There is so much to love, so much to be challenged by in Ada Hoffman’s The Outside. It’s one of those books I immediately set about re-reading because the characters and what happens to them are so compelling. One of those characters, as I think about it, is the Outside itself, that mysterious level of reality that transcends all the categories humans use to tame and understand the everyday world.
Then there is the scientific genius, Yasira Schien, one of the few who can experience the Outside without falling apart completely, though she comes close. Yasira is autistic and has been obsessed with science since childhood, rapidly advancing through the available levels of knowledge to achieve a PhD at an early age. One of her primary tutors was another autistic genius, Evianna Talirr, who has disappeared from the worlds of this universe into the Outside.
I’m always drawn to the way science fiction can portray human consciousness when it blasts into new dimensions of existence. And The Outside definitely blasts the mind into a dazzling realm where everything is experienced in completely different ways.
Like all attempts to describe an unknowable dimension of the universe, it can’t really be done. That’s one of the reasons the great epic poets always began by invoking supernatural help to find words for the ineffable. One of the initial descriptions of the Outside comes from Evianna Talirr, Yasira’s mentor, who disappears into it but comes back from time to time to help Yasira make the leap with her.
It is literally impossible to describe what I mean, what I have experienced, as the very nature of that thing is to transcend verbal concepts. … It is the most beautiful thing in the universe, and the most terrible, and the ugliest — and, of course, it is not “in the universe” at all.
The Outside, Kindle edition, p 113
So how do you put something that can’t be described at the center of your story? Hoffman does this brilliantly in a couple of ways. One, my favorite, is by capturing what happens to Yasira’s mind and personhood when she finally gets the courage to trust her instincts and touch the light that will take her into the Outside. Without giving it away, I’ll just say those passages are among the most compelling descriptions of what it’s like to go beyond the world as we know it that I’ve ever read.
The second way Hoffman approaches this is to describe the horrific effects on people and planets when the Outside intersects with the everyday world. A space station implodes, the surface of a planet is twisted into monstrous shapes, people die or go (apparently) mad.
One of the things that holds Yasira together, and sets her apart from her mentor, is her refusal to hurt anyone and the deep guilt she feels when one of her remarkable engineering creations somehow brings the Outside into her world with disastrous results. Her work is made all the harder by the fact that the galaxy is run by sentient computers that have transcended humanity and keep people in thrall.
These AIs have named themselves after Greek Gods and demand that all humans worship them. People are not allowed to have advanced technology, especially not computers, except for clunky 1950s style boxes the size of washing machines. It’s easy for people, especially someone with unlimited curiosity and engineering genius like Yasira, to fall into heresy. And anything having to do with the Outside is the biggest heresy of all. So you can see where the plot is going, but it’s made especially interesting by the enforcer “angels” chosen by the Gods to interact with humans. They are people who have implanted powerful circuitry in their brains and other parts of their bodies to give them remarkable powers.
One of these is Akavi, an angel serving Nemesis, the God charged with tracking down and terminating heretics. He makes for an interesting villain. Akavi is a shape- gender- personality-shifting angel, entirely devoid of feeling, who carries out the severest punishments on heretics. They are all intellect who can see into people’s minds and dreams and adopt a shape and personality designed to win over whoever is in their sights. And heretics can be anyone who has a thought or does something the Gods just don’t want them to do. He has been trying for some time to track down the arch-heretic, Evianna Talirr, and when Yasira’s invention triggers a disaster, he enlists her at once because she might just be able to help him get the job done.
Akavi is horribly manipulative, stripped of empathy, acting solely on logic to achieve their mission, yet also messing up enough to be on the edge of condemnation and termination by their superiors. An interesting villain with all the impersonal nastiness to use pain simply as a tool to achieve their ends, Akavi is able to shape-shift into much more appealing characters, and seems curiously solicitous about the well-being of their lieutenants.
The Outside, in addition to drawing us into a great science fiction adventure, has one of the most effective dramatizations of a character with autism that I have encountered. As someone who has written a lot about divergent mental states, this is really important to me. Hoffman does not give us an abstract discussion but a moving portrait of someone always wondering if she’s really getting through to other people, dealing with bouts of confusion and self-doubt, obsessed with her work, able to make connections that no one else can see. She has a neurotypical lover, Productivity (Tiv) Hunt, and the ups and downs in their relationship are a powerful driver of the story.
I’m only skimming some of the highlights of this remarkable novel and still absorbing the ideas that overflow The Outside. I can’t wait to get into its sequel, The Fallen. That will be up next as I get into November and SciFi Month.