“So here’s the file that almost killed me, Director.”
Kady Grant lives on Kerenza, a planet on the outskirts of the civilized universe. When she goes to school on January 30, 2575, she’s feeling bummed as hell because she had to dump her boyfriend, Ezra. But she’s about to get a whole lot more bummed, because Beitech, a big old corporation, decides to roll up in there with their space ships and bomb the hell out of her entire settlement. She and Ezra manage to escape onto two different ships. They are the lucky ones, OR ARE THEY?????!!!! Because ladies and gentlemen, this is the story of a band of survivors fleeing through space as stuff gets from bad to worse to worse than worse, all written in various forms of communication (emails, chat logs, diaries, etc.) and images.
First of all, wow. Just…wow. I was very reluctant to read this because I’ve read ttyl and it just wasn’t my thing. But this, THIS, is just…wow. Kaufman and Kristoff have accomplished something truly spectacular with Illuminae. They’ve put together a complex, horrific and occasionally profound story that, despite the lack of a cohesive format, flows like the god damn Niagra: with roaring and maybe a bit of spray and mist. It took roughly five pages for me to be completely hooked; reading the story via direct communication makes the nightmarish story all the more immediate and gripping. I can’t remember the last time I read a book so furiously; I even put off going to the bathroom because I didn’t want to stop reading. I wish, for the sake of my dignity, that I was using hyperbole here, but it’s true. I held my pee for a really, really long time all in the name of Illuminae.
This book has, almost literally, everything. It blends together some standard science fiction tropes in the form of space war, crazy artificial intelligence, and a zombie-ish contagion to create something truly horrific in its splendor. This book is what would happen if the desperation of Battlestar Galactica, the claustrophobia of Aliens, that terrifying blood orgy from Event Horizon, and the contagious monster element of every zombie movie ever all decided to do cocaine together. The building tension is unrelenting to the point of discomfort. This story doesn’t just stick in your imagination, it sinks into your bones. I had to force myself to put it down a few times at night because I knew I’d never be able to sleep otherwise, both due to never wanting to stop reading and my nerves becoming taught as a violin string.
I was unprepared for just about every element of this book, but I was especially unprepared for how dark it is, in every sense of the word. It’s incredibly violent and disturbing, yes, but even the malfunctioning, insane artificial intelligence controlling one of the ships is basically roboticized doom and gloom, which I freaking LOVED. I am spoiling things a bit here, but basically in the battle to escape Kerenza the AI gets damaged, and the war blows it takes turns it into an introspective existentialist willing to murder thousands of people for the greater good. The passages from AIDAN’s point of view are chilling in their bleakness and ache with profound loneliness. The tone of roughly the entire book is one of gargantuan feats of bravery in the face of absolute hopelessness. It is, in short, incredible.
I could go on, and on, and on about how much this book knocked me clear out of my boots. I haven’t been able to shut up about it since I picked it up. I’ve been having nightmares about it. I can’t stop thinking about it now that I’m done. I’d almost say I can’t wait to read it again, but I need to let my heart rate return to normal first. This one’s a game changer, people.
And now Nikki will rave about the audio book experience.
This review should probably begin with an open letter to the Illuminae marketing team. What the fuck is up with that fucking Goodreads summary? Why the fuck did you make this book sound like it was going to be some eye-rolly teen romance that I would hate? W-h-y—-? HOW COULD YOU BETRAY THE BEST SCIENCE FICTION I HAVE READ IN YEARS WITH THAT KIND OF MARKETING YOU FOOLS?
So I wasn’t going to read Illunimae. But then there Erika was, on Goodreads, saying she’d just started it, and there I was, in December, reading through some of the year’s most hyped books. I got my hands on the audio book, and I began. It was only a few days later, when I asked Erika how the paper book was showing curse words and whether they were bleeped out on the page as they were in the audio, that I learned that Illuminae is a highly visual book. It shouldn’t work as an audio book. But it does, oh it does. In fact, if you are the kind of person who sees the weird (wonderful) visual shit going on on the pages of the paper Illuminae, I recommend you turn to the audio because it is fucking fantastic.
I fell in love with Illuminae just as deeply as Erika, and I am really fucking glad that she started this review because I barely know how to express my feelings for this book outside of throwing keywords at it (moody AI! apocalyptic invasions! corporate asshattery! conspiracy! space battles! hacking! plague! deliciously fucked up plot twists!), drooling, blubbering, and putting it on best-of lists.
Instead, I will zoom in on the audio book experience. As Erika mentioned, the story is told via a collection of documents and in order to mirror that the audio is done with cast of 20. Olivia Taylor Dudley and Johnathan McClain (as Kady and Ezra, respectively) fucking KILL it, particularly Olivia Taylor Dudley. No weak links in this chain. (HOLY SHIT: I just found out that Olivia Taylor Dudely is playing Alice in the upcoming television adaptation of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. Yeeeees.)
Illuminae is a dark story, a fucking harrowing story. Not my usual “listen to this while you’re falling asleep” audio fare, but “listen to it every spare second you have as you are forced through every imaginable emotional experience” fare. I couldn’t put it down, I did everything with my headphones in my ears so I could keep listening, and I finished the 15+ hour story in several days. It is gorgeous and devastating and just holy shit, holy holy shit.
However, one thing annoyed me greatly, a thing I cannot tell you about because spoiler law. This thing annoyed me so much that I couldn’t give it the five-star rating that 98% of the book deserved. It was perfect. And then it wasn’t, and I wept for what felt like the destruction of the best science fiction story of this generation with fucking sequel bait. Motherfujklsjlcsmdlse. But it wasn’t enough to stop me from loving this book intensely, and I will be reading the sequels, if only for an excuse to re-read Illuminae.