Cover of Illuminae by Amie Kaufman, featuring an orange explosion with some parts whited-out as if censored.
Illuminae

THIS BOOK IS ABOUT ZOMBIES IN SPACE.

Not really, I mean, there a lot more going on than that in this ambitious book. But nothing gets people’s attention like zombies in space.

Presented as a dossier of IM, email, video, transcripts, diary entries and more, Illuminae is a modern epistolary novel. This format can be cumbersome, but author Amie Kaufman finds cool and unique ways to liberate her story.

She doesn’t simplify things for the reader either. The story opens with Kady Grant and her ex-boyfriend, Ezra Miller, describing their escape from the attack on the planet Kerenza. Ezra and Kady are two of thousands of refugees. Countless more have already perished, and the perpetrators of the Kerenza attack are hot on the trails of the refugee space ships. The three refugee ships have to make it to the nearest jump hole (6 months away) before they are caught. And then a sickness begins to spread.

Let’s see how it stands up to the Scale:

Not offensive to women = 0/1 pt

There were a few lines throughout that threw me out of the story because they were problematic. Ezra in particular was guilty of comments about his girlfriend Kady. While some of his comments could be chalked up to stereotypical teenage boy dialogue, to prevent normalizing this, I have not awarded points here. It’s the future. No more locker room talk.

Features a woman as the main protagonist and/or supporting character = 2/2 pts
Passes the Bechdel-Wallace test = 3/3 pts

Easily passes Bechdel-Wallace test and similar tests for people of color and LGBT characters. Kady Grant is the main character and there are many supporting women characters in many roles.

Artistic and/or Entertaining = 4/4 pts

The book is beautifully done. The format added so much to the story. It was also scary as hell. I keep thinking of deranged “zombies” stalking the spaceship, screaming “DON’T LOOK AT ME!” The story was dark and the material was handled well.

I’m not sure “fun” is the right word for a book with so much death in it, but it was intriguing and enjoyable. Not everything worked 100% (for example, Kady was a blah whitebread Strong Female Character) but I loved the ambition.

Above and Beyond General Media = 4/5 pts

Illuminae had a large cast of characters of greatly diverse origins. A huge swath of sexualities, races, and genders were represented–no mean feat. These characters were represented at all levels of power, intelligence, bravery. They were killed indiscriminately by the author. It was great.

But it wasn’t perfect. Kaufman chose not to reveal the race of any character in her book. We can make guesses based on names, but the author does not invite this speculation. To her, it clearly does not matter. To me it does matter. To me, true representation meanings calling your black characters black and describing their features. This is done once, with a Chinese character. We get glimpse into life in the broader world (one Indian-named character hopes the children “learn our old traditions”) but main characters Kady and Ezra live in a clearly Western world. Despite the diversity all around them, it’s clear American-style culture has enveloped all. All this cultural mixing and Kady and Ezra have no distinct differences from any American teen on 2017 Earth? What gives?

I see what the authors wanted to do by showing a diverse world, but it didn’t go far enough for me. The story still centers on a heterosexual couple (and heterosexual unrequited love) with a least one white person in it (Kady, the MC). There’s nothing wrong with that. But for a book that takes such risks elsewhere, it didn’t go far enough for me. Who cares how “diverse” the future is if we’re all going to end up the same?

The number thirteen in a Venus symbol

Overall: 13/15 on the Scale.

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