Lindsay Ellis’ 2020 Axiom’s End: A Novel is the first book in her projected Noumena series.
In a 2007 that never was, Cora Sabino is a shiftless twenty-something, forever pissing off her mother by her lackluster work ethic and tendency to let things slide. But Cora is just trying to cope. Not only did her father Nils Ortega abandon his family when he became a world-famous internet pundit and leaker of dark government secrets, this world’s Julian Assange, he is the reason that they have been subjected to unpredictable but intrusive government surveillance. It’s wearing.
Cora is working a temp job when a meteor crashes into Angeles National Forest. This unlikely event is the second time in recent history that a meteor has impacted near LA. Nils believes the first, the so-called Ampersand Event, was an alien spacecraft. He also believes the US government is in contact with aliens. It’s a wild claim.
It’s also true, but not quite as Nils imagines it.
The impact blew out every window at Cora’s workplace. She does what she believes anyone would do in her place and leaves for home without informing her bosses. She’s fired. Not only that; Nils’ claims revive government interest in his family. Government agents visit, then most of Cora’s family vanishes, perhaps to some government detention center.
Cora eludes government capture, only to be accosted and kidnapped by … Ampersand, the alien who arrived in the Ampersand Event. Exciting chase scenes and government shenanigans ensue.
The background to the alien, its kin and its civilization: a hundred light-years from Earth, the aliens that Americans have code-named Pequod are maintaining a compact but powerful civilization. Ancient by human standards, rigidly hierarchal, and conservative, the Pequod had little interest in Earth save as an occasional source of research materials. More recently, however, survivors of a genetic purge fled to Earth, a habitable world close enough to the Pequod to reach while being far enough, they hoped, for the Pequod to lose interest in them.
Two things went wrong with the refugee plan. Firstly, the 20th century Earth they reached was a very different world from the outdated Earth they knew from centuries-old records. Earth may still be primitive by Pequod standards, but its military forces had no problem noticing the alien vessel landing or rounding up the refugees. Unable to communicate, the dwindling group of aliens have been in American custody for decades.
Secondly, an ambitious Pequod functionary decided that finishing off the last remnant of the expunged lineage will elevate it to higher status. Ampersand is desperate to protect the remaining refugees. Lucky, lucky Cora is now an involuntary part of Ampersand’s cunning plan.
I don’t know why this is an alternate history (unless it’s to facilitate a minor subplot about a revelation that’s so embarrassing that a Republican president resigns. Shame is an emotion that is not apparent in current model Republicans but I am not convinced it was present in the older sort, either).
Nils may sound a bit annoying. He’s very, very annoying. It’s a good thing the novel focuses on Cora and not Nils.
How is it an alien from a world nearly a hundred light-years away can speak English? Well, they’ve been aware of us for centuries. Why haven’t we learned about them before now? They aren’t interested in ransacking our world (the economics of relativistic starflight make that unprofitable) and they aren’t much interested in studying us. We’re boring primitives. We would be interesting if we could pose a threat to the aliens (in which case they would boil the Earth down to bedrock) but our recent nuclear exploits haven’t attracted their interest … yet1.
The Pequod have been doing their thing for hundreds of thousands of years2. It is a genre trope that aliens might be very conservative compared to humans. In the case of the Pequod, it may not be entirely coincidental that their technological progress is glacially slow. Their social rules give superiors complete control over social inferiors; inferiors will be disregarded, silenced, even summarily executed for failure to please their overlords3. Proposing bold new paradigms is an excellent way for scholars to earn an express ticket to a mass grave.
That or the Pequod found all of the low-hanging fruit of applied science ages ago.
Never mind all that. I did like Cora and I did find the thriller plot absorbing. The novel stumbles a bit at the end (there’s just one too many surprising revelation about the lacunae in the Pequod understanding of humans), but the first eighty percent of the book kept me reading. It’s a solid debut.
1: As soon as humans discover that the likely Pequod reaction to the sudden acceleration of human development is to incinerate the planet, they comfort themselves with the knowledge that it will take a century for the aliens to learn what Earth is like in 2007 and a century for the response to arrive. Ah, but exo-atmospheric nuclear explosions are visible across the galaxy. It’s possible the Pequod will arrive to glass the Earth not in the 2200 the humans expect but 2160-something.
2: On a galactic time scale, a few hundred thousand years is nothing. There are reasons why the Pequod don’t expand, but two technological species popping up in the same neighbourhood at about the same time makes me wonder if there is a causal link. Were the linguists who dropped by five or six centuries ago the first Pequod to visit Earth?
Cora is a bit surprised that the Pequod are only hundreds of thousands of years older than humans, which may be an acknowledgement by the author of the unlikely timescales in the novel.
3: The specific crime that got the refugees targeted was arguing that genocide of perceived threats is not always required. This excess of empathy is assumed (without proof) to be genetic in cause by the powers that be, which meant that not only were the dissenters targeted for death, so were several million relatives.