Illuminae, where have you been? Where were you after I had just finished mainlining Battlestar Galactica for the first time in 2012 and was curled up in an emotional ball of feelings for what felt like days afterward? I needed something just like you, filled with catastrophe and characters that made me cry and space explosions and a bittersweet sense of hope on the horizon, a world destroyed and a world made anew. For years I looked and found nothing to assuage the hole in my heart left by BSG’s absence.
But now, Illuminae, you are here, and in having read you, you have given me the fix I so desperately craved.
Earlier in the day, Kady broke up with her boyfriend Ezra. Hours later, they’re running for their lives when warships from BeiTech, a rival mining mega-corporation bomb the Kerenza mining colony as part of an ongoing inter-stellar corporate war. Kady and Ezra are among the few thousand survivors who managed to fight their way onto the evacuation ships who responded to the distress signals. The makeshift fleet, made up of the science vessel Hypatia, the battlecarrier Alexander, and the mining ship Copernicus, sustained heavy damage from the BeiTech warships, making jump travel through space impossible. They are left with no other choice than to fly directly to Jump Station Heimdell with a BeiTech warship in hot pursuit intent on eliminating all witnesses to the attack. And that’s just the tip of the danger iceberg.
When BeiTech attacked the mining colony, they dropped an unknown biological weapon on the mine itself. Now evacuees and crewmembers are displaying severe PTSD symptoms which evolve into murderous psychosis, and the infection is spreading. To make matters worse, the Alexander’s fully-integrated A.I. system named AIDAN (Artificial Intelligence Defence Analytics Network), designed to protect the ship and its inhabitants at all cost, has begun acting of its own accord and killing members of the fleet.
With Kady on the Hypatia and Ezra on the Alexander, they haven’t seen or spoken to each other since the attack. Now surrounded by danger on all sides, they have no choice but to reach out to each other and place their lives into each other’s hands in order to lay bare what’s happening on board both of their ships, and to ensure they all survive to share their story of BeiTech’s attack.
There is SO MUCH going on this book I don’t even know where to begin. Despite the hefty weight of the print version (seriously, I could club someone with it), I read it at the speed of light. The action never stops, something is always happening, and there is always impending and/or immediate danger demanding response from the characters. I have a special fondness for the space battles—they are rendered, verbally and visually, as excitingly twisty-turny and visceral as that of the Galactica’s Vipers attacking Cylon raiders.
Illuminae is a fully-functioning epistolary novel, told over 600 pages of interviews, memos, IM chats, journal entries, medical and battle reports, and more. While Kady and Ezra are the main characters, these epistolary documents also provide a window into several other characters’ actions and thoughts, including crew members on the ships, military personnel, and AIDAN itself. The tagline of this book is “First survive. Then tell the truth.” What better way to encapsulate this theme than to tell a tale of destruction and heroism and hard decisions through the (mostly uncensored) primary sources laying bare every choice and every action as the survivors play them out?
Of course, Kady and Ezra are the characters we get to know the best, and they are each equally delightful. Ezra’s a seemingly laid-back high school jock who’s made up of romance and feelings and awkwardly gallant gestures. He gets recruited into the Alexander’s military. Kady’s an anti-authoritarian, gifted hacker with a ~sunny personality~ (read: cynical and cold as ice) who snarks her way into shoving aside her feelings to deal with a situation. She deliberately flies under the radar so she can hack into both the Hypatiaand Alexander’s computer networks. Both of them are suffering trauma from having had their home destroyed witnessing family and friends murdered, and they want to make BeiTech pay for what they’ve done.
The biggest surprise was that I enjoyed not just Kady and Ezra as characters, but their romance. I honestly thought I would have to slog through it the way I frequently do with fictional romantic relationships. Instead it ended up being one of my favorite parts of the book because it was so realistic, in that it was incredibly cheesy. They’re both smart teenagers who’ve been through hell and back, but they’re still teenagers who make decisions and process feelings using teenage logic. Their communications contain a mix of wariness, hurt feelings, relief, snark, comfort in familiarity, and overly-maudlin but utterly sincere declarations of love and entreaties to stay safe. None of them have anyone onboard their ships they can turn to for comfort and support, and so they reach out to each other as the one familiar person in their lives. As they reforge their relationship, Ezra and Kady each become the person they fight to keep alive, and to stay alive for.
