The Outside

by Ada Hoffmann

I don’t often read books on my phone. I don’t like how small the screen is, and I don’t like how easy it is to get distracted by something else. Every so often, though when the book is really really good, I can swing it, for a little while.

I read The Outside completely on my phone.

The Outside, Ada Hoffmann’s debut novel, is a space opera set in a future where nearly-omniscient quantum supercomputers rule over humanity as Gods. As Gods, they’ve tapped humanity’s skill in mythologizing and given their denizens a complex society full of angels, priests, sell-souls, and the after-life, but they hoard any actual computing power to themselves, leaving only basic tube-powered machines for humans. There’s a bit of backstory to this political situation in the novel, but it’s mostly relegated to the background. The main plot of the book deals with questions that even the Gods can’t answer.

The novel opens with Yasira Shien, a recently-graduated engineer, as she oversees the final construction on a self-sustaining human-made fusion reactor designed by herself and her doctorate advisor, Dr. Evianna Talirr — who’s mysteriously disappeared. While Yasira feels a deep sense of dread surrounding the entire operation, she chalks it up to nerves and anxieties related to her autism and ignores them. Until, a little while after the reactor is switched on, it unleashes a massive amount of energy from a mysterious, Eldritch zone called Outside that destroys the station and kills everyone inside.

Suddenly, Yasira finds herself recruited by one of the Gods to find out as much as she can about what they call heretical science and the effects of Outside. The resulting quest is part horror, part cat-and-mouse game, part revolution, and completely engrossing. I know it’s a cliché, but I could not put this book down until the end, and even then, I held onto the world as best I could, savoring it.

Hoffmann has managed to tell a story that’s equal parts Foundation and Call of Cthulu, with a richly-imagined future technobiologic society that still feels deeply human and flawed. At the same time, she manages to portray non-neurotypical characters, and to advocate for them, while avoiding cliché or concern trolling. I was really impressed with this novel, which is Hoffmann’s debut, and I’m eagerly awaiting a sequel, or at least a further exploration into the galaxy she’s come up with.

Hoffmann has written about how she developed two of the main characters on her blog, and it’s a really interesting story about how they arose from D&D villains.