‘Illuminae’ is solid, but not that illuminating


Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff is a wildly popular, bestselling young adult science fiction novel published in 2015. It centers around three main characters, one of whom is seventeen-year-old Kady. She breaks up with her boyfriend, Ezra, mere hours before their backwater and technically-illegal mining planet is attacked by BeiCorp, a manufacturing company. They and hundreds of other inhabitants of the planet escape on three ships – the Alexander, the Hepatia, and the Copernicus – while a BeiCorp ship, the Lincoln, pursues them.

Over the next several weeks, the three ships try to flee to safety as the Lincoln doggedly follows. During that time, Kady, a prodigy hacker, gets suspicious that the higher-ups are hiding something, and works to uncover the truth. Ezra is recruited as a fighter pilot and witnesses some strange events that hint at a serious problem. Meanwhile, the Alexander’s AI program, AIDAN, has been damaged in the battle with BeiCorp and is now behaving oddly.

The plot will definitely hold readers’ attention. While it does drag in some parts (mostly due to the teenage romance subplot, which becomes less and less interesting), the events that arise throughout are intriguing. There are several horrific (the YA version of horrific) scenes throughout the book, and I’m glad to say that they come off as genuinely creepy instead of cheesy. One significant plot point is a mysterious and devastating virus, which Kady and Ezra puzzle out together. The novel doesn’t do anything particularly innovative with the pandemic genre, but since the entire book is set in space the reader gets an interestingly creepy angle on the topic.

The authors have said (in an interview included at the end of my edition of Illuminae) that they worked to make the hacking and the epidemic aspects as realistic as possible. I’m sure many readers appreciate that, although I’m not knowledgeable enough about these areas to judge.

The main characters leave some things to be desired. Kady is sharp-tongued and has difficulty being vulnerable. She has some good lines – for example, she says about her diary: “if anyone reads it, I’m going to devote my life to finding a way to program every bathroom door on the Hypatia to refuse to recognize their ID.” Meanwhile, Ezra is sweet, silly, and totally gone on Kady. But while both characters could be likable, they were too generic overall. I’ve seen these sorts of characters before, in lots of other YA novels. As a result, the romance between Kady and Ezra was boring to me. I did not care about the two characters and their fate as much as the authors wanted me to.

Jay Kristoff said that he connected most with AIDAN and General Torrence of the Alexander. I must agree. I found their characters a lot more uncommon and interesting. While we see characters like Kady and Ezra in YA all the time, General Torrence was unique. Although he’s framed as one of the book’s villains, he’s still three-dimensional: he tries to work for the good of all, as flawed as his approach may be. However, because he is not one of the main characters, and because the main characters include the young, somewhat guileless Kady and Ezra, his moral ambiguity is not explored very much.

Moral ambiguity is more thoroughly explored through the character of AIDAN, who was by far the most inventive, interesting character to me. He is the AI controlling the Alexander, who starts developing a human-like conscious. While his character arc did fall into some tropes that could have been executed more creatively (e.g. What is love to an AI? What is humanity?), he was overall an interesting counterpoint to Kady’s more idealistic, relatively naive moral compass. He ended up being the one I cared most about.

One of the quirks of the book is that any and all curse words are censored in this book. There is an in-universe explanation for why this is so, but eventually it stops being cute and just gets tiresome. There are only so many times you can find “bull[CENSORED]” and “[CENSORED] you” funny and clever. It doesn’t particularly widen the audience for this book, either: there aren’t many who find profanity intolerable, but gruesome deaths A-okay.

Besides that, Illuminae’s most notable distinction is that it’s written in epistolary form, a genre most commonly defined as “written in the form of letters”. However, the genre also encompasses works written in the forms of memos, transcripts, emails, schematics, reports, and so on. Since Illuminae is set in a futuristic universe, there are no physical letters (Kady doesn’t even know what a book is!), but there are plenty of other interesting formats throughout the book.

The book does well with this format. I did feel that sometimes, the authors “cheated” and took some liberties, making it read like prose when it shouldn’t have. For example, there are some sections written in the form of mission reports that contain written-out speech, with dialogue tags and all. As a result, my immersion in the book was occasionally broken because I would think, “No one writes in their diary like that.”

Still, the authors did a good job with the format – not just using it as a quirky feature of the book, but also as a device to show more of the setting and add to the story in a way that other formats would not allow.

Overall, the book is well-plotted and holds the reader’s attention. If you tend to enjoy YA books, and have not read much science fiction, I would definitely recommend the book. It’s a good way to dip your toe into the genre. Conversely, if you have not read much YA, but tend to enjoy most science fiction you read, I would once again recommend this book: the YA style adds an interesting angle to the typical science fiction components. But if you are a hardcore sci-fi fan, or find morally ambiguous characters the most interesting, you can put this on your to-read list – just don’t expect too much.