REVIEW: Exordia by Seth Dickinson

Last Updated on February 14, 2024

Exordia—Seth Dickinson’s latest offering to the SF/F gods—begins not with a bang, or a whimper. Instead, it begins with a Michael Crichton quote.

“The most likely consequence of contact is absolute terror.”

ExordiaOnce you flip through the opening chapters, however, you might start thinking that absolute terror is an odd description of Exordia. Indeed, it begins in a sitcom-esque manner—Anna Sinjari, Kurdish refugee and socially struggling New Yorker, ends up meeting a serpentine alien called Ssrin. Together, they learn about the human experience, with Ssrin watching the likes of Neon Genesis Evangelion to figure us out, and Anna wrapping her mind around suitably alien concepts like serendure, the bond that pulls together two beings; the same one that ties Anna and Ssrin together.

Those chapters are mere illusion; sitcom quickly gives way to existential dread as a world-spanning EMP launched by an alien invasion cripples communications and tech, along with the discovery of an alien object (designated Blackbird) within Kurdistan, precisely where Anna was born… making her a prime recruit for a US task force dispatched to investigate said object.

This investigation of Blackbird is the main driver of the story, as it inflicts untold-of horrors upon researchers working on borrowed time to figure out its secrets. It doesn’t disappoint. There are excellent portrayals of the New Weird, from mathematical alien geometries, to delightful confectioneries of body horror that feel Annihilation-esque, and yet entirely original in its method to invoke horror and disgust in the reader, to dread what the unknown might do to you.

Exordia saves its best, however, when it flips the script around, back to humanity and confronts us with our own predilections—in this case, the tendency to resort to violence as a solution, first in US foreign policy and its aftereffects on Kurdistan, but also in the reflection of alien life. In many ways, our unseen antagonists can be described as a kind of imperialist, invading state, a futuristic American invasion (something Dickinson is familiar with, from their Masquerade novels).

“We are all flawed and he knows our flaws! Only God can save us from Satan. You and I, can we be blamed for not saving ourselves?”

And speaking of humanity, perhaps the most interesting dynamic can be found in two of Exordia’s characters: Erik Wygaunt and Clayton Hunt. Erik’s need to do right regardless of the end result, vs. Clayton’s need to win at all costs (with Anna injecting a hard dose of reality into their push-and-pull dynamic) is a recurring conflict throughout the book, and no less compelling for it. Is nuclear bombardment of civilians an acceptable casualty when humanity itself is at stake? Are honorable ideals worth sticking to when the end result is total, absolute annihilation? Dickinson treats these dilemmas with the weight and gravity they deserve; if the body horror, the weirdness, the sense of dread in Exordia is the meat of the story, those trolley problems prove to be the skeleton around which they’re framed.

If there’s anything to criticize, it’s really in how thoroughly Seth Dickinson has crafted Exordia. From start to finish, it feels like every word, every term, every scientific theory was deliberately, meticulously put into place, like the concept of pink noise that’s discussed during the study of Blackbird. But it’s those theories that also become something of a distracting noise; it’s easy to get lost in all the scientific jargon that it can feel like you’re missing out on the point of the story, the why am I reading this factor—that tension from first contact, from Anna’s choices, and that of the conflict between Erik and Clayton, and how it ultimately affects the world.

Would I recommend this? Without a doubt. I think for fans of science fiction that crave substance, depth and something to ponder over the next few days, this is absolutely one to read. I’ve found that Seth Dickinson rarely creates an easy, gentle narrative experience, but every time I’ve picked up a book of theirs, it has invariably left me feeling the journey was worthwhile—and Exordia is no different.

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Andrew

Andrew

Andrew can usually be found looking for the latest recommendation in sci-fi horror. They also enjoy the totally scary game called Pokémon, where the untold terror of having a shiny Pokémon flee is peak existential horror. They also like apples and communicating through the universal medium of cat memes. You can find them rambling on Bluesky at dansemothabre.bsky.social.

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