Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, paperback novel, 599 pages, published by Allen & Unwin in 2015.
It’s the year 2575 on an icy planet in the far reaches of the ‘verse where a large corporation has set up an illegal mining operation. Here, teenagers Kady Grant and Ezra Mason have just undergone a messy breakup. That doesn’t seem quite as important when their settlement is attacked by the mega warships of a rival corporation. A few ships manage to evacuate some of the population, Kady and Ezra among them. Unfortunately the ships are damaged in the battle, leaving them unable to leap through space, and the next way-point is six months away. The pursuing battleship may not be the worst to come though, with a serious viral outbreak, a command covering up important information and an artificial intelligence unit that may just be a little crazy.
Uniquely told through a compilation of interviews, emails, instant messaging logs, security camera transcripts, memorandums, and the artificial intelligence unit’s records, Illuminae is extremely creative. The contents are made to look as if they could be part of a file about the destruction of Kerenza and the pursuit if its three ships, the Alexander, Hypatia and Copernicus. This is supported by interesting graphics and different formats and text for different styles of documents. It is cleverly done and really suits the tone of the book.
I found the story both intriguing and compelling, reading through it in just a couple of days. There was a lot going on within the book. First, Kady and Ezra have parted on less than amicable terms, but with everything different after the attack, they may have a chance to at least be friends again. Then there are the conditions on the ships, cramped quarters, jobs to do, and the command keeping secrets from the general population. Kady becomes increasingly interested in what it really happening, and begins hacking various parts of the ships’ records and communication channels. She’s searching for the truth, but what she finds isn’t good. The effects of the viral infection is quite disturbing. Within such a confined space, it was inevitable for such an infection to spread rapidly, but the way it distorts its victims is horrifying. And the way the artificial intelligence unit, AIDAN, reacts is even more horrifying! It makes some decisions that are difficult to comprehend, all for “the good of the fleet”. AIDAN has so much control over the ship Alexander, giving it power without any of the compassion and compromise that humans use to make decisions and draw conclusions. There is a lesson in there about dependency on artificial intelligence… might it ever be able to adapt to leave the restraints of its human creators behind? And what consequences would that bring about?
There were a lot of characters too, but Kady is the lead. She is unconventional, intelligent, courageous and loyal. I felt like I was riding the roller-coaster alongside her, feeling her triumphs and her defeats. A complex and well developed character whose story I enjoyed immensely. Ezra was also well developed, though I didn’t feel like I got to know him quite as well. The other main character was really AIDAN, despite it being man-made code and programming, AIDAN was very much alive during this book. At first I disliked it very much, and wondered how humans could get to the point of putting their lives so squarely in the hands of such a program. As the story progressed and I got to know AIDAN better, it became increasingly clear that this was a human creation beginning to form something akin to humanity within its programming. It was scheming, cunning and deceitful, but the way it came to care for and protect Kady made it seem so human, I couldn’t help but feel for it.
Illuminae is suitable for upper high school students and up. There is plenty of violence, some of it rather graphic, and adult themes. Any foul language has been blacked out, but I easily filled that in as I read. The story had an air of space zombie apocalypse, with a dose of futuristic crazy for good measure. These are some of my favourite genres, and to have them all mashed together was awesome, it just worked in a way I couldn’t have forseen. An amazing, engaging, and sometimes scary or sad book told in a unique way that will be hard to forget, Illuminae is a must read for young adults and fans of science fiction.