It’s 2007, the tail-end of the Bush era in America, but there is at least one profound divergence taking shape in this reality alternate to our own. Humanity is on the verge of making “First Contact” with an alien species capable of unlocking the great mysteries — and lurking dangers? — of our universe. Who is the harbinger of this alt-historical union of man and space machine? A woman in her early 20s who hates her job, loves her dogs, and processes just about everything else via her relationship with pop culture.
The early goings of Axiom’s End are riddled with conspiracies and never-ending codenames and pseudonyms for what is at times an overwhelming amount of exposition, though not in relation to the cerebral complexity we’d find in The Three Body Problem. Cora is introduced to us as the estranged daughter of a Snowden-esque whistleblower who years ago leaked classified documents in connection to the possibility of alien life already existing on Earth. From the start, Cora exists as an unwitting participant in a series of world-changing events, often sprinkled with immersive epistles stylized as blog posts and news articles in between chapters that allow Ellis to keep the point-of-view on Cora at all times.
It takes a while for Ellis to pulse her story to life with its central hook, which is a blossoming alliance between Cora and an alien creature who is essentially an advanced insect version of a “Transformer” with a mechanical speech voice. And yes, Ellis takes pains to reveal her intended references to this storied iconography throughout, often relying on Cora’s internal dialogue to fill in the blanks. The story certainly rewards readers who have spent years consuming Ellis’s video essays on YouTube, for example, due to sporadic inside jokes and references many will readily recognize.
The sharp wit and biting commentary Ellis provides in her critical work is certainly present in her voice as an author. She deftly uses pop culture as a shortcut to describe minor characters — at one point, Cora essentially says “this person kind of looks like Meg Ryan,” and we move on — while focusing her more careful and precise prose on major characters. This especially applies to the central alien Cora names Ampersand, who is easily the most memorable and intriguing character to discover throughout the book’s 372 hardcover pages. Ellis clearly wants the bulk of reader investment to be placed into the dynamic between Cora and Ampersand, which takes cues from ’80s Spielberg and yes, the Transformers cartoons and movies.
While the book is often thrilling in its relaxed sci-fi adventure beats, a variety of pitfalls await more skeptical readers. Cora herself contains a strained blend of character traits that often conflict with one another, or are brought up once without future payoff. Her Latinx heritage and homosexuality are treated as throwaway, box-checking attempts at diversity, rather than believably weaved into her personhood. To the point where speed readers might even miss these facets of her backstory entirely, as they don’t tie in any meaningful way to her relationship with Ampersand, or any characters really. This is easy to see as a shortcoming because Ellis is able to do this well when it comes to gender dynamics.
In other words, “come for the Ampersand & Cora fun hour, stay for the Ampersand & Cora fun hour.” It’s not hard to relent into the book’s sillier propositions, like the idea that the NASDAQ dropping should coincide with far more serious matters at hand. Or how sloppily the omniscience POV is treated in the writing, to the point where it’s indistinguishably switched when the plot demands it, or doesn’t. Or how Ellis can’t seem to help herself from winking and nodding throughout the book, interrupting the flow and pacing of more straight-faced moments with her own stylized attempts at levity.
But beyond its superficial pleasures and philosophical meandering, Axiom’s End tries hard to also tell a compelling story about a woman comparing and contrasting the dominant figures in her life, whether they be her father who abandoned her or the alien species she can’t seem to wrap her limited human brain around. There’s a nugget of a grand idea in this otherwise solid effort, which falls short of fully exploring its own potential to become a more exciting, timeless work.