Axiom’s End is the debut novel of one of my favourite YouTube video essayists, Lindsay Ellis. Ellis is known for her retrospective analyses of classic Disney movies, her undying passion for Phantom of the Opera, and her obsession with dissecting the Transformers movies. She’s full of quips, insights, and feminist musings. I am a big fan of hers.
But, as with Roxanne Gay’s ‘Bad Feminist’, my love of the author did not translate to love of the book.
Axiom’s End, taking place in the year 2007, involves a ‘what if?’ scenario with a hell of a hook. What if a Julian’s Assange-type had a family? What if he abandoned said family and leaked to the world a memo acknowledging the existence of intelligent life beyond Earth? And what if said intelligent life then made contact with the Julian Assange-type’s estranged daughter Cora, stuck a high-tech babel-fish in her ear, and used her as an intergalactic translator?
The novel explores fascinating ‘first contact’ themes in communication, culture, and inevitable clashes. Ellis deftly touches on the elements needed to create an intriguing backstory for the alien race and leave the reader wanting more. She also forged a fascinating symbiotic relationship/friendship between Cora and the alien.
Yet, this novel still fell flat for me. It lacked any spark of joy which I’ve come to expect from Ellis’ work. There seemed to be no real point in placing the story in 2007, other than for a contrived and thin sense of nostalgia that is largely abandoned after the first few chapters. It lacked a clear focus on the political upheaval that I would have expected in a novel about first contact.
We the reader are privy to Cora’s thoughts and experience the events of Axiom’s End through her eyes. We are told from the outset that Cora is devoted to her family. She has two younger siblings who, in the absence of their father, rely on her for strength and love. Cora’s relationship with her mother is realistically strained, as her mother makes attempts to support Cora as she struggles through young adulthood. But these grounding elements of the novel which should have been used to raise the stakes of her precarious role as alien translator are completely abandoned after the first few chapters. Cora is separated from her family early on in the novel, and it is not until the closing chapters that she really remembers her family at all. While she professes to fear for their safety in CIA custody, she never uses her essential role as translator to negotiate their release from custody. I feel that, had her family’s presence continued throughout this novel, they could have significantly strengthened the story, raised the tension, and maybe brought moments of lightness needed to balance the tone of the novel.
The bones of a good story are here, but sadly it never quite reaches it’s potential.
Having said that, I’m glad to have read Axiom’s End, and I look forward to reading more of Ellis’ work as she hones her craft. Her voice is one worth listening to, and I eagerly await her next contribution to the pop-culture lexicon.
3 blinding white flashes out of 5.