Quick Pick: Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Illuminae, the Unconventional and Unexpected Rebirth of STEAM-Y Found Fiction

By Hannah Carmack, Creative Content Coordinator

With the wide-spread popularity of email and texting, the epistolary story – a popular example of which is Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein – has taken on an abundance of new forms. In their novel IlluminaeAmie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff employ modern day text messaging, video-surveillance logs, photos, and Artificial Intelligence annotation to create a vivid, realistic, and jump-off-the-page world.

Logline: Life’s great until your planet blows up. Illuminae opens with high schooler Kady Grant and her ex-boyfriend, Ezra Mason, fleeing their home planet after their city is attacked by a notorious battleship called the Lincoln. What they don’t know is that their own fleet’s Artificial Intelligence was damaged in the escape. Curious things are starting to happen aboard Ezra’s ship, the AI is spouting off sonnets and everyone’s just a little paranoid about their fellow fleet mates eyes. It’s up to Kady to hack into the system and figure out way to save their fleet’s AI before it’s too late.

Don’t let the novel’s 600-page count scare you. The story flies by despite its length. The novel presents itself as a “status report,” examining the happenings of The Lincoln’s attack a year after the fact. English lovers can appreciate the book for its use of found fiction. Found fiction is the use of “found” items and documents in the fictional world to tell the story. Using texts, video, photos, even computer code makes for an addictive read that’s dramatically different from any other book out there. Meanwhile, STEAM lovers can appreciate the book because of its deep knowledge of hacking, coding, and dedication to its world building. The logic and the science of the universe is sound, even if it is slightly different from our own. This is the kind of story that’s easy to lose yourself in.  

Given its vast content, Illuminae could be applied in a number of ways around the classroom. Students could creatively write their own found fiction pieces, using texts, facebook messages, craigslist ads, the whole nine yards. Science educators could focus on the physics of space and the difficulties around space travel. Coders, on the other hand, could entertain the thought of what would lead to a sentient AI and how could it be stopped if it was dangerous?

Below, you’ll find just a few more rapid examples of how Illuminae could work in your classroom (Spoilers ahead!):

  • Engineer an Escape! Kady and Grant are fleeing the Lincoln. How can they get off their home planet and avoid recapture? Engineer a solution.
  • What’s AIDAN thinking? In Illuminae, the fleet’s AI AIDAN become sentient, determined to “protect the fleet” at all costs, even if the cost is human life. Examine the ethics behind AIDAN’s rational. Can you riddle your way out of AIDAN’s greater-good blood lust?
  • Illuminae has two huge and well-done twists towards the end of the novel. Go back through select passages and identify where in the text was one of these twists was foreshadowed.
  • Space Race! AIDAN is constantly counting down to the Lincoln’s inevitable interception with the escape fleet. Create a formula for your students to use when calculating how far Kady and Ezra’s fleet would have made it had different variables been in play (i.e. technical failure, illness, alien attack)

If you enjoyed Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, check out the sequel Gemina.