Lindsay Ellis’s new book, Axiom’s End, is an ambitious work of science fiction. Not content to take the route of alternate history, or tell an action-packed “First Contact” tale, Ellis centers her story on the human and inhuman. The driving question of the novel is how we make sense of what we don’t understand. Like the 2016 film Arrival, this book examines linguistics and the gradual learning of an alien civilization from both perspectives. But Axiom’s End ultimately concerns itself with communication on a personal and emotional level between two beings.
I talked with Ellis about the subversion of genre and gender tropes, conspiracy theories, the weaponization of nostalgia and empathy, and how her debut novel fits into the larger world of science fiction.
You’ve previously mentioned that some publishers claimed Axiom’s End wasn’t “sci-fi” enough. Having read it, it seems pretty sci-fi to me. Could you talk about what the term sci-fi means to you and how Axiom’s End subverts genre expectations?
Well, my agent (correctly) didn’t want to send it to any genre imprints, because even though it is extremely sci-fi, it’s kind of “entry-level” and has more of the trappings of a casual sci-fi book. I think a lot of imprint-driven sci-fi is either for extreme fans of the genre or prestige-type work.
That makes sense. As a sci-fi fan myself, I often run up against the “hard” versus “soft” sci-fi question, and I typically find myself on the “casual sci-fi” side.
I really wanted Axiom’s End to be as accessible as possible, but in terms of it being hard or soft, I wanted it to be just as much about linguistics as sci-fi worldbuilding.
The sci-fi stuff was never really an issue, but the degree to which we get in the weeds of the difference between phonemic and phonetic, or sentence construction, or what even a hypothetical non-human language looks like, was a source of minor debate with the publisher. They were more like “scale back the academic jargon” rather than any aliens- shooting-each-other stuff.
I thought that was one of the main ways in which your book subverts sci-fi conventions. It’s not as heavy on the violence, but rather on the question of language, how an alien language and communication might be different from ours.
Right, because you can speak knowledgeably about human linguistics. I’m actually making a video for my YouTube channel about how the “First Contact” question is handled in sci-fi. People come into it with all these weird suppositions and not as a thought experiment, which it is! While sci-fi is great for thought experiments, it can’t really be anything more than that.
The aliens in Axiom’s End are not what I think aliens will look like, categorically not. They are way too human. They’re a function of what the story needed. I think people get narrative utility mixed up with making future projections. That was the balancing act of writing the book. They had to be alien enough to be alien and scary, but human enough to be sympathetic and understandable.
The other day I got an email from someone asking if I thought there were aliens in Nevada. No! I’m a fiction writer. I liked Men in Black a lot as a kid, it’s not really anything more than that. I do see aliens as a uniquely American folklore. I just have a hard time having sympathy for the conspiracy theorists.
Which brings us to this Julian Assange-type character in your book, central character Cora’s father, who uses conspiracy theories for his own ends. But we never actually see Nils Ortega. He only communicates with Cora and others via email, blog posts, or letters. Why?
The decision to keep him off-screen was difficult. I’ve had changing ideas about this since I came up with the idea back in 2010, back when Assange was a kind of folk hero. Over time he got more and more into conspiracies, and it was hard to parse out how valid his beliefs were.
This is the start of a series, so Nils’s character will develop, but his function is that he’s more like theater. He has his beliefs, but he’s willing to capitalize on other things in order to get his agenda done. He uses the events in the book to cultivate this really passionate audience, but doesn’t disavow the bad parts. That will be more in the second book, which is much more about the political situation that develops by the end of the first.
It’s a balancing act, and I was inspired by his cult of personality. There comes a point whenever you’re so invested in maintaining this cult of personality that whatever your beliefs were just kind of falls by the wayside.
Empathy is central to Axiom’s End, especially as Cora and Ampersand, the alien, develop a connection. It informs how they learn to trust one another. But empathy is also a dangerous tool in the book, as people like Nils further their own agendas. I’m curious about how you think of empathy when it comes to your characters.
In Nils’s case it was in service of power. As for Ampersand, the first thing he does is weaponize empathy. This is a very subtextual thing, and I’m not sure it’s in my lane to write it, but I think about white womanhood and how it relates to Beauty and the Beast narratives. Cora explains to Ampersand that because she’s a white woman, she’s more trustworthy to other people. And he’s like, “I see.” And the first thing he does is convince Cora to get a stranger out of his truck so they can steal it.
You see weaponized empathy throughout. Ampersand is using it for survival, but it doesn’t mean that there’s not something genuine there. When you weaponize empathy, you’re taking advantage of people for your own gain, but that doesn’t mean you can’t come around and actually empathize with someone who is very different from you. In that case, he has to sublimate his own desire for survival. That’s the cost of his empathy. And that’s true for other characters as well.
