This book is the follow-up to Axiom’s End, the first in an alternative history series. That book, which began in 2007, posited that the US government had been covering up first contact with extraterrestrial life since 1971. A number of aliens had arrived at that time and were being kept in federal custody. A whistleblower, Nils Ortega, leaked the information and there was an uproar ever since, especially in the United States. President Bush was forced to resign, but the administration of President Cheney was also not releasing any information about the alien group. Now Cheney was being threatened in the presidential primary by Senator Todd Julian, part of a group that advocated total transparency about the aliens and moreover opposed conferring “personhood” on them. They instead came up with a “Third Option.”
As argued by Jano Mirando, the constitutional lawyer heading up the Third Option Movement, the advanced intelligence of the ETs made them a threat to existing humans.
[In a reflection of current events, acumen (or its suggestion by virtue of having a university education) is seen as a threat by the Right. It also brings to mind Lincoln’s theoretical proposition for proponents of slavery: “You mean whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.”]
Nils’ estranged daughter Cora Sabino, 21, got involved in the political fracas when she inadvertently was given the role of an interpreter for the alien she started to call Ampersand. Ampersand only arrived that year. In trying to help him, Cora almost died, but Ampersand repaired her body, saving her. Not only that, but Ampersand was able to form a “dynamic fusion bond” with Cora. This was a bond common to the ETs but unique in occurring across species, between a human and an amygdaline, as Americans call Ampersand’s race. In addition to establishing closeness and responsibility for one another, it somehow also conferred the ability to sense and share mood swings – not a usual feature among ETs sharing the bond. Given all the fear, PTSD, and loneliness both Cora and Ampersand were experiencing, this didn’t necessarily make each a good influence on the other.
In this book, Cora finds herself making common cause with the investigative journalist Kaveh Mazandarani. Kaveh, 35, is a former Rhodes Scholar, and was twice nominated for a Pulitzer. He had collaborated with Nils at one point in exposing torture by the CIA but now was horrified by Nils, especially when he learned how negatively Nils affected Cora.
Kaveh was born in Iran but his family escaped after the revolution and resettled in LA. He understands full well the pain of outsider status and the easy appeal of hate and discrimination, and works with Cora to thwart the xenophobic goals of the Third Option. He also makes a friend of his own with another newly arrived alien he calls Nikola, after Nikola Tesla.
But Cora and Kaveh have more than the Third Option to deal with. The politicians associated with that movement have been successfully whipping up fear among radical groups prone to violence, made up of conspiracy theorists, Second Amendment advocates, antisemites, and those who feel they “gotta defend us from all those dangerous aliens.”
Kaveh explains to Cora:
“The paradox of anti-government hysteria is it tends to lead to authoritarianism. The arrival of space aliens has not united humanity; they’ve only made us more tribal, more fractured, and it’s only going to get worse in the months and years to come. And now you have these proto-fascists arguing against the very idea of alien personhood and advocating for the creation of a whole different category of person altogether. One might almost say . . . three-fifths of a person.
. . . If they create a whole new class of person with fewer rights than a natural person, one created specifically for a nonhuman alien, how long do you think it will be before they start applying that to human aliens, as well?”
He points out, “If it’s a reactionary movement rooted in fear, the first thing that happens is the revocation of hard-won human rights.”
Eventually, Kaveh published a manifesto in an attempt to counter the Third Option. He wrote:
“The Third Option is only the first step in a long process of dehumanization – one that will first be applied to nonhuman persons, and then eventually to human persons. . . . [Fearmongers are provoking] the anxieties of an already insecure populace not because they have any strategy regarding our survival as a civilization, but because they desire power. They don’t care about the cost, perhaps, because they don’t believe there truly is one.”
He noted that both civilizations, the human and the amygdaline, have “grown to embrace fear, and to fear change. . . . Single-minded fixation on controlling everything they encounter combined with their rejection of the unfamiliar has led to a cultural and technological stagnation. . . .”
Kaveh compared the situation to Ahab’s reaction to Moby Dick: “‘That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate,’ says Ahab of the white whale with which he is so obsessed and yet by his own admission does not understand. ‘I will wreak that hate upon him.’”
At the end of the book, an event very much like January 6, 2021 just happened, and it was impossible to say whether democracy would survive. The question remains debatable both in this universe and the fictional one. Thus, this book turned out to be much more depressing than I anticipated, since so much of what was going on in the alternate universe of the book echoed what is going on right now with many people in the US, a number of whom are indeed stuck in an alternate universe of their own. How very meta.
Evaluation: Highly recommended! But I would also suggest reading the first installment, “Axiom’s End,” before this one.
Published by St. Martin’s Press, 2021