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Literature / The Illuminae Files

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"Live a life worth dying for."
Kady Grant, Obsidio

A trilogy of Science Fiction novels by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. The Illuminae Files are set up as a collection of documents about three major events in the plot. Unreliable Narrator is in full play here, as the majority of the documents are "video files narrated by an analyst," who is later revealed to be one of the main characters.

Our main characters are Kady Grant, Ezra Mason, Hanna Donnelly, Nik Malikov, Ella Malikova, Asha Grant, Rhys Lindstrom, and AIDAN. Only Kady, Ezra and AIDAN appear in the first book, Illuminae. Kady, Ezra, AIDAN, Hanna, Nik, and Ella are all in Gemina, the second book, and for the finale book Obsidio, everybody appears.

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The series chronicles the main characters' attempts to fight against Beitech, who attacked the main characters' homes of the ice world Kerenza, and the jump station Heimdall. Several parental units and supporting characters are killed, prompting the main characters’ need for revenge.

Several of the characters are romantically involved, especially Ezra and Kady, who broke up during the attack on Kerenza only to get back together during the events of the first book.


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The Illuminae Files feature the following tropes:

  • Abusive Parents:
    • Ezra's mother, BeiTech's Director Frobisher, was so abusive that he and his father fled to Kerenza IV to ensure she couldn't track them down, and Ezra and Kady broke up when he refused to travel off-planet for fear that she'd find him.
    • Nik's father is heavily implied to be this; part of the reason Nik plead guilty for a murder he didn't commit was because he decided prison was better than living under his father's heel. After he was released, his uncle brought him to Hemidall to put as much distance between them as possible. A wise idea, considering the first thing Nik did when he saw his father again was break his jaw.
  • Action Girl: Most obviously Hanna, but Kady and Asha both prove that they're far from helpless in a fight.
  • Ace Pilot: Ezra, as well as several supporting characters with less screen time. Nik is implied to be one of these as well, as he pilots the Betty Boop easily on his first try.
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  • Aerith and Bob: There's Kady and Rhys... and then Ella and Hanna.
  • Ambiguously Christian: Captain Syra Boll. It is mentioned that she has a degree in theology, and she owns a Bible, but her actual religion is never stated.
  • Anyone Can Die: The authors are quite good at building up characters who will ultimately be killed off.
    • In Illuminae, Kady's mentor Byron Zhang, Charles Dorian, and Ezra's friends James McNulty and Mikael "Chatter" Carlin all meet their ends after receiving quite a bit of development. AIDAN tells Kady that Ezra is dead toward the end of Illuminae, but it's later revealed that he made it safely to the Hypatia.
    • In Gemina, Nik is shot and dies in Hanna's arms though it turns out the Nik who died was from an alternate universe.
    • Perhaps the best example comes from Obsidio. After improbably surviving for two and a half books, Syra Boll is killed during a mutiny aboard the Mao.
    • Kady invokes this in-universe. The report the Illuminae Group sent to Director Frobisher maintained that Ezra was dead to protect him from his mother.
  • Armies Are Evil: Although the story also focuses on showing their human side (Well, very few of them. Actually only one, Oshiro from Obsidio), the Beitech soldiers are guilty of numerous war crimes, resorting to the defense that they are Just Following Orders or making excuses that their crimes are ultimately justified, because the colony was illegal. If they bother to make excuses at all, as most literally revel in their crimes.
  • Badass Family: House of Knives are implied to be this, but we only really see Nik and Ella in action. The rest suffer from The Worf Effect, as they are no match for a Beitech hit squad that they were not expecting to find there.
  • Badass Normal:
    • Asha Grant. Other people in the series are expert hackers, incredible pilots, or trained killers, and she's... A pharmaceutical tech turned nurse.
    • Michelle Dennis, a relatively untrained computer programmer with no combat experience, arguably saves every single survivor on Kerenza and off of it by shooting a BeiTech soldier before he can raise the alarm and stop Hanna's group from taking Magellan. Not bad for someone whose only job was to plug in a memory stick.
  • Battle Discretion Shot: In the small comic portion of Obsidio, Hanna cuts out part of a battle "because of ratings."
