So I have just finished reading an ARC of Exordia, the latest by Seth Dickinson. This is not as in-depth as I will write about this book, since the book isn’t out til 24 January. But I have a duty to uphold, here! So I gotta say a bit!
If you’re in this category of my website, you’ll know how deeply I became obsessed with the Baru Cormorant series. Exordia scratches every itch and then some new ones. If Baru took an elliptical path towards its subject matter, by defamiliarising and rearranging the material of history… Exordia gets straight in there.
Maybe you could call it philosophy-driven science fiction, a thought experiment about ethics. Maybe you could compare it to Arrival, but shot up with dark humour (it’s a book that could make me laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time) and real tragedy (at the core is the genocide of the Kurds in the late 80s, and the many betrayals and failures of American imperialism). It’s got a lot of action and military details, with a good few spies and soldiers as central characters, but broadly it’s one of the sharpest eviscerations of the US military and its role in the world I’ve encountered in Western science fiction.
The first two thirds or so lay out the driving, fascinating ‘what the hell is this thing’ mystery lined with all manner of juicy body horror and drama—yet the core high-concept premise is laid out almost immediately, you know what’s at stake. The last third… escalates.
It’s full of the usual meaty Seth themes, iterating on the ideas first laid out in Baru. But it’s a distinct flavour of its own. That escalation is… well, I can’t describe in detail, not while the book isn’t even out, but it’s nuts. Not just for the scale, but for how convincingly it sells concepts that if I described them straightforwardly would sound completely ridiculous.
Equally, it’s a study of a markedly diverse group of characters thrown together from all over the world, each constructed with very evident care and nuance. It goes places that so many writers would probably feel ‘damn, that’s probably way too thorny for someone like me to write about’—and yet somehow, it manages to handle it gracefully each time. Certainly, you can perhaps inevitably tell when Seth is writing from direct experience and when they are (as they used to say back in the ’10s) Writing The Other, if only through what they assume you know and what they need to explain as much as everything—and yet there are always all these telling details (the scientist cursing out R) that make these characters come alive with convincing presence and humour.
(Of course the autistic-ass lesbians are my faves. It’s not as overtly a Lesbian Book as Baru was, but there’s a strong current of gay shit.)
A few other reviewers mention Crichton, but I haven’t read Crichton, so… I’ll have to make other comparisons. But then the thing is it’s very self-aware about existing in the fabric of science fiction. This book is set in our world, not in the near future but the recent past, in the late Obama administration. A lot of the things you might compare it to (including a couple I’ve mentioned, Arrival, Crichton) will be invoked as explicit, in-character allusions as these very sharp, funny, modern people try to make sense of their crazy situation. Sometimes it feels like Tamsyn’s use of memes as texture, but it never gets overbearing. The rhythms of Seth’s prose have been refined by Baru into a powerful suite of devices to make you cackle and go, noooo, Seetttthhhhh…
It’s a fascinating blend of hard-ish scifi, with the big ideas carried by surprisingly accurate higher-mathematical technobabble, and what you could probably best call occultism: narrative and ethics and gods and mythology. Seth always tends to deflect when praised for their ability to hop between a dozen different disciplines and pull them together into one unifying story, saying that they’re just good at looking up summaries, or that they had help from the right people. Maybe so, but it works, it passes the smell test, and Seth’s real genius is their remarkable ability to tie all these big grand ideas back into the world of character and emotion.
Since this is an advance review… I gotta be careful how much I say! Usually I assume you’ve read it if you’re going to and dive straight into the spoilers and long quotes, but here I feel like I should take a little care to avoid describing too precisely the exact beats of the story. (Rest assured I will give it the thorough treatment when it comes out in full).
But, I feel like I want to say something a little more substantial. So here’s a description of the mechanism. If all you want to know is whether you should read this book, hopefully I’ve given you plenty of reasons that the answer is god, yes, do it. If you want to know more, read on.
OK, so what’s this book actually about? Like not in big themes (the trolley problem, genocide), but specifically?
The story expands on a short Seth wrote years ago called Anna Saves Them All. Like in that story, it concerns a giant alien entity, named Blackbird by the Americans; like in that story, it centres on a woman named Anna who was the victim of a twisted experiment in complicity by an Iraqi genocidaire in the Anfal genocide, her encounter with a rebel alien named Ssrin whose species is marked as evil by nature, and the constant question of sacrificing few to save many and its lasting psychic impact. But the terms of the short story are very simple, and the book goes a whole lot further, drilling much much deeper into just about everything.
