Illuminae is a Young Adult sci-fi fantasy. It begins with romance, and the teenage lovers are having a fight. The concept sounds so familiar, it's like stepping onto a merry-go-round and selecting your favorite horse for a sweet, predictable ride.
However reading Illuminae is like getting on the merry-go-round and then suddenly finding yourself strapped into a high-octane roller coaster instead. The lovers are having a fight, what is the worst that could happen? The planet could be invaded--by a rival corporation called BaiTech--because the parents of the high school lovers work for a corporation that is running an illegal mining operation on this little planet. Because the universe is run by corporations that act like nations.
Suddenly we're in Atwood territory. But wait--this is YA! I signed up for teen lovers, not extrapolations of the sordid trajectories of the current political and social order! What happened to my teen lovers? Oh, they escaped the invasion. Phew!
Three ships escape. She, Kady, is aboard the Hypatia, a deep-space research vessel. She is a better hacker than she lets on, a master in the art of eliciting low expectations from teachers and adults.
He, Ezra, is on the Alexander, a UTA (United Terran Alliance) battle cruiser. He is quickly recruited and trained to be a fighter pilot to protect the fleet. Also, the Alexander is equipped with an AI named Aidan whose immense cyber brain is the only thing big enough to perform the innumerable and unfathomable calculations that keep a wormhole stable at its core so the fleet can jump thorough time and space. Of course at the moment Aidan is too damaged to make a jump.
And you know Chekhov's famous rule of sci-fi: If you show your reader a wormhole in the first act the protagonists must make a desperate escape through time and space by the third.
Authors Kaufman and Kristoff break that rule, as well as many others, to great effect. Kristoff says, right on his website, that he does not believe in happy endings. There will be no escaping through wormholes in this book. The rules of physics hold. Aidan, damaged in the attack, and likely mad, shouts down our hero when she considers escaping by that route. Aidan emphasizes that jumping into a wormhole is just a dramatic way to kill yourself that solves nothing.
The BeiTech attack involved biological warfare, a virus that turns people into violent homicidal zombies. It appears to be contained on the third ship, the Copernicus. What could go wrong? Aidan could destroy thousands of the people he is programed to protect. He could realize he is like a god compared to the humans in his charge. He could think he is merciful. He could blink in and out of existence and our hero could not know his motives one minute to the next.
Here Be Spoilers!
Ezra is a hotshot space fighter pilot. Our heroes and their companions are being chased by BaiTech's ship, the Lincoln. Ezra isn't hurt, he escapes infection and in the end is reunited with his love. Nope. What? She is a hacker and saves the day? No. They find a cure for the virus at the last minute? No. Self-sacrifice is rewarded and ... no? They die? All of them? Only one left, and there's no hope? Really? Really. No hope.
Aiden and our lone survivor look into the void together and contemplate its stark indifferent beauty in achingly understated passages that could have been written by Beckett or Cixin Liu. Life sucks, then you die.
Illuminae is built as a kind of graphic novel. The narrative is cobbled together from intercepted IM texts, hacked security camera footage, leaked e-mail correspondence. The ships schematics are included, as are redacted confidential documents, maps, medical records and after action reports.
Parents need not fear. All the cuss words are redacted in black marker (teens will be reading this after all). There is graphic violence: an eight-year-old afflicted by the virus uses a bloody human heart as teddy bear. That is fine, but wouldn't want to shock those young ears with the f-bomb.
Illuminae is the first in a planned trilogy. The second book, Gemina, came out just this week. There is a surprise ending. It is YA after all. When Illuminae was first released in the summer of 2015, I was enthralled. The construction of the book is unique, it's physicality not easily transferred to Kindle. It is something to hold in your hands.
The audio version was recently released. The performance is a tour de force, an ensemble cast supported by a fully realized world of highly crafted sound environments. Step aside War of the Worlds. And did I mention that Brad Pitt bought the movie rights? I hope to see this one on the big screen.