This alternative history is set in 2007. The premise is the revelation of first contact with extraterrestrial life after a whistleblower, Nils Ortega, leaks a memo proving the U.S. Government has known about these others – still on earth! – since 1971 and has been covering up their presence. Some of the aliens have died since their arrival but the government doesn’t understand why. The memo concerns the ongoing desire for a means of communication, or as the poet Adrienne Rich famously characterized the universal problem in her book of poems: “the dream of a common language.” Rich’s point was that even two human beings deeply in love cannot always relate to one another. Imagine then if one of the beings trying to communicate has a conceptual and perceptual framework so exotic that words we could understand cannot bridge the cultural, biological, and ideological disparities.
In another parallel, the epigraph to Rich’s book of the same name is also very apt for Axiom’s End:
“I go where I love and where I am loved . . . . ; I go to the things I love with no thought of duty or pity.” (from “The Flowering of the Rod” by H.D.)
Axiom’s End is ultimately a book both about language, and surprisingly, about love, but not in the way you would expect.
Cora Sabino, 21, is Nils’ daughter, although she, her mother, and two younger siblings have been estranged from Nils for years. Nils now lives overseas and has a website popular with anti-government elements and conspiracy theorists. It is also in the forefront of the “transparency movement,” advocating for truth and openness from government. As an acquaintance of Cora’s argues to her after Nils’s bombshell:
“This is a big deal. . . . the biggest discovery in human history that is being hidden from us as we speak. . . . Don’t we have a right to know?”
Nils published the leaked memo – dubbed the “Fremda Memo” for the name the CIA gave the alien group – one day after a so-called meteorite (but actually suspected alien vehicle) landed in Altadena, California, which was code-named the “Ampersand Event.” It was followed two months later by another “meteorite,” called the “Obelus Event.” It was after this second event that Cora got involved when she inadvertently was given the role of an interpreter for the alien she started to call Ampersand, since this being arrived in the first of the two recent events.
Ampersand developed a translation algorithm so that humans and the aliens could “talk” to one another. The alien species, partially organic and partially synthetic, were unable to vocalize in ways recognizable to humans, so Ampersand created a computerized voice device he inserted into Cora’s head. She not only communicated with Ampersand this way but later she served as a translator for others interacting with Ampersand. Many words and sounds were not translatable, however, so both Ampersand and Cora had to improvise, with Cora often rephrasing Ampersand’s words to be more diplomatic and less threatening.
In one of the simultaneously amusing and poignant aspects of the story, both Cora and Ampersand admit apprehension about one another. Ampersand finds it entirely logical to have a fear of “billions of aggressive, violent flesh-eaters.” Cora finds it similarly logical to be frightened of a being that looks so monstrous. But Cora is possibly even more afraid of the nebulous collection of government officials she now encounters.
At one point a perplexed Ampersand asks Cora, “Why are you afraid of your own government?” Cora obseres that even those who speak the same language don’t always speak true words, or they shade the truth by omission. Indeed, different communication issues are woven into different strands throughout the plot.
But Cora and Ampersand have much in common despite being two entirely different species: both feel lonely, lost, and frightened, and both are therefore inordinately receptive to acts of kindness and care. They discover that emotions are easier to convey without using any words at all, while words can be inadequate no matter how outwardly similar two people are.
They eventually form a bond of sorts, though Ampersand contends, “Given our disparate physiology, we can never communicate through high language. I will never truly know you. We will always be isolated within our own minds.”
Too bad he was unfamiliar with the work of Adrienne Rich: it’s not just an interspecies problem.
Evaluation: It turns out this is only the first book in a series to come. I was very glad to learn that; there are so many interesting “conversations” to be had, not only between the characters, but between the author and readers, and so many thought-provoking ideas.
I especially loved the rather humorous quote from a fictional “New Yorker” article inserted early into the novel:
“If these ETIs really do exist, most of us would have to admit that they have terrible timing. Humanity is fractured, bellicose, paranoid. It’s the cosmological equivalent of having a guest come to the door when you’re in the middle of a knock-down, drag-out fight with your spouse, there are lines of coke on the coffee table, and your pants are down around your ankles.”
I can’t wait for the next volume.
Published by St. Martin’s Press, 2020