A good villain can make or break a book—think of The Silence of the Lambs‘ Hannibal Lecter, Heart of Darkness‘s Colonel Kurtz, or even Harry Lime from The Third Man.
The Outside, Ada Hoffmann’s deeply weird space opera debut, has an excellent one.
Eviana Talirr is a force of nature from page one, her presence felt from the plot’s inciting incident, during which a reactor tears a hole in reality, all the way to the final pages, which take place within her unusual lair, a place where the laws of the universe are bent and broken. While the book has plenty to recommend it—a refreshingly realistic depiction of neuro-atypical conditions, a vast universe ruled by capricious AI gods, a threat with the power to literally reshape all of existence—it’s all anchored to Eviana, whose presence and complexity send this mindbending work of sci-fi suspense careening off on a cat-and-mouse chase throughout the galaxy.
Within days of turning on her revolutionary new reactor aboard the spaceship Pride of Jai, chief scientist Yasira Shien receives a peculiar energy reading and a message from her former colleague, Dr. Eviana Talirr. Moments later, the reactor rips a hole in reality and the Pride is destroyed. The accident brands Yasira a heretic against the artificial minds that are the Gods of her universe—a group of quantum-computing AIs who achieved sapience and now rule over human civilization—and puts her in the custody of an undercover investigative “angel.”
Eviana has been experimenting with dangerous forces, using her talents in physics to open up portals to something known as “the Outside,” where terrifying abominations exist outside the known universe, and the Gods wish to stop her before something horrible happens. As Yasira was the only of Eviana’s pupils who hasn’t gone insane, she finds herself pressed into service to hunt down her former mentor and deliver her to judgement. The mission leaves her torn between the repressive theocracy of the Gods and the destructive anarchy unleashed by her one-time mentor. But as Eviana’s experiments grow riskier and more devastating, Yasira might have to make a choice that will determine the fate of the whole of the universe.
As much of the story centers around the search for Eviana Talirr, it only makes sense that she be as memorable a villain as possible. Here, The Outside delivers: From the jump, the chapters alternate between the unfolding plot, stories of the Gods, and Eviana’s own frenzied writings, which range from ranting about humans creating deities (featuring a rather odd tangent about the way humans teach rocks to eat souls), to her own heresy, to her questioning of whether reality itself might be a lie. From the moment her first enigmatic message is sent, she’s a constant pressure on the narrative, a figure just outside the reach of the Gods and their human servants, and therefore incredibly dangerous.
Hoffmann allows the tension to build and build before finally bringing Eviana onto the page, and it works as well as it does in the film Jaws, which gives us plenty of time to fear the shark before it bursts out of the water. When she does show up, the woman is every bit as intriguing (and just as unsettling) as she was made out to be—a strangely affable eccentric who demands her former colleague call her “Ev” and continually gets confused thanks to the effects of exposure to the Outside causing her to get unstuck in time. Eviana is far more complex than the average villain hellbent on releasing eldritch horrors, and while that mask of the cheerful scientist slips as the book nears its conclusion and she reveals how completely her experiments have broken her, it always feels like there’s an underlying reason for how she ended up that way—even when she exhibits relentless enthusiasm for warping reality and melting the minds of everyone around her.
The success of the novel is partly due to Ada Hoffmann’s skill at portraying her characters’ neuro-atypicality. It’s clear from the start that both Yasira and Eviana have autism-spectrum conditions at the very least—the nervous tapping, Eviana’s verbal tics and flat affect, the hyperfocus Yasira displays when something is just out of joint enough to bother her—but they aren’t the sole defining traits of the characters. It’s clear there’s more going on with Talirr than just her cognitive processes, and indeed her refusal to understand that what she’s doing will cause more harm than good is the conflict that drives most of the book. So often, disorders of this nature are used either as a superpower or to add color to an “off-kilter” baddie; it’s wonderful to see two characters who deal with neuro-atypical conditions (or in Eviana’s case, don’t), yet who are in no way completely defined by them.
With its vast setting, compassion for its characters, and an incredible mad scientist at the center of it all, The Outside is a science-fiction suspense novel like no other: unusual and twisty, a delicate balance of suspense, space opera, and cosmic horror.
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