Last night I finished reading Ada Hoffmann’s The Outside, a pretty strange but interesting space opera. In the far future, humanity is ruled by AI gods. Humans invented the gods, although there are hints it was more complicated than that, like maybe there was a singularity event or process of some kind. The gods now rule humanity, but are dependent on them for their survival.
Humans worship the AI gods the way they once worshiped traditional deities. The gods apparently protect and take care of humans, at least en mass, but keep mortal human technology limited, presumably to ensure that additional gods aren’t created. So humans still live in the traditional manner they always have, albeit now in an interstellar community, but when they die, their souls are consumed by one of the gods.
Yes, consumed. And this isn’t just an uploaded information type soul, but an immaterial one of some type. However, it’s one that is apparently accessible to and can be manipulated by technology. The gods depend on consuming human souls for their self awareness and creativity. Everyone knows this and apparently accepts it. There is a little indication that a consumed soul achieves some kind of immortality as part of the god, but it seems more implicit than explicit.
The gods interact with humans through priests, who often have implants installed that allow them to communicate with other agents of the god they’re dedicated to. There are also sell-souls, people who have pledged their service to a particular god. And then there are angels, long living cyborgs higher up in the hierarchy who act as agents for the god, coordinating the others in that god’s service.
There are several gods, each dedicated to particular areas. One is dedicated to knowledge, so it tends to consume the scientists once they die. There are others that consume souls with other particular talents. And then there’s Nemesis, a god that consumes heretics, as well as investigates and fights heretical thought and actions. These heresies often involve dabbling in technologies the gods have deemed dangerous. The most dangerous is anything that involves the Outside.
Exactly what the Outside might be is never clearly stated, but there’s a strong sentiment that it involves entities and energies from outside the universe. Tapping these energies can provide immense power, but it also comes with stark dangers. Apparently just observing Outside entities and processes can drive many insane. Often the processes involved get out of control and result in mass death and destruction.
The main character in this book is Yasira Shien, a young autistic woman and scientist who was once a student of another brilliant scientist, Evianna Talirr, another autistic, one with heretical leanings. Three years before the start of the story, Talirr disappeared. Yasira, finds herself as chief scientist on a project designing a new type of power generator, one built on principles she learned from Talirr.
When the generator is turned on, at first it appears to work. But eventually it results in disaster, and attracts the attention of the angels of Nemesis. Yasira finds herself kidnapped and pressed into the service of Akavi, an angel of Nemesis, to help in finding an extremely dangerous heretic, her old mentor, Dr. Talirr.
I enjoyed the worldbuilding in this book, but the pacing could be a bit slow. And the long and repeated descriptions of Outside phenomena, as well as the effects on Yasira’s mental state, at times felt tedious. Still, these issues weren’t enough to stop me from enjoying the book overall.
If space opera with strange societies and concepts suits your tastes, then The Outside may be worth checking out.