One of the structuring elements of this story is essentially the trolley problem, or the Lisa scenario: situations where you have to actively kill a small number of people in order to prevent a much larger catastrophe. Several characters are defined by how they act in this situation, and a great many more by the lasting impacts of it. But rather than abstract thought experiment, this book is determined to make you see all the consequences.
Unlike the original story, we open with a kind of prelude chapter in which Anna encounters Ssrin in New York, which serves as an opportunity to introduce us to the big-picture premise. This is a universe where the line between ‘ought’ and ‘is’ has been rather muddied. We have a notion of dualist souls, distillations of agency existing on a kind of second level reality and interfacing with certain physical things like brains. This is the ‘areteia’, a layer of reality whose material is intention, decision, and stories. We’re told that this ‘areteia’ layer is intrinsically flawed, exploitable. We’re given a frame to interpret the events that will play out, the ‘seven great passions’ that the aliens consider to be universals that the areteia tries to enforce—one of which links Anna and Ssrin, acting as a kind of metafictional protection for both.
We learn about a space empire ruled by intrinsically-damned snake-headed centaurs, that has found exploits in this system, using calculated cruelty for space travel and weaponry, and a habit of ‘pinioning’ souls to make rebellion intrinsically impossible. We learn that Ssrin is here to exploit the humans to manifest a weapon that will either corrupt their absolute authority or save them all from hell. Ssrin, the rebel, wants to bring about the former, but she’s pursued by vicious, smart and endlessly cruel Iruvage, the space cop who wants the latter outcome for his species.
This opening act of the story is very funny, with an abrupt turn to the cruel at the end. Anna is an entertainingly embittered protagonist, one of the strongest narrative voices in the novel. She starts with everyday problems; she can’t keep a job, she is paranoid and pushes people away. She is sardonically unimpressed by the American institutions that struggle to digest her, and holds a fascinatingly fucked up mindset where her trauma is wrapped tightly around the idea of having a choice.
Then we reach act 2 and things really fucking escalate.
The bulk of the story takes place after two big things happen. Thanks to Ssrin, a mysterious, gigantic alien entity manifests in Iraqi Kurdistan, on top of Anna’s home village, which has now become a jineologist commune by historical accident, and starts corrupting things that come into contact with it. Also, aliens set off a bunch of nukes, causing a worldwide EMP and setting the stakes for the rest of the story.
There are a lot of nuclear detonations in this story.
So. Scientists and soldiers from (in order) Canada, Uganda, Iran and China, Russia and finally the US converge to try and figure out what the hell it is. A lot of very very nasty things happen, Roadside Picnic/SCP type shit. Many of the humans are being manipulated by the two aliens, who are both trying to secure the object while keeping themselves safe from the other.
I won’t spoil exactly what the ‘Blackbird’ is or does. Only to say that you could call it ‘post-Deep Dream horror’.
From this point the story rapidly switches POVs and timeframes. The core cast expands, first with the addition of Erik and Clayton, who are kinda the Cairdine Farrier and Cosgrad Torrinde of this story: two powerful bastards with history, who represent opposing poles of a central question. They’re childhood friends who are now linked by that time they organised a secret assassination program within the US military.
For Erik the straightforward virtue-ethicist soldier, ‘Paladin’ was a manner of extralegal execution for untouchable American war criminals; for Clayton the utilitarian spy and face of the drone program, a very alienated Black guy firmly embedded in the machinery of American power, it could be expanded an instrument of policy with a much broader remit. These two boys are united by their love of the third childhood friend, Rosamaria, who once married Clayton but ultimately cut ties with both of them in disgust when they explained what they’d been doing. They’re pretty sore about it.
Rosamaria could be called the Kindalana of this story, in a number of ways—the sexy erudite one who’s the centre of a love triangle (there’s a certain amount of Tau and Abdumasi in Erik and Clayton as well). We get her POV only a little, but her presence in the story is enormous. We encounter her through Erik and Clayton’s eyes in flashbacks, and there she functions as a bit of a vehicle for discussing how we are shaped by many overlapping and contradictory stories. Without saying too much, something really messed up happens to drag Rosamaria back into the story that she tried to leave. Sorta.
This, and so many other things, tie back to the sci-fi: much as in Baru, the ‘soul’ in this story is a kind of ‘inner law’, an overriding authority over brains, that grounds decisions. But here, it’s less of a metaphor or frame of interpretation and more an absolute fact of the universe, something that can be manipulated. The metaphysics of it can be pretty fucky.
