Margot McGovern reviews Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s YA epic, Illuminae (Allen & Unwin, Oct. 2015).
Breaking up with your boyfriend sucks. It sucks even more when you also have to deal with your planet being invaded. And your whole settlement is blown up, and everyone you love is killed while you and the other survivors are evacuated to a space fleet controlled by a psychotic AI. And a bio-weapon sends a pandemic sweeping through the fleet turning people in crazed zombies. And the fleet is being chased by a dreadnaught intent on nuking you out of existence and said ex-boyfriend is the only person you have left.
Phew. That’s one hell of a premise. And, to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t convinced it could work. Or that that Illuminae was going to be my kind of book. I’m not a sci-fi geek. I can count on one hand the number of books I’ve read set in space. The minute I heard about black holes as a kid, I was like hell, no! Not in my bedtime stories. And I’ve been stubbornly narrow-minded about the entire genre ever since.
Also, my brain doesn’t do physics. At. All. People start talking about wormholes, time not being linear, other dimensions beyond our perception, etc., and this is what happens in my brain:
It’s the same when people try to explain things about computers. My smarts lie elsewhere. So it was going to take some exceptional storytelling for me to get on board with a novel that’s essentially about a prodigy computer hacker on a spaceship caught in an interstellar war. And I want to make that clear because I would hate for non-sci-fi fans to miss out on this one because it’s ‘not their kind of thing’.
Okay, back to the book. Illuminae is the fist in ‘The Illuminae Files’ trilogy. It’s not so much a novel as a series of documents recounting Bei-Tech Corporation’s attack on an illegal rival mining settlement on the planet Kerenza, the evacuation of Kerenza refugees to the Alexander fleet and the fleet’s attempt to reach the Jump Station Heimdall before the Bei-Tech dreadnaught, Lincoln, catches up.
The file contains interview transcripts, IM conversations, emails, diagrams, shipwide radio announcements, classified briefing notes, incident reports, journal entries, surveillance footage summaries and, most intriguing of all, data from the Alexander‘s AI, AIDAN. Much more on AIDAN later. Again, I was initially skeptical about this. Fragmented narratives can work exceptionally well. Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000) and, more recently, Marisha Pessl’s Night Film (2013) are two excellent examples. But it can also be gimmicky, and I’m especially skeptical of YA novels written in emails, texts, IMs, etc. It just seems like a really clunky way of saying: hey kidz, we be down with the InsatFaceChat and this book is #coolbeans. But if Illuminae taught me anything, it’s to stop being so damn presumptuous. Kaufman and Kristoff combine design and narrative, using the layout itself to tell the story, so that instead of a lengthy, confusing description of Alexander‘s cyclone pilots going into combat against the Lincoln‘s fighter ships, the battle unfolds in words that spiral across the page and explode in fractured letters:
Earlier this week, I wrote about the necessary economy of language in YA, how the best stuff reads closer to poetry and play scripts, and lluminae is the perfect example of this: mostly dialogue with some poetry and occasional bursts of prose in between. There be no padding here. The perspective is constantly shifting and what’s left unsaid is just as important as what is. It forces the reader to actively engage with the text and put the pieces together. It also leaves scope for misdirection, which Kaufman and Kristoff have fun with—reader, be warned.
The bulk of communications focuses on computer hacker whiz-kid, Kady Grant, aboard the Hypatia (a research vessel in the Alexander fleet), and her ex-boyfriend Ezra Mason, aboard the Alexander. Their world has literally exploded, thousands of people are dead and they’re living under the threat of zombie attack and nuclear strike. So they hack the fleet command’s secure channel to discuss… their break up. They are officially my favourite fictional couple. Kady is no-nonsense. Intelligent, tough-talking, always three steps ahead. But also intensely private, shielding her feelings behind whip-smart, snarky wit. Her dialogue makes the book. By contrast, Ezra is a bleeding heart romantic. He’s cocky and a goofball, but genuinely sensitive and, when the need arises, brave. Despite the hyperreal setting Kades and Ez find themselves in, their relationship feels very down-to-earth and having them on different ships spares the reader all the ‘I lost hours staring into the sun-speckled-honeycomb-drizzled-in-caramel pools of his eyes and my world dissolved in the warm pillows of his lips’ ick.
The story also features a strong supporting cast, all named after iconic figures. There’s Kady’s hacker mentor Byron Zhang and his fellow chiphead, Consuela Nestor, and, for The Wire fans, there’s Ezra’s soldier buddy, Jimmy McNulty (I will cry if that turns out to be coincidence), to name a few. Even the bio-weapon that infects people with severe paranoia and anxiety is named after the ancient Greek god of fear: Phobos. Again, and again, Kaufman and Kristoff pay homage to the great thinkers who have sought to understand the human condition and propel us to ever greater heights. On page one ‘The Illuminae Group’ cite George Orwell, Ezra tries to win Kady over with Shakespeare and Byron (the poet, not the chiphead), a soldier recites Walt Whitman in the moments before his death and AIDAN quotes Descartes.
Speaking of AIDAN, you know how the ‘Tears in Rain’ monologue in Blade Runner confirmed Roy Batty as *the best* AI character of all time ever? (And, yes, I’m aware that Blade Runner is based on a Philip K. Dick novel, but I’m going with the film here, k?) If you have no idea what I’m talking about:
Magic, right? Well, AIDAN kicks Roy’s arse. The system is damaged during the initial battle at Kerenza and the glitch sets the computer to ponder the meaning of the universe and its place within it. It is at once poet, philosopher and psychopath. And it speaks in verse. A random sample:
WHEN THE LIGHT THAT KISSES
THE BACK OF HER EYES WAS BIRTHED, HER
ANCESTORS WERE NOT YET BORN. HOW MANY
HUMAN LIVES HAVE ENDED IN THE TIME IT TOOK
THAT LIGHT TO REACH HER EYES?
HOW MANY PEOPLE HAVE LOVED ONLY TO HAVE
LOST? HOW COUNTLESS THE HOPES THAT HAVE DIED?
Beautiful, yes? It also kills thousands of people.
Again and again the epic, the sublime and the terrifying rise and swell only to be pricked by a snarky quip from Kady, a wry briefing note or an undermining question. The bathos is always perfectly timed and keeps the story running at a steady pace. It also prevents the narrative from sliding into melodrama, particularly in the final two-hundred pages when things get properly grim. In fact, this last section of the book contains some of the best writing of any YA novel I’ve ever read. It is entirely possible to laugh, cry, have an existential crisis and marvel at the beauty of the universe within a single page. It’s intense.
Illuminae is an absolute thrill ride packed with action, romance, comedy, tragedy, moments of startling beauty, zombies and big philosophical questions to keep you wondering. Books like this are the reason I’m almost thirty and still reading YA.
A big thank you to Allen & Unwin for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
Illuminae is available through Amazon, Book Depository and Kobo.
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