They say don’t meet your heroes. I think I might revise that to don’t read your heroes’ books.
Now, I have been a big fan of Lindsay Ellis for a while. She creates ‘video essays’ on YouTube exploring film theory and the production stories behind popular films, and her work is a testament to what the medium of Internet videos can achieve. Her exploration of capitalism-ready #wokeness in contemporary Disney films is a work of art. Her two-part exploration of the impact and depiction of 9/11 in film is fascinating. Whenever I meet someone who tells me Blazing Saddles is their favourite movie I kind of want to sit them down with this 40-minute video about Mel Brooks and the ethics of satire before they keep talking. What can I say? I love the woman.
Probably the most notable thing about Lindsay’s work is she can get me to care about genres and films I wouldn’t give a second thought. For example, I aggressively Do Not Care about The Hobbit trilogy, but her three-part video essay about these troubled films and their studio’s petition to permanently change labour laws in New Zealand to get them made is less about elves and more about people going mad with power at the expense of the little guy, and absolutely worth the watch. So even though her first novel was sci-fi, I decided to give Ellis a chance, because after all, she had gotten me to care about tons of movies in genres I don’t normally watch–high fantasy and The Hobbit, urban fantasy and Bright, sci-fi and War of the Worlds–by exploring the human stories and larger themes in these works.
Sadly, her first novel, Axiom’s End, failed to deliver.
A period piece set in the fall of 2007, Axiom’s End focuses on Cora, an unwilling first-contact of an alien race arriving on Earth, battling personal anxieties over dropping out of college and the rising fame of her father, an Alex-Jones-cum-Julian-Assange internet personality dedicated to busting open the Deep State. This seemed like an interesting take, and honestly, Ellis is a good writer, but the plot was always hurtling towards its inevitable conclusion: setup for a sequel!
Well, I can’t fault her that much. I gotta eat too. But after 400 pages, I don’t really feel there’s enough substance for this to become a full-fledged series. The main alien character, Ampersand, has fairly minimal development, and Cora spends most of the book just running around screaming. There’s some noticeable analogues to the alien race’s treatment and contemporary American xenophobia, especially tied into the cultural setting of the US on the cusp of the Great Recession and deep into the Iraq War (thankfully, the 2007 setting is used mostly tastefully). Plus it gives us a reminder that Bush was horrible, something that I… did not expect people to forget, but God.
But what makes successful fantasy and sci-fi successful is its ability to transcend its fantastical settings or characters to make clear statements about the world we live in today, or the world we will soon inherit, and Axiom’s End failed to really do this–while, love them or hate them, media like Harry Potter and even Futurama achieve this without feeling like they’re working at it so hard. I desperately wanted to connect with Cora, but her motivations always felt fuzzy and the mythology of the alien species featured in the book was too nebulous to understand (probably again fodder for a sequel). Cora’s family are mostly pawns rather than true motivations, the characters she meets along the way are more obstacles to overcome than actual developed people (or aliens), and overall the writing was a bit too flowery–I mean, I remember how bad 2007 fashion was, I don’t need a paragraph-long outfit description. The humour was a little too meme-y and out-there to be effective, and almost every joke landed awkwardly.
I will definitely remain a fan of Ellis’ work and will continue to watch her videos–I think they’re great! But her writing style might just lend itself better to an audiovisual style, when delivery, facial expressions, and editing can be incorporated as part of her argument. Without this, it feels like only representing a fraction of Ellis’ talent. Axiom’s End might make an interesting movie or TV show if that ever happens, but as a written work, it just felt a bit underwhelming.
AXIOM’S END on Amazon:
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