Genre : Science Fiction
Publisher : Angry Robots
Length : 400 pages
Format : eARC
Rating : 4 stars
Publication Date : June 11th 2019
ISBN : 9780857668134
Autistic scientist Yasira Shien has developed a radical new energy drive that could change the future of humanity. But when she activates it, reality warps, destroying the space station and everyone aboard. The AI Gods who rule the galaxy declare her work heretical, and Yasira is abducted by their agents. Instead of simply executing her, they offer mercy – if she’ll help them hunt down a bigger target: her own mysterious, vanished mentor. With her homeworld’s fate in the balance, Yasira must choose who to trust: the gods and their ruthless post-human angels, or the rebel scientist whose unorthodox mathematics could turn her world inside out.
The world of The Outside is, at least at first glance, a pretty typical space opera world. Humans have colonized all sorts of planets; they are able to travel between those different worlds by using portals. However, those portals, as well as most of the advanced technologies available, are under the strict regulations of the gods. The gods are basically ascended artificial intelligences that have control over the world. To maintain that control, they need humans and more precisely: they need their souls. When you die, your soul gets absorbed by the god who suits you the most. In the worst-case scenario: that god is Nemesis, the one in charge of criminals and heretics – people whose beliefs are undermining the gods’ rule.
This notion of heresy is central to the world of The Outside and it is very reminiscent of Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire. The reality and people’s beliefs are tightly intertwined. To keep a leash on reality, the god’s have to closely monitor heresy. A lack of control can lead to odd phenomenon and disturbances caused by a power called the Outside: a force that has the ability to challenge and overrule the gods.
Dr Yasira Shien is a young scientist in charge of an ambitious project: the Tallir-Shien reactor. This is the first human-constructed reactor of that scale and, because of how important it is, the construction is closely supervised by the gods. Before the launch, Shien has a feeling that something is amiss with the reactor and she tries to stop the project. However, it’s too late and, just as she predicted, something goes wrong during the launch, causing the death of many people.
Devastated and sure that she’s the cause of the accident, Yasira is arrested by angels – augmented humans who serves the gods. They tell her that her only way to redemption is to find the real culprit. Indeed, they inform her that the science used to run the reactor is in part heretical and caused the accident. However, most of the mathematics equations are not Yasira’s but originated from her mentor: Dr Evelina Tallir. Tallir disappeared a few years ago, leaving Yasira to finish the reactor with the help of her work.
Yasira doesn’t have a choice: she has to find her mentor to prove her innocence: to the gods and to herself.
Yasira is autistic and I think it’s my first time reading about a character openly described as such in a science fiction book. I really liked how the representation of Yasira’s condition was handled: she wasn’t reduced to her disability. However, even if in this world gender, sexuality and race are not causes of discrimination (we are introduced to Yasira’s girlfriend Tiv pretty early on in the book), a lot of people treat her like a madwoman because of her autism.
This notion of madness caused by mental health, created a very interesting parallel between Yasira’s perceived madness and the madness created by the Outside. Indeed, most people exposed to the Outside go mad and start doing heretical things. However, in both cases, the perceived madness is not, in fact, madness. It was fascinating to learn more about the Outside induced madness as the story moved along. I really liked how Hoffmann slowly revealed more and more about the Outside and its effects on people.
I also really enjoyed how the two sides, Tallir and the gods, were both portrayed as pretty terrible. Yasira can either choose between her former mentor, a woman who probably knowingly caused the death of hundreds if not thousands of people, and the gods – who probably did even worse. In the end, even I, struggled to choose the lesser evil of the two.
However, even if I’m having a lot of fun writing this post now and that I can really admire how clever this book is, I have to say that I struggled a bit while reading The Outside. It’s not the book’s fault, but I started it right at the beginning of my reading slump back in June. It took me four months to read and it obviously affected my enjoyment of the story. Having said that, it’s an objectively very good and ambitious debut: it has a lot of strong points and clever ideas so I would still highly recommend it. I’ll definitely be reading other stories by Hoffmann.