By Alex Wallace
I started Axiom’s End with anticipation; I am quite aware of Lindsay Ellis’ reputation online although I will say I haven’t watched any of her videos. I was further interested when I learned that the story is an alternate history, with a first contact story taking place in 2007. The book is the first in a planned series with a sequel due in 2021, and another in 2022, something I was not aware of when I started the book.
To put my impressions in a single sentence: this book succeeds masterfully as a science fiction story but doesn’t work nearly as well as an alternate history story.
Ellis said in an interview that she chose to set the story in 2007 because she argues that that time had a sense of political decorum that is nonexistent today. Having read the book, I disagree; the story could have been set in 2019 easily (although I doubt the travel around the United States could have been done nearly as easily in 2020, as the pandemic encircles the world), the only difference being how the internet responds to the story and perhaps some of the particular responses of the American government.
In other interviews she talks a lot about how she’s preempting 2000s nostalgia, and how the decade is perceived as less moral than its immediate predecessors (I tend to rail against the concept of nostalgia more generally as there is heinous butchery in every decade, and to conflate the positive experiences of a single strand of first-world society with the entirety of a decade that might have experienced the slaughterhouses of Guatemala or Rwanda or Darfur borders on the narcissistic). As someone who was in the fourth grade (ten years old, for non-Americans) in 2007, it’s strange to see a time that I remember reasonably well subjected to the mythologization of nostalgia; I grew up with the eighties and nineties being mythologized, having not been alive for the former and a small child for the latter half of the latter, so seeing things like Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame having a fair portion set in the 2000s is somewhat bizarre to me.
George W. Bush has a fairly strong presence throughout the novel despite never appearing as a character, serving as an avatar of what Ellis perceives as wrong with the American government of the time. One major character is clearly based on the likes of Julian Assange, and Robert Gates is accurately shown as the Secretary of Defense (which, as an aside, was strange to me because Gates is the Chancellor of my alma mater, and I have seen him speak at Charter Day ceremonies).
If I had to make a comparison between this novel and another alternate history work, I would choose the film District 9, directed by Neill Blomkamp, in that they both use alternate history bases to explore a science fictional concept with heavy sociological undertones, and neither puts much focus on the alternate history proper. There is some in Axiom’s End but it is not the focus; however, in headings between sections of the book, there is the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which hints at the looming recession just around the corner. It’s the sort of thing that I hope is explored in more detail in the coming instalments in the series.
That, ultimately, is why this book disappoints as an alternate history story: the actual story Ellis tells is so confined to a small group of characters in the United States in a manner that makes the plot something that isn’t fundamentally rooted in the alternate history in which it takes place. There’s none of the large scale that makes so much alternate history appealing; one could have how the Bush administration handles the Middle East after the changes brought out by first contact. There are hints of the religious right of the period, now almost neutered in our world, handling the revelation, but that sort of thing never really affects the plot. The ahistorical world and the plot are simply not integrated enough, in the way the classics of alternate history are, to provide the sort of satisfaction many alternate historians crave.
But I must emphasise that as a first-contact story, it works spectacularly. The aliens here are very well-developed and oftentimes quite unnerving, and the human responses, both individually and governmentally, are very believable. It feels as if Ellis took bits of WorldWar, Childhood’s End, Contact, Footfall, E. T., and many other of the great first contact stories, mashes it with a historical period in a manner reminiscent of A World of Difference, and makes it her own, with vulnerable characters trying to get by in a world that is confusing and hostile (in different ways to different characters). Particularly, I think the relationship between the main character and a certain extra-terrestrial was done very well, sometimes heart-rendingly so.
Axiom’s End is by one metric a daring twenty-first century take on an old concept, and by another metric a missed opportunity. I very much enjoyed the novel and would wholeheartedly recommend it to a science fiction reader, but would hesitate on recommending it to somebody explicitly looking for an alternate history. This is not WorldWar or The Great Martian War, no matter how much part of me wished it was, but what it does do, it does fantastically. I sincerely hope Ellis exploits the potential in the ahistorical premise she has chosen; the sequel would only be better for it.