I have not been able to stop talking about Illuminae since I read it. There’s something utterly captivating about Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman’s new sci-fi thriller, a YA novel told entirely through found documents. It left me clawing through the pages into the early morning hours, heart pounding in my throat. I needed to know what would happen – and I had no idea what to expect. Every turn of the page threw what I already knew into chaos and disarray.
I loved every moment.
I know I’m not the only one. Readers lucky enough to snag one of the advanced copies of Illuminae can’t stop talking about it. Can’t stop recommending it.
The praise comes after an insane amount of work by authors Kristoff and Kaufman.
“We usually start with a concept session at the pub. Amie watches me drink, and somewhere between the 4th round and catatonia, the magic happens,” said Kristoff. “We only plot about 100 pages in advance, because the story tends to evolve around us as we write. We break each scene down into a rough paragraph, outlining its job. Then we list the paragraphs in a google doc. Behold, we now have a bible.”
“From those plot sessions, we color code the G-doc to show who is writing which scene—green for me, blue for jay, orange for something we write together, eg IM conversations,” said Kaufman. “We also kept an unholy number of spreadsheets tracking ship populations, interplanetary distances, and infection percentages because we both fail at math so badly it’s not even funny anymore. The head-scratching that went on over making sure those calculations were exactly right would have both impressed and depressed our old teachers.”
Kaufman and Kristoff consulted “a bunch” of doctors, astrophysicists and computer hackers to make sure they got the details right. They wanted their “horror action romance thriller mystery,” which is how Kaufman describes it, to be factually correct.
Illuminae follows Kady and Ezra, who break up in the morning and find themselves on two separate spaceships after their planet is attacked in the afternoon. They don’t know much about what is happening, other than that the artificial intelligence system on one of their ships is damaged and that the enemy is still stalking them through space, intent on destroying them all.
Oh, and those running the ships that Kady and Ezra are on are lying to them. And they’re going to find out the truth.
“It wasn’t like we set out to write a horror action romance thriller mystery in spaaaaaaaace,” said Kaufman, drawing out the word space like space core that appears at the end of the sci-fi video game ‘Portal 2’ – a game which Illuminae has been compared to by some readers. “We started with the idea that our protagonists would be talking largely by email, and plot points evolved piece by piece from there. And by the time we looked up, a horror action romance thriller mystery in spaaaaaaaace was what we’d written.”
“The more we brainstormed, the more we realized we didn’t need to limit ourselves to email,” said Kaufman. “We could really incorporate any document we could think of. And once we decided [the artificial intelligence system] AIDAN would be a narrator, and that its madness would physically alter the way the data appeared on the page, that gave us a license to go crazy.”
The documents in Illuminae range from the expected, with transcripts of videos and text chats, documents submitted by officials on the ship, to the surprising – artwork made from text that represent of what the artificial intelligence system is thinking, pages that list the names of the dead, dozens and dozens of names. (Avid YA readers might notice one or two of their favorite authors perished in the attack.)
“I was an art director for 12 years, so design is a little like crack to me,” said Kristoff. “When we first pitched the book, it was with a 130pg sample that I’d mocked up like we imagined the final copy would appear. So I was pretty heavily involved with the process from the beginning, and designed quite a few of the final pages myself — end of 2014, we were crunched for time on production, and it was easier to show what I wanted rather than explain it. Our in-house designer Heather Kelly is incredibly talented and amaaaazeballs to work with, and our cover designer Ray Shappell also deserves huge props.”
Both Kaufman and Kristoff have worked collaboratively before – Kaufman, in particular, is known for her Starbound series with Meagan Spooner. But their writing together is a “match made in heaven” for both of them.
“We both came in with very much the same attitude—the friendship matters above all else, always respect your collaborator, share a commitment to the best possible work—and that made it possible to hit the ground running,” said Kaufman.
“I don’t really eat chocolate, so Amie gets it all to herself,” said Kristoff. “And Amie doesn’t drink much, so I get all the hooch. VERILY, ‘TIS A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN.”
But how they wrote – how the ideas came to be – will be the last thing on readers minds when they finish Illuminae. There are too many other things to talk about. Kady and Ezra. What the crew hid in the hangar bay. The artificial intelligence system AIDAN.
“I think we at least suspected AIDAN would be a talking point,” said Kaufman, who – along with Kristoff – have been suckered into numerous conversations about AIDAN from readers already. “It asks a lot of big questions over the course of the book. And once the ‘Am I not merciful’ sequence got penned, we knew we were onto something special. Jay wrote most of what AIDAN says, and the way he tapped into the voice was incredible.”
“I suspect everyone brings a piece of themselves to AIDAN. It’s basically a god-surrogate. All seeing. All knowing. But in itself, ultimately unknowable and unspeakably cruel from a human perspective,” said Kaufman.
Illuminae releases from Knopf Books on October 20. Readers should be ready to block out the whole day to read it – and maybe several hours that night.
“Readers consume Illuminae at their own risk,” said Kristoff. “Kaufman and Kristoff take no responsibility for overload of feels, sleeplessness, irritability, manic episodes, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, or the urge to wave the book at complete strangers and demand they buy it RIGHT NAOW that may result from opening the pages.”
“All Illuminae-based injuries are the responsibility of the reader, and any fatalities resulting from the consumption of Illuminae are strictly coincidental,” added Kaufman. “No debate or correspondence will be entered into. By reading page one, you agree to these terms.”