With The Infinite (paperback, Kindle, audiobook) writer Ada Hoffmann is concluding the epic cosmic horror sci-fi space opera trilogy she launched in 2019 with The Outside, and continued two years later with The Fallen. In the following email interview, Hoffmann discusses who and what inspired and influenced this third and final installment, including some rather familiar fuzzy bastards.
For people who haven’t read The Outside and The Fallen, or the interviews we did about them [which you can by clicking here and here, respectfully], what is this trilogy about, and when and where do these novels take place?
The Outside is the story of Yasira Shien, an autistic scientist in a galaxy ruled by A.I. Gods, who finds herself swept up into the Gods’ intrigues when she accidentally causes a disaster on the space station she’s working on. The Gods and their cyborg angels offer her clemency, but only if she can help them track down her missing mentor: a heretic named Evianna Talirr, who is unleashing cosmic horrors into the galaxy in an attempt to destroy the Gods, and who could be the real cause of Yasira’s disaster.
The trilogy takes place in a fictional 28th century, with humanity spread across several dozen worlds, and the Gods keeping careful watch over all of them. It follows Yasira’s journey from a loyal subject who follows the rules as best she can to the leader of a rebellion against the Gods.
At the very end of The Fallen, there’s a cliffhanger. Yasira and her friends had been on a planet called Jai, which had been ravaged by cosmic horrors and further subjugated by the Gods. They coordinated a series of mass protests and rebellions to try to improve things for the humans there. And they largely succeeded, but in response, the Gods announced that they were going to let Jai be destroyed…by abandoning it to a demonic A.I. being called the Keres.
And then for people who have read The Outside and The Fallen, and thus can ignore me writing SPOILER ALERT, what is The Infinite about, and when does it take place in relation to the first two books?
So The Infinite picks up the very next morning after the end of The Fallen, and it’s about resolving that cliffhanger as well as resolving the larger conflicts of the whole series. In the process of trying to fight the Keres the characters are going to be driven to more desperate measures than ever before. They’re also going to discover that the key to defeating the Keres is also the key to defeating the Gods and creating a new, more human-centric way of being.
When in relation to writing The Outside and The Fallen did you come up with the idea for The Infinite, and what inspired the story for this last part?
When I’d written the draft of The Outside but hadn’t sold it yet, I wrote a pair of quick synopses for The Fallen and The Infinite as well. Both books have stuck more or less to that plan, with various changes: conflicts that changed in scope so we could keep the external stakes the right size, character arcs that ended up going to different places than what I first envisioned, and so on. But the biggest twists and the essential parts of the ending of The Infinite are true to that original plan. And a big part of the inspiration for how it ends is actually theological. I don’t belong to any organized religion at the moment, but this is, of course, a story about religion at its heart, and there were some theologians I’ve read who inadvertently clarified some of the mechanics of how an ending like this could happen.
In preparing to write The Infinite, did you read any novels that were also the third books of a trilogy to see what to do and what not to do?
There aren’t any books that I specifically picked up to study the endings of trilogies; it didn’t occur to me. I feel like the trilogy is such a common form for speculative fiction, especially fantasy, that we all already have a lot of third books on our shelves.
That said, I found myself thinking a lot about Return Of The Jedi, which is my very favorite ending to a trilogy and also my very favorite movie. Fans will differ, but I really do love the big Ewok dance party. Everybody celebrates as a community, there’s music, there’s fireworks, there’s unbridled joy…and it’s a joy big enough that it can hold some moments of poignance and even grief in its midst. Luke gets a private moment, even in the middle of it all, to light his father’s funeral pyre and meditate on what’s happened to him and his family. And the people around him give him that moment and that space. But when the moment has passed, there they are again, welcoming him back into the larger celebration as his spiritual ancestors proudly look on. I wanted the very end of The Infinite to have that kind of joy and also that kind of poignance, both at once. We’ll see if I managed it.
Speaking of influences, were there any writers or specific stories that had a particularly big influence on The Infinite but not on The Outside and / or The Fallen?
Aside from what I just mentioned, no. In terms of the fictional setting, character development, and vibe, The Infinite is very much of a piece with the first two.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Aside from the Ewoks, of course.
Yes, there were a few things that weren’t quite books that had a notable influence on the way the book turned out. A lot of The Infinite’s plot revolves around a big space battle against the Keres so I studied some of my favorite space battles in film to try to figure out how to structure the battle properly.
Another big thing that went into The Infinite wasn’t a movie or game, but a topic from my day job. I teach computer science, and I’ve been open from the beginning about the fact that the kind of machine superintelligence we see in the Outside series is a fantasy. It’s not happening to us anytime soon, and there are good reasons to doubt whether it’s even theoretically possible. But lately I’ve been thinking more about the role that stories of machine superintelligence play in the kinds of decisions we make about our technology, and about how concerns about machine superintelligence distract us from talking about the dangers of the not-very-intelligent systems that we’re already using. I’ve already set up this world and I can’t make the A.I. Gods not be machine superintelligences, but I’ve tried to complicate that trope a little and to show how the Gods’ techno-theocracy has its origins in some very familiar, human problems.
