We all know of art that has been criticized for style over substance, but what about when the style is the substance? In the young adult space opera Illuminae, Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff team up to create a marriage between text and visuals that employs an extravagant approach to art direction and book design, bridging the divide between traditional prose and graphic novels. From a storytelling standpoint, the ambition is to mimic the kind of you-are-there immediacy you’re supposed to experience watching a found-footage movie, a genre that lots of people apparently watch but no one seems to like.
Predictably, the results are mixed. The design elements, we quickly discover, are being used to prop up derivative, mediocre material. Despite that, there are a number of moments that have undeniable entertainment value, where the intent of the design manages to achieve its goal of pumping up the thrill-o-meter.
It’s the late 26th century, a time when teenagers evidently still text each other saying things like “WTF” and “LOL.” As the story opens, the remote colony world of Kerenza IV, home to an illegal mining operation, is getting the ever-loving shit bombed out of it by a rival mining corporation. We’re given no time to wonder about this curious future in which private corporations freely operate their own militaries, complete with battleships like Imperial Star Destroyers, before we are whisked away in the frantic escape of our protagonists, Kady Grant and Ezra Mason. These are, of course, your standard issue 17 year old YA protags, who, in the way of all teenagers, manage to find the time and energy in the midst of fiery carnage and death to be petulantly breaking up with each other.
Ezra and Kady escape on separate vessels, and because the refugee and the attacking vessels have had their FTL drives crippled in the firefight, a low-speed chase to the edge of the Kerenza system ensues, where the survivors hope to be able to reach a jump station and safety before being blasted into oblivion.
If everything wasn’t FUBAR enough, a plague has broken out on the main refugee ship, the Alexander. A kind of nerve agent employed by the attackers in order to pacify colonists on the ground has, for reasons to do with plot requirements, somehow morphed itself into a 28 Days Later rage virus, slowly turning crew and passengers into psychotic murder zombies. Also, because why not, the Alexander’s state of the art AI, AIDAN, has taken a few missile hits and is in the process of going mad.
I’ll give Kristoff and Kaufman a lot of credit here. This is all as silly as a YouTube video of kittens fighting each other with light sabers, but, like such videos, it’s pretty fun if you catch it in the right mood, and the authors understand the importance of raising the stakes, something that’s forgotten in novels more often than you might think. Right now I’m thinking of Sleeping Giants, a book that also employs an unconventional approach to narrative, but that sadly forgets to have anything exciting happen. And if you can manage to make it through a very rocky 200 pages at the beginning, Illuminae delivers a whte-knuckle climactic sequence when the authors finally decide to stop throwing in every idea they ever had, and focus instead on a single story thread involving Kady’s solo effort to save the refugee fleet, assisted only by the dubiously trustworthy AIDAN. The climax not only has thrills, but the authors, at last, manage to infuse the story with the emotional heft they’d been striving for all along.
Yes, there’s much about this that strains credibility, and far too often the authors clumsily take you out of the story by including way too many present-day attitudes and speech patterns and ideas for the sake of hand-holding their readers. For instance, in case it wasn’t obvious enough we’re supposed to identify AIDAN with the grandfather of all batshit AI’s, HAL 9000, Kaufman and Kristoff have Ezra just make an overt reference to 2001, a movie that, at the time this story is set, would be over six hundred years old. This is about as believable as writing a story set in 2016 in which your Typical Teenager Dialogue is dropping references to Geoffrey Chaucer.
Illuminae provided me with just about the most bipolar reading experience I’ve ever had, as the story ping-pongs back and forth from the sublime to the ridiculous with wild abandon. But in those moments in which it works — when the effort to do new and exciting things with the prose medium itself achieves results that legitimately benefit the story — it works like the veritable bomb.