The Outside by Ada Hoffmann
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book melds several genres into its own thing, and while for much of the story it's a slow burn, by the end I couldn't put it down. Fascinating worldbuilding mixed with an unsettling version of Lovecraftian cosmic horror (and the even more unsettling concept of quantum supercomputers mutated into humanity's gods and conquerors) and you end up with a creepy, unique, unforgettable tale.
Much has been made of this book's protagonist, Yasira Shien, being autistic (and her antagonist, Dr. Evianna Talirr, obviously is as well, though it's not as directly stated). I appreciated this, but Yasira was not the most interesting part of the book to me. Her character was well drawn, but a few of the side characters (particularly Tiv, her lover, and Enga, a totally badass, cynical cyborg) are worthy of books in their own right. The focus is mostly on Yasira throughout (with some viewpoint sections from Akavi Averis, an augmented servant of Nemesis, one of the AI Gods).
What disturbed me more than anything else were some of the worldbuilding nuances. This far future of humanity has its own new, twisted religion--supercomputers that have ascended to sentience and made themselves gods, complete with their own (patently false) history and myths. (A lot of this is revealed in the book and article snippets at the beginning of each chapter.) We don't meet any of the Gods as such, just Their creations--humans turned into "angels," chosen and modified with so much technology their brains are half organic and half silicon chips, and in the case of Enga, whose bodies are implanted with weapons that would swat a Terminator away like an insect. Ordinary humans are second- and third-class citizens, restricted in their movements and technology--they're forbidden from progressing past old-fashioned vacuum-tube style computers, for example--and treated with a smug patronization by the servants of the AIs, who think said humans should be grateful for everything the AIs have done for them. If you dare to object to this setup, you're called a heretic, and captured, tortured and terminated.
Into this uneasy status quo comes Yasira, who invents a new power source that, unbeknownst to her, links to and sucks in the titular Outside, Hoffman's version of the Lovecraftian mythos--an extradimensional universe full of myth, monsters, and metaphysical concepts of time and space (time and space, along with everything else, is "lies," according to Evianna Talirr, a motif repeated through the book). The Outside was first discovered by Yasira's mentor Dr. Evianna Talirr, who disappeared three years ago. After the Talirr-Shien reactor malfunctions and destroys the space station where it was built, Yasira is dragged into the quest to hunt down Dr. Talirr, who has evidently been facilitating increasingly dangerous Outside incursions to further her own agenda.
The story revolves around Yasira's pursuit of Evianna Talirr, and the slow reconstruction of her character, as she comes to question everything she has been taught to believe. This is a slow, deliberate progression, befitting Yasira's character. I like Yasira and Evianna well enough, but truthfully, I would love a prequel to this universe, showing how it came to be. How humans came to accept quantum supercomputers (and the characters know they are supercomputers, originally built by the present generation's ancestors) transforming themselves into all-seeing Gods, and the fact that after death, their consciousness and memories are harvested by said supercomputers to maintain their own supremacy and existence (and even before one's death, if you want to become a "sell-soul")--well, that would make a terrifying tale in its own right, it seems to me.
This is some of the most original worldbuilding I have ever read. I loved it. I'm grateful for this book's slower pacing, to give the reader time to absorb what's being presented. And the ending, which sets Yasira and her lover Tiv up to lead the rebellion against the Gods--well, my goodness. This book's sequel (if, as I fervently hope, there is one) will be an insta-buy for me as soon as it comes out.
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