The Outside

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.

Cover for The Outside by Ada HoffmannHumans 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.

16 thoughts on “The Outside

  1. Quite a contrast to all the Agatha Christie Hercule Poirot I’ve been reading lately!

    I can’t say I’m sold on it, but I’ll keep it in mind. I think I might have had my share of “strange societies and concepts” during the 1970s SF experimental era. Now I just like a good story to escape into.

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    1. That is quite a contrast!

      Definitely this is not for everyone. It’s not as experimental as a lot of the stuff from that era. But it’s also not light escapism either. I’ve seen some describe it as having horror elements. And I can see where they might get that, but I never really felt it.

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    1. It’s been a while. Was that the medium they used to travel faster than light (where versions of Peter and a young Ender just appeared during the transit)? If so, the weirdness resonates with this version of Outside, although the one in this book is presented as far darker, sort of Lovecraftian.

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  2. Well apparently all you need to do to contact these gods yourself is to consume a “breakthrough” dose of DMT by inhalation. I recently watched a video by a neuroscientist on Breaking Convention suggesting DMT might just provide a channel of communication with another dimension. Chortle.

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    1. A lot of people seem to be fascinated by the altered states of consciousness from those drugs. I find it somewhat interesting, since to the extent we understand the mechanisms of the chemicals, it tells us something about how the brain works. But people seem to think it’s a doorway of some kind, and to that, my reaction is pretty much the same as yours.

      I’d feel differently if there was serious evidence of anything productive ever coming out of such experiences. And I know a lot of people claim it does something for them, but the connection always seems hazy and conjectural.

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      1. FWIW, AIUI, experience with hallucinogens sometimes leads to feelings of spirituality and connection that persist long after the drug wears off, which probably explains their ritual use in ancient cultures. My own experiences along these lines agree — the feelings are profound.

        But the only gateway or door that opens is to one’s own mind. Meditation can achieve similar results.

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      2. What it does it to “anneal” the brain, to borrow the analogy from Carhart Harris of UCL, one of the leaders of the research efforts into the medical use of psychedelics. The brain is subjected to increased activity and neurogenesis is the result. In addition the patterns or pathways settle into novel modes with different connections. The effects are quite remarkable.

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      3. One possible reason that nothing useful comes back (even assuming some reality to the speculation) is that the state is extremely shortlived for DMT. A few minutes at most. Research continues into the exapansion of the period of time spent in the state and if there were anything useful to be brought back, that would give the paychonaut a greater chance. Personally, I do not dismiss the existence of other dimensions and universes. If fact their existence seems to me to be very likely. Whether DMT and the like provide a consuit, who knows. Deride as they may the value of subjective experience, it is not a bad thing to suck it and see. The experience is fascinating, profound and deeply life altering. Does it take place in the brain, or is the brain a conduit to other realities. I would not altogether discount the latter. After all, all animals perceive light and sound in differing ways.

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        1. There’s an old story passed among writers. It concerns the idea that many artists have that drugs can enhance their creativity. One writer, would take a drug at night, and have the most profound experiences and revelations. But while the feeling lasted the next morning, the precise nature of the revelation didn’t.

          Determined to capture one of these profound epiphanies, he kept a pen and pad by his bed. One night, in an ecstasy, he recorded one of the profound realizations. The next morning, he woke up and eagerly reached for his pad to see the wisdom he’d written down. It read, “This room smells funny.”

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          1. I’ve heard that story attributed to Albert Hofmann, who discovered LSD. He first accidentally absorbed some and later experimented with the drug (in what is famously known as “bicycle day”). But a bit of Googling just now doesn’t turn up any links to the story, so who knows. (FWIW, I’ve always heard it attributed to an LSD researcher. I’ve never heard the writer version.)

            I doubt hallucinogens provide any profound artistic insights, but they do seem to help one tie into one’s own creativity. (Again, I speak from my own experience.)

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          2. I’ve seen or heard the story several times, sometimes with the teller claiming they themselves did it. But I ran into the same thing trying to Google it. I finally remembered one place I’d seen it, in Lawrence Blocks’s book on writing, and used the Amazon preview to fish it out, although I was disappointed it didn’t name the writer. Which was Block being honest, but it made me wonder how much the story has evolved from wherever it started.

            But for me, the issue is our judgment is compromised when in those states. So normal stuff (like a smell) seems bizarre and profound.

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          3. It’s a complex subject. There’s a presumption people have good judgement when clear-headed, which certainly ought to be true, but isn’t always, especially in artistic matters. More importantly, as always, it depends. Alcohol, for instance, famously directly messes with judgement in very low doses. With other drugs, the presumption is that an altered mental state is necessarily clouded, but that’s not always the case. Caffeine, for example, increases concentration. (I believe, so does nicotine.)

            So while I think there’s a general truth there that applies in most situations, when it comes to spiritual and artistic pursuit, things can be a little different.

            The thing about that story, at least as I always heard it, is that it involves an inexperienced user, which is another major factor. For one thing, experience leads to being far less discombobulated. More importantly, any artist would operate from all mental perspectives. In the story, after the trip, “The room smells funny” is recognized as absurd. Likewise, other absurd ideas are recognized after review — wheat is sifted from chaff.

            To some extent, hallucinogens offer a kind of “Mary’s Room” situation. They afford mental states not normally ever experienced. As with skydiving, there is no description that truly conveys that experience. Words just aren’t up to the task.

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