We talked in the previous interviews about how you have Asperger’s, are, “passionate about autistic self-advocacy,” and thus worked that into both The Outside and The Fallen. Did it also have an impact on The Infinite?
Just so you know, I’ve distanced myself from the “Asperger’s” label. I now simply call myself autistic. There’s been a movement away from the use of that label in recent years, partly because of the problematic history of Hans Asperger (he collaborated with Nazis!) but also because it implies that Asperger’s and the rest of the autism spectrum somehow constitute two separate forms of neurodevelopmental difference, when both the medical and the self-advocacy communities have concluded this is not the case, and attempts to separate out the two groups and treat them both differently can be harmful for everyone involved.
Anyway, Yasira and Ev (and Enga) definitely haven’t stopped being autistic. But I feel like the flow of the story and the things that the third book is talking about are less about autism, per se, and more about mental health in a more general sense, trauma, survival, and community. To be honest, there’s also a lot in the second and third books about being plural.
We also talked in the interview about The Fallen how the working titles for the third book included The Infinite and Nemesis. Is there a significance to it being titled The Infinite and not Nemesis or any of the other names you came up with?
Mainly the decision came down to continuity. The other books were titled “The [Adjective]” so it made more business sense to keep up the pattern. Nemesis plays a big role in the third book and we will find out a lot more about Her, but The Infinite isn’t a bad title either — we really will see even more transcendent cosmic horror themes than before.
Speaking of which, The Outside and The Fallen were cosmic horror sci-fi space opera stories. I’m guessing The Infinite is one as well…
Yes, it’s a cosmic horror sci-fi space opera. That about sums it up.
With The Infinite being the final book of the trilogy, some people might consider reading all three back-to-back. Do you think this is the best way to take in this story, or should I, I mean they spread them out for some reason?
I think all three back-to-back is a wonderful idea, especially for The Fallen and The Infinite. Since The Fallen ends on a cliffhanger and The Infinite starts right afterwards, I think it will be satisfying to finish one and pick up the other right away.
Now, some people who’ve written trilogies have later expanded upon them with prequel or sequel trilogies, or side stories. Are you planning to do this as well?
I don’t plan on any other full-length books in this universe, but I may return to it with short side stories. I’ve written a couple of tie-in short stories already (“Melting Like Metal,” published in Lightspeed, which explores Enga’s perspective and a past incident from her life; and “Minor Heresies,” published in Ride The Star Wind, which tells a story 200 years before the main books, about a mild-mannered shapeshifting space accountant who trips across some alien religious practices he doesn’t understand.)
I’m also planning to release two light-hearted side stories for free on my Substack to celebrate The Infinite‘s launch: one for Christmas and one in early February. Both of these will involve characters from the main trilogy.
Beyond that, I don’t have any specific plans, but with short work, I’ll never say never.
What about a collection of these short stories? Y’know, for people who like books made of paper.
Right now, there aren’t enough of these stories to fill a book-length collection, but if you want them in a book made of paper, then I do have some good news: “Minor Heresies” and “Melting Like Metal” will both appear (along with many works unrelated to the Outside series) in my upcoming short story collection, Resurrections, which will be published by Apex Books in late 2023.
If I ever did have enough short stories in the Outside universe to fill a whole collection, I would definitely consider a collection of that nature as well.
Earlier I asked if The Infinite had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think this trilogy could work as a series of movies, a show, or a game?
I think it could work well as a series of movies or a limited-series show. I would love to see what a film director would do in order to make concepts like Outside visible in a visual medium. I think, in the right hands, it’d be trippy as hell, and there’d be a lot of human drama and quirky characters to carry the set pieces along.
And if some director wanted to make those movies or show, who would you want them to cast as Yasira, Dr. Talirr, and the other main characters?
Oh, I’m absolutely terrible at this game. I rarely recognize actors outside the one or two roles I might (if we’re lucky) have seen them in. So, I would trust the hypothetical casting director much more than I trust my own mental image.
That being said, when I picture them in my own head, Tiv is [Smallville‘s] Kristin Kreuk, and Ev is Sigourney Weaver [Alien].
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about The Infinite?
No, I think we’ve covered it. Hopefully it builds on the themes of The Outside and The Fallen and brings them to a satisfying grand finale.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Infinite — and, presumably, The Outside and The Fallen — they’re probably going to want something short and sweet. So, what sci-fi novella of someone’s else would you suggest they check out?
I feel like this is a bit of a gimme because everyone already loves it, but I am hugely enthralled by Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series, which is mostly novellas. They’re very different books from the Outside series, but they feel autistic-coded in a very satisfying way which I think a lot of the Outside series’ fans would enjoy, especially if their favorite character is Enga.
Alternatively, if you want something more obscure and mystical, I would recommend Bogi Takács’ novellas, Iwunen Interstellar Investigations and Power To Yield — two very different stories, but both set in a queernormative, autistic-centric magical space opera universe which I think my fans will very much enjoy.