What If a Government Whistleblower Found Evidence of Aliens?

"Axiom's End" takes us back to 2007, just like we all wanted—but it's not as tranquil as it sounds

Flying saucer

Imagine being back in 2007. Did your shoulders just unclench a little? Obama on the rise, fewer than 500,000 Tweets launched into the ether per year, David Bowie and Prince still rocking our plane of existence, what’s not to miss? But with a few minor tweaks, this placid past could have been even more tumultuous than the curse that is 2020. This is the world of Lindsay Ellis’s debut novel Axiom’s End, set in what seems like the very distant past and venturing into the most existential territory possible: what if the greatest government leak in American history was first contact with an alien race? 

Axiom’s End is the first book in a series of five that traces the relationship between Ampersand, an enigmatic alien marooned on Earth, and Cora, an adrift twentysomething who unwittingly becomes the only translator between the new species and our own. The novel wrestles with the importance and limitations of language, relative morality, and how fallible the concept of “truth” becomes in the face of an existential crisis. It’s a Netflix binge series of a novel, making you fall hard and fast for these unlikely allies, flipping ever-forward to discover how these disparate creatures can ever make their alliance, and eventual friendship, work. 

It’s also an unwitting parallel to the destruction of facts that define the Trump era. Cora’s estranged father, Nils, exploits the fears and suspicions of the populace to build his own cult of personality as a document-leaking “hero,” and the book slowly reveals the lengths that he’ll race to the bottom in order to promote his own conspiracy theory agenda and folk hero legacy. Ellis plumbs into depths that would have once been unimaginable, but have in fact rooted into our daily discourse.

I spoke to Ellis over Zoom about long writing processes, conspiracy theories, and the resurgence of sincerity in a deadly serious era. 

Tabitha Blankenbiller: What events or memories from 2007 drew you to that particular era? 

Lindsay Ellis: Originally the novel started as just a pitch: what if Julian Assange found out that there were aliens and leaked that information? Sort of a cute thought experiment that I kind of came up with, which leads to the end of the two-party system in the United States. It wasn’t originally a period piece, obviously, because it was conceived during the Obama era when it made sense. Then when I brought the draft back from the dead in 2017, it didn’t make sense anymore. There’s no way that this narrative could take place in Trump’s America. So the solution is it’s an alternate reality. I could either have created a different president, or make it a period piece. And the reason I went with period piece was because, even now, a lot of the story that I had originally come up with didn’t make sense in the 2010s. We didn’t have smartphones back in 2007, you couldn’t just instantly Google stuff back then. Originally I was going to hit it in 2009 because that was when the Manning leaks happened. But I was listening to Spotify one day and this Tori Amos song came on, which I mentioned in the Protest Music of the Bush Era video that was called “Yo George,” and it was just so resigned and so defeated. And it just sort of was like, in that moment, that’s it. That’s the mood.

The novel started as just a pitch: what if Julian Assange found out that there were aliens?

It’s difficult, capturing the snapshot of the era, because people don’t really like to think about it. I think nostalgia for this time is going to be very strange because I don’t think we have ever been so critical of a period in history as that period. Even when you look at ‘80s nostalgia, a lot of unjust things were happening in the ‘80s. But people weren’t really admitting it at the time, at least outside of the fringe left. Only in hindsight, unless you were, for example, in the gay community seeing, oh, wow, that is actually a really unjust time to be alive. But during the 2000s, we were aware. Everybody knew, especially in the second half of the Bush administration. It was a very resigned, trapped feeling, which is part of why I had Cora’s state of being in the first chunk of the novel feeling like resigned and trapped, not just by her personal circumstance, but by the world being the way it was.

TB: Sincerity is a huge element of the novel that makes it work and makes it breathe and makes it real. 2020 feels like a desperately sincere time. This may be the first time in my adult life I can remember sincerity outpacing cynicism in pop culture.

LE: When you look at the ‘90s and the sort of irony poisoning and, like, we’re too cool for politics, but mainstream culture has now realized and accepted that apathy kills. Literally, apathy is what got us Trump and far-right reactionary movements. These elements were always burbling under the surface, but nobody took it seriously because that sort of sincerity was saved for losers and Social Justice Warriors. I think now we are allowed, and almost encouraged to embrace sincerity and stakes because, you know, we’ve seen what the consequences are for that. It’s another interesting aspect of deciding to make it an alternate history—getting to plot how our course goes differently, but also how it is the same. Some events play out differently, but other elements are going to play as inevitable.