Alongside Erik and Clayton, we have Chaya and Aixue, respectively a Filipino-Ugandan mineral prospector with a background in black hole physics, and a Chinese genius mathematician with big autisms. These are the lesbians, a butch-femme pair of them no less; they’re some of the first people to encounter Blackbird and the key to figuring out what the hell it is and does. Much of the story has two arcs evolving in parallel: the past story of Chaya and Aixue investigating the object in increasingly fraught circumstances, and the present story of what happens after the Americans arrive.
Through these two, as well, we bring in a lot of classic Seth themes about the way we relate to the big social stories. Chaya and Aixue both have complicated backgrounds, shaped by multiple cultures (Aixue studied in the States, Chaya moved to Uganda from the Phillipines), and—spoilers!!!—they are able to gain a measure of protection from some of the weird cosmic shit by leaning into the simplest stories of who they are, but of course people can’t be so reduced.
Then there’s Davoud, the Iranian fighter pilot who made a deal with Iruvage. I wasn’t initially convinced by Davoud, since he seemed a little one-note (he really fucking loves planes), but he definitely grew on me over the course of the story—he has some great moments, because he’s the vector for Seth to be a plane nerd.
And finally of course there’s Anna’s mum, Khaje.
If you liked the scenes of Baru’s mum in Tyrant, you’ll probably have a great time with Khaje. She has huge PTSD after what Anna did, regarded with pity as something of the town drunk, but she’s a potent narrative force, and the main POV Kurdish character besides Anna. A number of chapters end with a character pointing a gun at another’s head and firing (with various consequences), and the very first instance is Khaje pointing one at Anna. If Anna’s ‘story’ is about biting the bullet and sacrificing others, then living with the consequence of that choice, Khaje’s story is about trauma, protectiveness and self-sacrifice. Khaje is standoffish towards the others in her village, but also willing to go to all sorts of lengths to protect them when the world shows up, yet again, with bombs. Khaje remains in contact with Ssrin for much of the story, carrying out her own little subplot which eventually ties back.
These might be the ‘main characters’ but there’s a bunch of others who move in and out of the story, often violently. If it sounds hard to keep track—it really isn’t! The story is so snappily paced and the characters so distinctive that I never had trouble remembering who was who.
Eventually of course they figure out what the deal is with Blackbird. At this point the story shifts gears again, and things start going very very hard. It’s a magnificently apocalyptic action sequence, what seems like perhaps a conventional climactic battle at an insane scale—but remember, this is a Seth Dickinson book. It’s a story about what you do when there isn’t an easy out. I hope that’s not saying too much.
In some ways, I can see what Seth was getting at by saying this was supposed to be a ‘fun’ book in between instalments of Baru—but Seth is Seth and Seth can’t help complicating things, it’s their ‘inner law’ manifesting. I am reminded a bit of Seth’s writing for the game Destiny, notably the Books of Sorrow which also featured galactic conquerors motivated by the nature of violence and coercion itself. In some ways this book feels like a thought experiment on the idea of an ‘evil species’, trying to draw out what that would actually mean. Ssrin and Iruvage’s people are branded “evil” on a cosmic level, their instinct is towards coercion—there are some very funny parts in the opening act where Ssrin gives her dismissive assessment of humans. And Ssrin is definitely not simply ‘the good alien’, even if her counterpart will happily monologue about how much he loves genocide—she’s trying, but more ruthless even than Anna or Clayton.
Because their nature is so extreme, because they are in large part narrative devices the two aliens remain fairly opaque to us readers. We only get hints towards their world, filtered through an imperfect translator that’s prone to coming up with neologisms. (The book mostly translates everything the characters say into English, but occasionally will include passages of untranslated text when the POV character wouldn’t understand it.) But what is evident is that they’re smart. They want things and they come up with nasty, convoluted schemes to get it. The role of these aliens is essentially that of the wizard: their purposes are occult, their visions are grandiose, and their morality severely askew from human norms. In this way they sidestep a lot of the radioactive associations of an ‘evil species’.