Going back to the Beauty and the Beast idea, Axiom’s End confronts the monster boyfriend trope even if it takes on some of those ideas along the way. What was your thought process regarding this central relationship between your two main characters?
Ampersand is genuinely scared of Cora and finds humans terrifying. And that goes both ways. From the reader’s point of view, it’s extremely one way. In earlier drafts, I was very low-key about it. I buried the lede so much that at the end you had this relationship where there was no real connection. It was only after The Shape of Water came out that I was like, “Oh, I guess people are here for this.”
Though the truth is I was kind of disappointed with The Shape of Water, because there was no arc to that relationship. That’s the most satisfying part of a fully developed Beauty and the Beast narrative. We have to start from a place of distrust, and there needs to be an arc. When you don’t have to work for the relationship, it’s not very satisfying. I wanted, though, to leave Cora and Ampersand’s relationship— is it romantic, is it not— ambiguous at the end.
Do you think these Beauty and the Beast narratives are moving away from the old fairy tale trappings and more toward the sci-fi aesthetic?
Fundamentally, as a fiction device, aliens are fantasy creatures. They belong in the same category as orcs and elves. I think it’s not that different; sci-fi is just maybe more popular now for adults, and we’re seeing a lot more experimentation with fantasy. It’s becoming more popular in sci-fi because it feels newer, but I also think these things are cyclical.
I think there’s a nostalgia argument too, The Shape of Water being an example of that. It takes place in the early 1960s, based on a franchise from the 1950s, and obviously my book is deliberately in the same vein. A sort of adventure story influenced by the narratives of the 1990s, but told through the aesthetic of the post-9/11 mid-2000s filter.
And the 2000s are almost due for their turn in the nostalgia cycle. Seeing references to popular culture in Axiom’s End that were huge when I was in high school was both familiar and somewhat jarring, in a good way. As the cycle continues, what do you think authors will have to do to establish their book as belonging to the 2000s?
My guess is that my book will be kind of an outlier, in terms of what will happen in the literary world. I think we’re much more likely to see film and TV go that way first. Even now, we’re still looking at the 80s and 90s, with Captain Marvel and Stranger Things. Cultural flashpoints are more likely to originate on screen.
But we don’t really know what the nostalgia for the mid-2000s is going to look like. My suspicion is it’s going to be not as fun as 80s and 90s nostalgia. I think the difference between the 2000s and these other two decades is that so much of the discourse now is looking back on how terrible and unjust it was. It was a terrible time for political consciousness. This is all a long-winded way of saying I think this new kind of nostalgia is going to be more critical than the nostalgia for the 80s and 90s.
Nostalgia is becoming more and more important to be critical of, as the far right continues to weaponize it in service of nationalism and white supremacy. A more critical cultural nostalgia of the 2000s might not be a bad thing; it might even be more useful. What does this critical nostalgia look like to you?
I think it’s going to be extremely divided, in a way that we’ve never really seen before. I guess the real question is going to be whose interpretation wins. Because the other thing about nostalgia, as opposed to just a study of the past, is that it’s therapeutic. Nostalgia has to be soothing, otherwise it’s not nostalgia.
There’s no logic to it, but that’s its function. With the far right and white supremacy, a lot of people find the notion that there is a great history we can return to a therapeutic idea. That’s why weaponizing nostalgia works so well. That’s the trick right now. In my case, and I don’t know how successful I was, I invoked nostalgia while being critical of the mid-2000s era, as well as speculating on how it might have turned out differently.
We’ve wound up with these terms of weaponized nostalgia and weaponized empathy. And they’re very deeply connected.
That was the main thing about writing a book where conspiracy theories are kind of proven correct. It’s one of the reasons I wanted my book to be a period piece. In the 90s, conspiracy theories were so fun and common, and writers didn’t have to think critically about the real-world roots of these stories. Chris Carter, who wrote The X-Files, is not a conspiracy theorist. He never was. But The X-Files popularized so many theories that have really scary, serious underbellies. When you look at The X-Files reboot, they tried to reckon with the Alex Joneses of the world and it was awkward and uncomfortable. The X-Files just doesn’t work now. You don’t have to dig too deep to find the antisemitism, the racism, and the misogyny, to find these insidious, reactionary undercurrents in American conspiracy theories.
That’s part of what I’ll be grappling with in the second book in my series, because now that these conspiracy theories have been validated, what comes next?
By Lindsay Ellis
St. Martin’s Press
Published July 21, 2020
Michael Pittard is an English lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He has an MFA in poetry from UNCG and is a former poetry editor of The Greensboro Review.