One of the most powerful threads of Illuminae is that of following orders and making choices with the intention of keeping people alive at the cost of killing others. At the end of the day, everyone does what they think will save the most lives, be they human or AI, military or civilian, whether they are giving order or following them. Everyone makes hard decisions to kill or let others be killed, each of them believing they are making the most necessary choice to protect the rest of the fleet—General Torrence of the Alexander, Captain Chau of the Hypatia, her second-in-command Syra Boll. Even Ezra, newly-inducted into the Alexander’s military personnel, has to weigh whether to follow or disobey orders whose results may or may not kill more people depending on his decision.
And of course, there’s AIDAN, the Alexander’s A.I. defense network, who is programmed with the primary directive to keep everyone on-board the Alexander alive. The humans on board the ships may call him mad or psychotic when he takes actions that kill thousands of refugees and crewmembers, but AIDAN is doing what he was told to do—save as many lives as possible. The main difference between AIDAN and the humans listed above are that the humans operate under greater parameters with which to make those decisions, and don’t possess the computational ability of AIDAN to analyze and weigh all the relevant factors. As a piece of software, AIDAN may be programmed to save lives, but what about humans’ programming? In their own way, humans are programmed to follow orders depending on which social parameters they’re operating under, whether that’s military, ship command, family, or anything else. Humans’ programming to follow orders can reach a breaking point, and as it turns out, so can AIDAN’s.
I am ambivalent about the writing of AIDAN regarding the ever-popular debate over the ability, or lack thereof, of A.I. or robots being able to comprehend some special essence of humanity, and the A.I. developing or realizing it possesses human-like qualities after all. In Illuminae, Kady accuses AIDAN of being afraid of its own death, and that its fear is the reason he took over the Alexander’s computer system and the entire ship, to which AIDAN responds Kady is using “[m]eat logic. Sticky. Wet. Irrelevant.” As it turns out, Kady is right. And AIDAN’s inability to fully understand Kady as a person, a human, leads him to admire her, and to mourn her imminent demise. My roommate is partially to blame for this, but I now find this conflict over an A.I.’s ability to understand humanity, or to feel and process as humans do, to be uninspired and boring in its current iteration, as well as frustrating that humanity and human thought-processing is the ideal to understand, or aspire to, on behalf of the A.I. character.
I did like the way in which AIDAN was written as a character, wherein he uses poetic language, visual imagery and metaphors, and abstract thoughts to voice this thoughts and thought-processes. Moreover, I appreciated that AIDAN and the human crew members and civilians are shown as equally to blame for actions that result in further deaths and loss of civil liberties. Each believes they are doing what’s necessary to save the most human lives, and all of them lack some amount of understanding and foresight to know for certain whether they are making the best possible decision. Kady is the only person in Illuminae who doesn’t immediately prioritize the survival of the many over the few. Alone in the entire universe except for Ezra, when push comes to shove. she prioritizes his safety and survival over everyone else’s so long as there’s a possibility he’s alive. She isn’t braver or more noble for doing so—she made a choice about who was worth fighting and dying for.
Illuminae is as equally strong in plot as it is in characterization. Despite all the numerous threads going into this melting pot of a book—corporate warfare, the annihilation of a colony, space battles, a viral epidemic, the disintegration of the fleet, an out-of-control A.I., and Kady and Ezra’s own relationship, all of which occur in the backdrop of a larger scheme no one is even aware is happening—Illuminae balances and carries all of them through the book handily. There was one plot twist I spotted a mile away, but there was also a plot twist that I DID NOT see coming, and it fills me with glee to see how it’s going to play out in the next two books.
In case it wasn’t clear, I loved Illuminae. It ended up being almost exactly the book for me (minus my mixed feelings about the humanity versus A.I. conflict). As it turns out, I will love any piece of media that is a huge and epic space opera that has the scale, complexity, immediacy, and characterization of Battlestar Galactica and now Illuminae. I am already excited to read the second book Gemina, and pre-emptively displeased that it will be about a different couple—there’s SO MUCH shit left for Kady and Ezra to work out, and so many things left for them to do together to take down BeiTech. That and I just want to know even more about them. Still, I finished reading Illuminae feeling so many feelings, and I cannot wait to read Gemina and feel even more of them.