In Lindsay Ellis’s new novel, Truth of the Divine, the Noumena Series continues to paint a convincing portrait of an alternative history of first contact with an alien race occurring at the height of early 2000s paranoia and cultural conflict. In my interview with Ellis, we discussed the function alt-histories can serve, alien stories as metaphors for immigrant narratives, and the possibility of hope in the face of looming disaster.
Last time we talked about critical nostalgia, but you’ve now moved firmly into alt-history territory. How do you think alt-histories help an audience make sense of their recent past?
There’s this sort of revisionist history that things have always been like this, of what people think normal is now. I think people have already forgotten how things were 15 years ago but not as powerful. The Murdoch machine was there 15 years ago, but we were just kind of seeing its birth, not its effects. There was even political decorum.
One of the more common criticisms I got from the first book was that it was unrealistic that George W. Bush would resign if he were caught lying under oath about first contact. I guess it kind of goes to show that people have just become so acclimated to this climate of shamelessness. There was a time, not so long ago, when people could be shamed, but only about certain things. Even going back that far, there was this sort of detachment from the political reality of the rest of the world, sort of as a coping mechanism at the time. Now everybody is extremely online. Believe it or not, political polarization was not that bad even 15 years ago.
Part of alt-history is to create a different roadmap for the ways things can go, but not necessarily in a positive or negative way. It helps put it in perspective that it wasn’t always like this and it won’t always be like this. Some people go “what is the point of an alt history?” I hope it becomes more obvious with this book, but part of it was that there were all these things that happened in the interim years that we don’t really think about. What if that hadn’t happened that way? What if there hadn’t been an Obama presidency? What if we didn’t have that era of international goodwill again? What would have happened if that era hadn’t occurred?
Through the Third Option movement, advocating for some but not all human rights for aliens, we see political desire for middle-of-the-road moderation and also its consequences, namely how that desire can be exploited by far right activists to advance more extreme positions. Forget alt-histories, this in particular, for me, feels pretty par for the course for politics today. How would you describe it?
This was basically a response to Obama, based on the Tea Party more than anything, who have grievances of varying legitimacy. Because what made the Tea Party mad wasn’t just Obama, it was the idea of a bail out and that we had to pay for it. It then just became its own hydra, where they were mad about anything and everything you can draw into the culture war, until eventually it’s all culture war. It’s frustrating because that same thing is happening now.
A friend said “It’s kind of painful to read because this is how it would be” if we were faced with hypothetical aliens that hadn’t quite become an existential problem yet. The aliens aren’t shooting at us, but maybe something someday might happen. Immediately people try to maneuver, to use this for their narrative, incorporate it into their agenda, and I think that’s true of anything.
People have such strong opinions about it so it immediately turns into this “well this is a political thing, actually, and if you don’t agree with me, you’re part of the problem.” It’s like vaccines, a thing that should not be political, but it is, just because there’s this hyper-sectarianism that is sadly endemic to human nature. And how much of this is constructed and how much of this is who we are? Because we do have a very hardwired group mentality.
It feels like the pandemic began that way, too. Once we realized it wasn’t the apocalypse, it became subsumed into the culture war cycle.
Even now there are people who either don’t know people personally affected by Covid or there are people who do know people who are personally affected and they just narrative-ize it in a way to think they were never wrong, “I was always right.” That’s the thing: the worst thing you could do is ever admit being wrong. Climate change is politicized more than vaccines—there’s profit tied up in it. The alien question is sort of like “okay, well profit isn’t tied up in our survival, so that also hypothetically shouldn’t be a thing that’s politicized.” But whenever the question becomes “how do we deal with this, through diplomacy or through the military” then inevitably it would become politicized because there’s going to be all this posturing of like “well we have to use the military, we’re America.”
Also, I wrote much of this book during COVID, which I guess is pretty obvious considering it’s just a bunch of people arguing over how to deal with this slow-moving disaster. I don’t want to write a narrative where the solution is hopeless. But the longer this goes on, it’s harder to make a case for any type of human cooperation.
Which makes sense for where Cora winds up by the end of the novel. There’s nothing here for her anymore, on Earth anyways. Things do look hopeless right now, but what about the next book? If you decide to have hope in there, where might that come from?
This is sort of the Empire Strikes Back of the series. This one was always going to be, not the darkest one, but it had to make several valid cases against there being any hope for humanity. While at the same time it had to leave the door open, because if it’s just completely hopeless, then what is the point?
She makes this decision at the end that is very like driven by anger and almost kind of a whim, but is that actually going to help or save anything? We don’t know because she’s making it based on this very one-sided view of humanity, represented by the worst of its impulses. So in effect, she’s doing what the hypothetical aliens would do, judging humanity by the worst of you.
So I guess now the question is: is there a counterpoint? It’s hard. It’s hard to come up with a compelling counterpoint. Even when you look at activist circles, everybody just fights so much, even when they agree with each other. Is widespread cooperation possible? Half of humanity disagrees on what the means should be—violence or diplomacy—and are those the only two options?
I feel like Watchmen has been proved wrong in the intervening forty years since it came out, because this idea that we can save humanity by creating a bigger threat to unite against doesn’t always bring people together, it just can create more and more infighting.
Because those are the groups that tend to disagree the most, you focus more on people who are more like you, especially if you’re like “no, you’re doing it wrong” as opposed to your ideological enemies. People don’t fight really with their ideological enemies anymore, especially on the left. They just mostly fight with each other.
