Space Zombies!

The Illuminae Files_01
Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
Allen & Unwin
October 2015

Illuminae_smIlluminae is a visual wonder piece of science fiction narration. It straddles the undefined landscape between novel and graphic novel in a way that is almost cinematic in its execution. Rather than a story told in a series of words, what we have are words presented as in a dossier; “found” documents (e.g., chat room logs, mission reports, narrated surveillance footage) that show the bloody unfolding of one corporation’s ruthless attack on another. We’ve stumbled upon someone’s dirty little (well-documented) secret, the kind of dirty secret that the most cynical of us assume that all corporations must have, and we can only hold our breathe as the carnage accelerates, and ask, “Will they get away with it?”

There’s no quiet introduction for Illuminae. We’re dropped into the middle of the action as if dropped into a war zone. Kady and Ezra have just had an acrimonious breakup, but that’s only the start of a very bad day when first bombs, and then poisonous clouds of biological vapour, descend on the remote mining colony that they call home. This signals the start of a long escape reminiscent of the desperate run for survival of the crew of Battlestar Galatica. While Kady and Erza make it to ships fleeing the destruction, their survival, along with a few thousand others, is an unwanted loose end for the competing corporation. It’s months before they can reach a safe jump gate, and they’ll be chased the whole way, with an ever-diminishing lead, by a warship that doesn’t want to give them flowers.

Throw in a malfunctioning artificial intelligence and a mutating virus of crazy and now you’ve got a party.

Illuminae is an action packed extravaganza, drawing the reader onward through a worsening set of catastrophes (one would be bad, but prepare for plural) as the chance of survival for the motley crew steadily dwindles towards zero. The dramatic setting of the story, and sarcastic love affair between protagonists, make for a highly charged rollercoaster ride, and this book is sure to provide a gateway drug to science fiction for the coming generation of readers.

Unfortunately, for those who have a background in science fiction, Illuminae’s use of classic tropes offers few surprises. While the story does drive the reader forward, the revelations have a diminishing return as it becomes clear that the twists and developments fail to build new elements into old ideas. The book is like a car built of replacement parts; elements are pulled from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Battlestar Galatica and Hackers, with a fusing of the Reavers from Firefly, the Borg from Star Trek, and zombies in general. Of course, a book isn’t the sum of its parts. The serial numbers may not have been completely filed off, but the end product is a workable storytelling vehicle.

The authors have handed themselves a daunting task in the construction of Illuminae, and indeed it is a book that seems constructed as opposed to written. Include all the usual requirements of pacing and style and then mix in a changeable format for the presentation, mimicking a digital portfolio of written and audio communication. It’s this mimicry that is at once both the book’s triumph and its weakness. For example, over an eight-page spread, five-columns per page, we find a list of the confirmed deceased of the freighter Copernicus, and each flip of the page weighs us down with the devastation of lost in its magnitude. On the other hand, the authors rather too skilfully represent the banality of chat room conversations in repeat correspondence between characters, and while the accuracy of this can be lauded as reflective of real world communication, it nevertheless makes for the feeling of drudging through the tedium of a phone book rather than enriching character voice. Overall, the use of “found” digital content is certainly novel, and the visually immersive experience of the book itself is stunningly well executed, but there are distinct obstacles at play when it comes to melding traditional book-bound storytelling with pseudo-digital platforms.

Illuminae, sadly, is not a YA book that transcends the boundary of readership. While Katy and Ezra are likeable characters, they are gifted with preternatural genius in their fields of interest in a way that is more wish-fulfilment than careful character building (they’re “chosen ones” in all but name). Older, more established readers are likely to be left wanting, but older, more established readers are not who Illuminae is written for. The book is passionate, dangerous and defiant; just the type of thing for budding subversive malcontents who will eventually change the world.

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