The Outside, Ada Hoffmann (Angry Robot 978-0-85766-813-4, $12.99, 346pp, tp) May 2019.
The Outside is Ada Hoffmann’s much-anticipated debut novel. Well, much anticipated in my circles and, I have to say, the novel lives up to its buzz. (If you take nothing else away from this review, take away that it’s well worth checking out.)
In Hoffmann’s space opera universe, artificial intelligences have become Gods. These AI-Gods don’t exist independently of humans: they require humans as a form of fuel (they take in “souls” when people die), so they’re invested in the survival of humans as a group. Their power and influence are such that they outweigh any human polity, or even any combination of human polities, and they are worshipped, loved, and feared. To challenge the gods is heresy, which attracts pretty horrendous penalties, and in order to maintain their monopoly on “godhood,” there are very strict laws about what kinds of technology humans can make and have access to.
God-technology – technology that allows FTL travel, for example – can be bought, but it’s only available at a very high cost, usually in souls and service. The gods have mortal servants, as well as no-longer-quite mortal servants – “angels” – that are bound to them.
Yasira Shien is a physicist working on cutting edge (for mortal humans) technology in the form of a new reactor. She’s the last protégée of the now-disappeared, famous (or infamous) Dr. Evianna Talirr. Talirr’s work laid the foundation for Yasira’s work on this new reactor, but after the reactor fails– inexplicably, disastrously, and with a bodycount – Yasira finds herself kidnapped by angels and threatened with the punishment for heresy, unless she can help this small team of the angels of Nemesis (led by the rather unpleasant Akavi) track down her former mentor. The angels explain that Dr. Talirr is a dangerous heretic who’s eluded them for three years. They tell Yasira that Talirr has left a trail of bodies behind her.
Dr. Talirr may have accessed the one power in the universe capable of challenging the gods – the power of Outside, which drives most people who encounter it mad. (The survivors tend to be killed off by angels, as people who may pass on the contagion.) Yasira alone might be able to understand what Dr. Talirr’s doing, and to find her, but she’s not sure whether she ought to trust the angels, and she’s equally unsure about giving Talirr the benefit of the doubt. Along with guilt over not being able to stop the reactor’s failure in time to prevent any casualties, and fear for what the angels might do to her, Yasira also misses her lover, Tiv.
Torn between different loyalties and different imperatives, Yasira’s faced with a lot of deeply uncomfortable choices. That’s before her homeworld is threatened by both the inexplicable forces of Outside and whatever the angels – and the gods – might do to prevent Outside spreading.
The Outside‘s worldbuilding reminds me a little bit of Max Gladstone’s work – both in the religious language of its high technology, which brings Gladstone’s Empress of Forever to mind, in its casting of human “souls” as god-fuel, and in its layers of worldbuilding, which recollects Gladstone’s Craft novels. It shares some approaches with Charles Stross’s early science fiction and a little bit of Elizabeth Bear’s. And, of course, the whole idea of the Outside brings Lovecraft and his reinventors into the frame – The Outside feels like a very engaged and interesting argument in some places.
There’s a whole lot of cool shit in this novel, and Hoffmann brings it together very well indeed, but beyond the worldbuilding and the weirdness, the characters stand out for me. I particularly enjoyed Yasira’s relationship with Tiv and how it influences her emotional register throughout the novel. I also enjoyed how Yasira’s autism is treated matter-of-factly by the narrative: her sensory issues sometimes complicate her interactions with the world, but they don’t prevent her from acting. Dr. Evianna Talirr is also shown as having issues akin to Yasira’s, but different. It’s not that difference that means Talirr makes different choices to Yasira when faced with moral quandaries, but her history and her experience – the experience of being an outsider from her earliest youth. (It’s easy to dislike Talirr. It’s also easy to empathise with her.)
The narrative ramps up the suspense all the way to the climax. It’s a strikingly effective one, full of high stakes and high emotions, with a satisfying conclusion and room for more stories to come.
Compellingly written, tense, and thrilling, with fascinating (and weird) worldbuilding and brilliant characters, The Outside is a fantastic debut. I can’t wait to see what Hoffmann does next.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.
This review and more like it in the July 2019 issue of Locus.
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