And of course, by collapsing the ‘is-ought’ barrier, we get to question what exactly the ‘Cultraic Brand’ represents. The ‘souls’ may be a crystallisation of decisions, pushing most of all towards consistency, but by bringing them into something with direct causal effect, it pulls the ‘areteia’ from ‘ought’-land to ‘is’-land in disguise. Empiracally, the aliens provoke automatic reactions of loathing, and have gone through many cultural eras that ended up in imperialism; but they are clearly not fated to ‘only do evil’. Ssrin herself is a defector. She may claim to be ‘objectively’ evil, but… well, I guess this is something to dig into at length later, when the book is out and I can quote it.
What’s very funny to me is that, so far as I know, Seth does not really watch anime. Because I think this novel is anime as fuck. Sure, Evangelion gets mentioned by characters, twice, and that’s relevant as both a similar scale of cosmic scifi and the paradigmatic ‘sekaikei’ where the small-scale interpersonal relationships are the fulcrum of cosmic events. (Yes yes, I know a lot of people think sekaikei is a meaningless category.) But what I think of is equally the grail confronting Kiritsugu with his nature in Fate Zero, the lotus-eater dream of the Anti-Spirals, Bondrewd’s instrumentalisation of affection, the final stage of Revue Starlight. It’s kind of the abstract, structural stuff—the way the story unfolds into a spiral of causality, the deployment of a flashback at the climactic moment.
[I also think, at points, of Homestuck and its ‘ultimate’ versions of characters. Perhaps that’s a theme to elaborate on later. (…I suddenly recall once telling Seth that Homestuck was a true gesamtkunstwerk. They replied ‘excuse you’.)]
There’s a lot to draw out of this book. The mathematics alone could take several articles. The different ways it depicts military power. The story it tells about the Kurds, whose tragedies and resistance are invoked throughout this novel, who look on ideology from various angles. The tour of historical atrocities it invokes, large and small.
In the acknowledgements, Seth thanks sources from academic articles to Discord servers which helped them with everything from translation and cultural accuracy to black hole physics. It paid off. There was really only one point in the story where I was like ‘that’s a technical error’ (an incorrect description of ferromagnetism and induced current, but not a mistake that had bearing on the plot)—and while I can’t tell how it would come across to a Kurdish, Ugandan, Chinese, Russian or Iranian reader, I can recognise the effort that has gone into the depiction. Everyone in the geopolitical clusterfuck is rendered understandable.
And true, it is a story by an American and it is America that the story shines its most critical light on, but it is very careful, noticeably so, to avoid making Americans the protagonists of reality, or let them off the hook for anything. The characters all come alive, fleshed out and funny little bastards that break free of the cage of anthropologycore they could have been reduced to. Instead, it is the efficient, sociopathic American operators who feel like bugs on a plate.
The most mysterious character, the Blackbird itself, as the item so much of the plot revolves around—well, it’s absolutely intriguing. Hard-ish science fiction (which this sort of is, and sort of isn’t) must paint itself into the gaps of known science, make story-important connections out of things that are almost certainly mere coincidence in the real world—and this story manages it with aplomb. Considering that a reasonable chunk of the story involves a mathematical physicist making a discovery that unifies disparate branches to reveal the fingerprint of an unknown logical force, considering it touches on branches of maths like fractals that attract a lot of woo, that’s no mean feat. I’ll say much more about that when the book comes out lol.
Some of the allusions flew over my head. Names of actors, stuff like that. But I could generally infer what was being suggested by an invocation, even if I didn’t know the source, so it was never a speedbump. And the times I did catch it, it definitely cracked me up—oh, of course the phone password is 0451, just slip that one in there. I laughed so many times in this book, Seth has such a talent for deadpan lines and characterisation that is just too perfect. There is a phone call scene towards the end of the book that is just brutally tragic and simultaneously so goddamn funny, I think I was in a superposition. Seth has developed such a sharp sense of cadence in prose. The most noticeable device is to end a section or chapter with one short, declarative simple sentence describing something huge and dramatic, then cut.
And it was so absorbing to read: it felt right. Knowing how thoroughly Seth edits, I can see the effort paying off. When I read this book, when I got a chance to slip back into Seth’s worldview, I felt a sense of connection: finally someone who thinks in a way that I can connect to, finally somewhere I can slip inside to be less alone. The web of connections that build into meaning here, look, I get to see it again. The questions it’s struggling towards, the determination to avoid easy outs. It’s here again. Come and taste it.
All in all. Seth did it again. I’m hooked. God, I hope there’s a sequel after Baru 4 is done. It is simultaneously set up to angle towards a sequel and also—well, let’s say that it rules out the idea of book 2 looking anything similar. So I can only imagine.