One of those hopeful or fresher perspectives was Kaveh, a new character in the series. He’s offering Cora the chance for a healthier relationship different from Ampersand. He’s also a Iranian man in this post 9/11 climate…I’ll keep it as a craft based question here. Unlike in Axiom’s End, when most of the novel was from Cora’s perspective, we get large chunks of Truth of the Divine from Kaveh’s perspective. What was that process like of switching point of view, and what did you learn about yourself as a writer taking on this new character?
Writing men is easier! So much easier. So in that regard, I kind of regret how it ended. Readers are really judgemental of female characters. So many people have these criticisms of Cora that I just don’t understand. Like, at one point she has a panic attack and people would describe that as whiny. People have a real lack of empathy for female characters. So writing from a male perspective, it’s kind of freeing in that way. It’s certainly easier to write.
From a narrative perspective, it was important to have that second point of view, and not just from an older person with more life experience. So much of the book is about Cora’s deteriorating mental health, it’s almost kind of a Crime and Punishment narrative where both her and Ampersand are descending into madness. Which is why more than half of the second half of the book is from Kaveh’s perspective. It would just be too dark if it was only from hers.
His voice is much more optimistic even when he’s upset or suspicious, he’ll phrase things in a more positive way. Which is more true in my experience. Even though immigrants experience discrimination, they also tend to be more optimistic and have a better perspective on the complexities of America. It’s not all good, it’s not all bad.
My podcast partner, whose name is Kaveh and is Kaveh’s namesake, helped me with all the little nuances of how Kaveh’s family treats him in the book. He’s not an immigrant, he was born in the US, but his parents were immigrants. I think it was important to have a perspective of an immigrant character when the alien perspective is an immigration story. Children of immigrants do have a very different perspective because a lot of us in this generation are disillusioned. It’s really easy to write off America as this great evil because you don’t have anything to lose. As white Americans, we can just be like “yeah, we are the colonizers, this is just an evil country.”
I see so many young people doing that and they’re almost always white and they don’t have any sense of perspective of how disrespectful that can be to people who fled here. I have several friends whose parents fled from Iran and Vietnam. They didn’t choose a better life, it was life or death for them. I feel like we lost this nuance in this race to prove we know the sins of our country.
Which I think from the context of the book makes the reality of what Ampersand and the Amygdalines in general are asking for: they’re asking for asylum, they’re asking for human rights, and getting Kaveh’s perspective on that is crucial.
I think of it with the mind of the looming refugee crisis that people our age are going to live through. It’s going to happen, nothing’s going to stop it, right now it’s just a question of scale. And the thing that’s going to cause these crises is problems that countries like the United States created. The climate crisis is largely driven by the U.S. Up until recently, we were the largest contributor of carbon to the atmosphere. We’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing. It’s not a sustainable model for civilization. Part of the Earth is going to become uninhabitable. Some countries will be underwater. A lot of people will be displaced. So either there is a sort of amnesty situation or we do what we have been doing and we end up with war the likes of which we’ve never seen. I think that’s part of why I created the story the way I did: the alien menace is distant but not that distant. This is distant but we’re going to live to see it in our lifetime. And feeling helpless to that. That’s part of why Cora decides to do what she does. It’s about dealing with the anxiety of knowing this is going to happen and feeling powerless about it.
Truth of the Divine barrels past typical depictions of the monster boyfriend or Beauty and the Beast archetypes into its own new space. They’re both experiencing panic attacks and PTSD together—
—yeah, like an alien version. So whereas she has mental breakdowns, he goes into this safe mode and shuts down..although I’ve seen some humans do that. Rather than acting out, you just sort of turn off parts of your brain.
What was it like delving into that dynamic and staying faithful to these characters? I haven’t seen the Venom movies, but I sense it’s somewhat similar.
Venom lacks an empathic bond, Venom and Eddie are just roommates, basically. But I think the idea of an empathic bond in science fiction and fantasy is really common. The one thing I hadn’t really seen done before is how it can negatively affect the two parties. Especially when you can’t turn it off. It’s meant to kind of mirror what it’s like being in relationships with traumatized people in the real world. It’s hard. If people don’t take care of themselves, they can drag their loved ones down with them. And when both parties don’t take care of themselves, it can get really dangerous.
It is a science-fiction/metaphysical bond that they have, but it is meant to mirror how those co-dependent dynamics can develop in real life. Usually the whole metaphysical/heart bond happens in narratives for children (like E.T.), you don’t really see adult characters go through this. It wasn’t a dynamic I had seen explored, where it’s not just where they have this empathic bond that is unique even among the amygdalines.
You made the decision to end with Kaveh’s posthumously published New Yorker article. What was it like writing in effectively a different genre?
I never worked on anything as hard as I did that stupid article! That one definitely went through a lot of careful wordings and tweakings. It had to sound like a Pulitzer winning New Yorker article. This is basically the thesis of the novel, but not just for the story but humanity’s future in general. It ends on an ambiguous note. Basically, Kaveh needed to offer a counterpoint, “yeah, I know the odds are not in our favor but the truth is, they never were.” Some aspects of civilization do change and don’t really go back, so we need to create a roadmap for what hope looks like and we need to free ourselves from this idea that there are things about human nature that are not changeable.
As someone who likes mixed media texts, I also felt like Kaveh’s article really undermined or maybe complicated Cora’s decision to leave.
Kaveh’s big thing, the reason he couldn’t go along with leaving Earth was because he felt that, like, you know human civilization is more than our genetic code. You can’t just pack up Wikipedia and some embryos and say that you’re still saving something because in his mind, you’re not. Civilization is a living thing. It is a superorganism in its own way. Just because you save a genome doesn’t mean you saved anything. We are our culture, we are more than our genetic code.
Truth of the Divine
By Lindsay Ellis
St. Martin’s Press
Published October 19, 2021
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.