Review: “Axiom’s End” by Lindsay Ellis

For many years I’ve enjoyed Lindsay Ellis’s clever, well-crafted video essays, so I was delighted to discover she had a debut novel. “Axiom’s End” is a first-contact story that is sharply real in its theoretical treatment of aliens and genuine character honesty, combining to create a story with great emotional and existential impact.

To summarize without spoilers, protagonist Cora Sabino becomes a pivotal figure in first contact with an alien civilization, while her iconoclastic father looms as a cultural icon threatening to uncover related truths. This summary doesn’t do justice to what makes the book so interesting, however.

Let’s start with the aliens. From their physical descriptions to their language, Ellis makes it abundantly clear they are not human. At first blush this might seem obvious, but authors rarely achieve a true sense of the alien. Ellis steers away from comparisons to Earth animals, something that many other First Contact stories do to their detriment, because such comparisons inevitably just supplant the uniqueness the author’s attempting to invoke. With careful crafting, Ellis has given me a mental image of aliens like no other, and it will stick with me.

She takes a similar approach with alien language. Rather than just making a fictional phonemic language that might be indistinguishable from any language foreign to the reader, Ellis describes a truly alien vocalization we can barely grasp. The end result is that the aliens feel simultaneously real and other-worldly, instead of the cartoon dress-up effect you can find in many other works where the alien is more like a costumed drama student speaking Elvish.

There is a considerable amount of dialogue in the novel, but it’s infused with equal care and attention so it’s fascinating to witness the ripostes of vastly different philosophies. And this is where the real depth and complexity of what Ellis’s crafted really shines through. There were many poignant commentaries on what it means to be human, where we’re headed as a society, and the value of truth… but I won’t detract from their impact by trying to relay them here. The relationship between Cora and the aliens results in some painstakingly honest conversations that cause serious reflection on our moral and ethical assumptions.

The aliens are far from a monolithic culture, and their political complexities entwine with humanity’s with gripping results. What struck me hard was the insightful and careful layering of information. Typically when aliens have a hidden agenda or are withholding something in a story, it is for nefarious purposes. In “Axiom’s End,” however, the aliens are just as worried about competing interests as humans are, and are fraught with ideological differences, relationship struggles and trust issues.

Ellis starts with the premise of truth being a human right and through clashing perspectives and the selective exposure of truth, makes us ultimately wonder what higher end this truth is serving, and exactly whose truth is being told.

It’s rare that I read a book about aliens and feel so strongly like I’ve had a close encounter. “Axiom’s End” not only did that for me, but was suffused with such rich philosophy and honest humanity that I must advise you to go and get a copy. Thank you, Lindsay Ellis, for this wonderful experience.

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