TB: When you started the novel in 2013, did you foresee American culture taking these turns that we’ve experienced, getting to this point where conspiracy theories are choking out any chance at truth?

I think now we are allowed to embrace sincerity because we’ve seen what the consequences are.

LE: There were things that, if you had your head to the ground at the time, for example with Gamergate, you knew where our ship was headed before everybody else. I was caught in that net very early on, and no one tracking that story was surprised when history turned out the way they did. But with the conspiracy theories, even back in 2013, part of the research I had to do led me down those fringe rabbit holes. I was always concerned; I don’t want to give validation to these people. I wanted there to be a concrete division between actual journalism, whistleblowing, and conspiracy theory, and especially between journalism and conspiracy theory. With conspiracy theories, you have a conclusion and then you work your way to that conclusion, cherry-picking evidence and ignoring evidence that contradicts your conclusion. And that’s not journalism.

TB: It’s universally known at this point how crappy it is to be debuting and promoting a book amidst a pandemic. Has there been anything that surprised you as positive from debuting in this awful time?

LE: Maybe not necessarily related to the time, but the thing that surprises me the most is people saying that this book got them interested in reading again. I can genuinely say I didn’t see that coming, the comment of “generally I haven’t been interested in the books I’ve been reading because they feel like a slog and like homework. But this one was really easy and accessible and fun.” And I appreciate that. I designed it to be heavy on momentum and easy and accessible, but I didn’t know it would succeed.

TB: I definitely had the same reaction. I didn’t read it all during my pregnancy, and then it was only a few months after my baby was born that we had the pandemic hit. So I had not read a single book, after being an MFA super literary snob, for a year and a half. Then I sat and read this in maybe 24 hours, which is the first time that’s happened in years.

LE: Thank you. Reading shouldn’t be work, you know. It shouldn’t be a slog. It should be fun, just like watching television or any other form of media. I do kind of wish we had more Stephen King-ish, easy to read and accessible books being considered literary. Not light and stupid; even stone-cold bummers can be enjoyable.

TB: The novel includes many pop culture details, for example an In-N-Out burger plays a memorable role. How did you choose what details to include and how did you make them work for you?

LE: I didn’t want it to just be stuff I was into, like Cora’s musical taste was not my aesthetic at the time. But it’s also kind of fun because when I decided, like, okay, Ani DiFranco is kind of to her what Tori Amos was to me. Going back through, like, all this music that I missed in the 2000s, I was like, oh, this stuff’s pretty good. I like this Neko Case! She’s got a bright future! And that’s a funny thing about the mid-2000s, because I was at NYU, which is very snobby (I guess all colleges are). So I missed out on Panic! at the Disco and My Chemical Romance and only discovered that stuff later. 

Things have just become worse domestically over the last 13 years. It makes it hard to create a scenario that feels threatening.

TB: What is your view on the popular desire to explore alternate histories like you’ve done with Axiom’s End, even when those alternate histories are even worse than the reality we’re stuck in?

LE: I think this is why dystopias are so much more extreme than the reality we inhabit. In this book’s case, I can’t say the Axiom’s End world is going to be worse than ours because we don’t know what’s going to happen in our own world. I hope it’s worse because if it’s not, we’re in for a world of hurt in our reality. I hope that the trajectory that I come up with is, in fact, the worse of the two timelines, because if it’s not, I don’t know if I want to live here anymore, at least in this country. 

It’s also been a challenge because we have become so much more polarized and the right wing has become so galvanized; things have just become worse domestically over the last 13 years, categorically. It does make it kind of hard to create a scenario that feels threatening. It’s difficult to make it feel like a reader today would be like, oh no, not fascists! or oh no, militias! That would be awful! You know, I guess the way I’ve gone about it is to deliberately parallel things that have happened to kind of remind people what creeping fascism looks like and basically just mirroring things that have happened in the last five years in our own world. I know what’s going to happen to Cora’s world, so. I think we have a better chance in the long term without aliens.

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