, creating an imbalance, as Ampersand is the far more interesting character. Ultimately, the Beast overshadows Beauty.
Axiom’s End is an entertaining novel whose full potential we can only hope might yet be realised in future entrees to the series. While reading, I was constantly reminded of other stories (cinematic and literary) that utilised similar plot points or concepts, but, frankly, I felt were better. But to dismiss Ellis’ novel because it has conceptual similarities with the likes of The Shape of Water, The Story of Your Life, or Ender’s Game is unfair in that it undermines the things that Ellis, an internet personality turned published author, has managed to achieve in her debut novel. Ellis deserves praise for highlighting, however facetiously, a precarious period of US history through an accessible and fun aesthetic that will hopefully be further explored as the series progresses.
Having completed her Bachelor’s degree in English Language and Culture at Utrecht University in 2019 with a cum laude, Leda Serikoglu is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Comparative Literary Studies. Her primary interests are in creative writing and speculative fiction, with a particular appreciation for science fiction. As she would say, “the more outrageous the better.” Having written her BA thesis on Angela Carter and J.G. Ballard’s 1970s surrealist fictions, Leda’s current point of interest is in untangling dubious power structures presented in fiction, usually preferring ones which venture in the realm of technology, sex, and sexuality.
Author image by Leda Serikoglu
Ellis, Lindsay. Axiom’s End. Titan Books, 2020. Print.
Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. Secker & Warburg Publishing, 1949. Web.
Star Trek: The Original Series. NBC, 1966. Television.
United States, Department of Defence. News Briefing – Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers, 12 December 2002. Department of Defence Archive, 2002. Transcript.