Today is International Women’s Day which mean I would have ideally been able to write my post from yesterday today. I don’t want to get too ranty feminist but it’s fucking brilliant that we’ve got to a stage where a classic, male-lead film can be rebooted starring some fantastic female comedians. Yet, it still riles me that women are accused of being unable to cope with taking the lead in an action based narrative. You may have seen several sexist YouTube comments claim that women just aren’t suited to playing the action hero. I mean whoever heard of a women kicking ass and taking down dangerous enemies? Oh, yeah except all those women on screen and in books who are constantly doing just that. One of the all time greatest female action heroines has to be the great Ellen Ripley of Alien. Sigourney Weaver basically paved the way for strong women to play the hero rather than the victim. Thankfully, that practice is on going and YA fiction is always attempting (and failing) to replicate her. Latest YA sensation Illuminae is no different.
Illuminae is one of those books that has so much fucking hype around it that you can’t ignore it. It’s perhaps one of the most talked about YA books of recent years and has been all over Instagram thanks to its unusual format… but more on that later. The novel is set in 2575 and tracks the events directly following an assault on a planet. The planet in question is home to an illegal mining colony and is attacked by the company’s biggest rival. The limited survivors find safety on the corporations three nearby ships but their problems are only just beginning.
There is plenty of danger to add to the narrative including a psychotic AI called AIDAN, a deadly virus turning people into killers, and a huge enemy battleship getting closer by the day. It’s fairly standard science-fiction kind of affair with the traditional YA over-the-top romance thrown in for good measure. The novel is presented as a file full of official documents pertaining to the events following the assault and follow the movements of two teenage survivors; Kady, who is suspicious of the superior officers and starts investigating on her own, and Ezra, who is immediately conscripted to a unit of fighter pilots. Awkwardly, the pair broke up the day before their home was destroyed but, despite being on separate ships, find themselves missing each other.
Their conversations are included in the dossier and are as clichéd YA soppy teenagers as you’re likely to meet. These characters aren’t realistic, which I realise is a bit of a shitty thing to say about a novel set in space, They just don’t feel like real teenagers and there was never a moment when I connected with either main character. They’re just the same YA characters that reappear time after time and it’s getting dull. Strong willed female raging against the system? Gee where have I seen that before?! Whether that had anything to do with the limitations of the form or just bad writing, it’s safe to say none of the characters presented to us have any real depth. The nearest we get is the pair recovering from losing their parents. Classic YA: if you need to make your hero troubled just kill their fucking parents.
I can’t deny that Illuminae was a triumph of style and format. The idea to present the novel as a series of documents, verbal accounts, emails and visually stunning pieces of prose was a fantastic way to get everyone’s attention. However, it does present some issues with storytelling. The story doesn’t progress as fluidly as it would have in a more traditional format and there are times when the visuals make for an uncomfortable reading experience. I mean I can’t be the only one who found it overly complicated when the writing flowed around the pages meaning it was impossible to read anything at the middle of the page, can I? Whilst I was as excited as anyone by the styling of the novel, I found I tired of it incredibly quickly.
Which would have been fine is the narrative was interesting enough to counter that annoyance. However, it’s nothing but a rehash of every science-fiction trope in the book. There isn’t an original idea in this novel and it’s absolutely disgraceful. Anyone with any real knowledge of classic science-fiction will not only have seen the aspects of this narrative elsewhere but will have seen them done better. AIDAN is nowhere near as terrifying a prospect as HAL 9000. The crazy virus is nothing we haven’t seen before. The idea of people uncovering their superiors keeping secrets and fighting to uncover it is just yawn inducing at this point. The only original idea that Kaufman and Kristoff has was adding in a soppy teenage romance to add to the equation. It’s almost insulting to their many readers.
Illuminae defines the idea of “style over substance”. So much attention was given to trying to create an unusual form that very little attention was paid to the actual story. It’s a fucking patchwork quilt of science-fiction stories all knitted together into a not very clever or suspenseful narrative. It’s compelling in its own way, I’ll give it that, and the short ‘chapters’ make it easy to keep reading. However, I can’t say I was every wowed by any aspect of this story. In fact, it just made me want to watch 2001 again so I can see sci-fi executed well.