Friday, July 19, 2019

Microreview [book]: The Outside by Ada Hoffmann

Ada Hoffmann’s The Outside is an extremely successful fusion of Space Opera and Lovecraftian motifs to tell the story of AI Gods, Angels, and an autistic engineer co-opted into an interdimensional conflict.

Thousands of years in the future, humanity has spread out to the stars and has a presence on numerous planets. However, in getting to an interstellar civilization, humanity managed to accidentally create a set of superhuman AIs who, like the old short short story stinger (“Now there is a God!”) decided to transcendentally become Gods. With a strong hand on human culture by means of their augmented humans known as angels, these Gods watch over humanity, especially when they meddle with extra dimensional forces that threaten to undo reality.

Enter Yasira Shien, whose new reactor is unwittingly set to do just that. Yasira will find that the price of doing this is not death, but rather being tasked to find someone who is working with these forces deliberately--her former mentor. Her former mentor is a threat to reality, and Yasira is the best tool for the job of finding her. But Yasira may find that the ruthless angels are less trustworthy than the woman seeking to broach the walls of reality.

This is the story of Ada Hoffmann’s debut novel. The Outside.

The world that Hoffmann creates in the novel is intensely rich and interesting. Although the action is relatively limited in where it takes place, there are plenty of implied and referenced locations, cultures, and elements that give it a feel of a well designed universe. There are a number of different planetary cultures, a few aliens, interesting bits of technology (including a division between technology that humans have, and the technology only the Angels and Gods have) and plenty of spaces that feel lived in and real. There are a few references to the Mythos here, too, but Hoffmann keeps a relatively light hand on that. 

And then there are the theological aspects to her universe Mixing religion and space opera convincingly into a novel is a tricky task that few authors attempt with any sort of rigor. Herbert’s Dune is far less common than much more sterile rationalist space future, or futures where religion feels perfunctory and tacked on. Perhaps it is because of the nature of the AI Gods and their very Olympian God meddling into daily life, but the theistic aspects of Hoffmann’s universe feel organic and tied to the setting. But of course AIs afraid of contamination of the Outside would be watching scientific research, and intervene when such research threatens the stability of all and sundry. A hierarchical bureaucratic vision of servants of various Gods? Yep, that really feels how “it would go”. Yasira’s girlfriend Tiv (short for Productivity) is a genuinely devout character whose faith and belief is treated with respect. And while movies like Event Horizon do nibble at the idea of using Lovecraftian motifs in space, this novel runs with that idea. The Outside is no less dangerous and threatening in an interstellar civilization of high technology. And the novel also makes clear in the building of this world just exactly why, after becoming Gods, why these AIs still bother with humans instead of going off and ignoring their creators.

The novel also gets a lot of good love for its characters, especially its nuanced and sympathetic depiction of neurodivergent characters. Yasira is autistic, and I found her as a protagonist relatable, grounded, believable and extremely interesting. Her neurodivergent nature is not just there for plot reasons or for color, it is crucial to understanding her and with her as one of our major point of views, we really get a sense and feel of how an autistic character might thrive and act in a weird and wondrous future. Unlike, say, Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark, which also revolves around an autistic character and a potential cure for it, the future that Hoffmann posits has standard and well accepted practices and techniques for autistic characters to adapt to society. Yasira is not the only neurodivergent character, either, as her mentor (and antagonist) also shows neurodivergence. And then there is Enga, one of the more martially inclined Angels, who has a speech deficiency which is compensated with her using a speech to text device. She’s ferocious, unrelenting, sometimes dryly funny and definitely someone I’d rather have at my back in an alley rather than the other side. 

The other characters in the novel come off very well, too. The angel Akavi, head of the angel team under the Goddess Nemesis that takes Yasira into custody, comes across as a more than a little charismatic Lawful Evil angel with goals, plans and drives of his own. He’s hardly autonomous, though, and has to report to hierarchies above him, leading him to have to make sometimes unorthodox and bold choices--as well as frankly evil and unappetizing ones. Having him for point of view does allow us to see his point of view, and he also provides a lot of mental infodumping on some of the aforementioned worldbuilding.

With a rich, inventive world and characters to populate it, the plotting of the novel shows a few signs of first novel lack of polish. I am very impressed otherwise with the novel and would be definitely amenable to having a follow up novel or other novels set in the universe that the author might write. More, please. 

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for excellent and inventive worldbuilding
+1 for a strong set of interesting characters, especially the neurodivergent. 

Penalties: -1 for a few first novel bits of roughness in plotting

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 well worth your time and attention

Reference:  Hoffmann, Ada  The Outside  [Angry Robot 2019]

Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.