  • Betty and Veronica Switch: Happens with Hanna’s two main love interests in the second book. At first it appears that Jackson is responsible and reliable, while Nik is a drug dealer from a crime family. Later on, Jackson turns out to be The Mole for BeiTech, while Nik proves himself to be heroic and sympathetic.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: Hanna, Ella, and Kady (pinkhead?).
  • Bond One-Liner: One from Hanna, of the "snarky response to attempted Pre-Mortem One-Liner" variety.
    "You might only get one shot. So shoot. You know who said that? Hanna fucking Donnelly, that's who."
  • Brick Joke: At the beginning of Gemina, Hanna teases Nik by claiming he might be handsome with a mustache. At the end of Obsidio, Nik has grown a mustache as part of his "disguise." Hanna decides she likes him better without it.
  • "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot:
    • Instead of attempting planetary genocide, Beitech could have simply reported the illegal mining colony to UTA and watched as their competitors paid one fine after another (as Kady points out during her debriefing with a UTA officer after the Kerenza attack). Partially subverted, as the attack was considered a grave mistake by BeiTech and director Taylor, who ordered it, was executed. However, Beitech still attempted to cover everything up by trying to kill everyone even remotely involved, including their own people.
    • In a similar fashion, most of the people aboard the Alexander might have survived if AIDAN had thought through the consequences of its decision before it released the Copernicus survivors infected with Phobos from the hangar bay. Or if it had been straightforward with the Alexander's human commanders about why the survivors shouldn't have been brought aboard in the first place...
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • Nik's parachute in Obsidio
    • Hanna's drug stash in Gemina.
  • Contrasting Sequel Antagonist: In the first book, it's the Lincoln and the people who were infected by Phobos. In the second book, it's the lamina and the Beitech team, and in the last book, the main villains are the people on Churchill and Magellan.
  • The Computer Is Your Friend: AIDAN is programmed to "prioritize and protect" the human crew in its fleet above all else. When the Phobos infection overruns one of the ships in book 1, AIDAN "prioritizes" the others and "protects" them by nuking the infected ship and ordering fighter pilots to shoot down the escape pods. (They refuse, which, while noble, is very bad in the long run.) It only gets worse from there—until this is ultimately subverted when Kady successfully calls AIDAN's bluff on a threat to nuke the science ship if it tries to break off from the warship, knowing no amount of mental gymnastics could make that count as "protection". Eventually it willingly sacrifices most of itself. The fragments that survive later admit it took extreme and inhuman measures, but maintain that it was for the greater good.
  • Contrasting Sequel Protagonist: We see this with each of the major characters in all three books.
    • In Gemina, Hanna is an Action Girl in contrast to Kady's truly brilliant Playful Hacker. Nik likewise is a Troubled, but Cute organized crime member, in contrast to Ezra's conventionally heroic Ace Pilot. The two of them also lacked a real relationship before the events of the book, as Hanna was involved with Jackson, an officer on Heimdall, in contrast to Ezra and Kady's rocky love affair.
    • In Obsidio, Asha is a mere pharmaceutical tech turned nurse, who nonetheless becomes a resistance fighter. Rhys is a member of the Beitech occupation force, stuck in a role he never intended. The two of them were also slightly older than the other four, being at least legal adults at the start of the series.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: By the end of Obsidio, every single survivor from Kerenza and Hemidall has lost at least one loved one as a result of BeiTech's actions, and every single main character has stared death in the face at least once. But, ultimately, BeiTech is held accountable for the atrocities they've committed and the survivors are free to rebuild their lives.
  • Empty Promise: Near the end of Obsidio, AIDAN agrees that it will not kill anyone (or let anyone die) without express orders from the Mao's captain in exchange for not being shut off. Both Kady and the captain are wary of this trope after AIDAN's previous actions, but eventually agree. Then, during the final battle, AIDAN seizes control of the BeiTech dreadnought Churchill and sets it on a suicidal collision course with the defunct Kenyatta. When Kady reminds it of the promise it made, it replies, "I Lied." Readers who picked up the AI's tell ( <ERROR>) would have seen that one coming.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: To an almost comical degree. BeiTech is ok with many "morally questionable" things, but apparently, having vulgar words in their reports is not one of them, as they requested vulgarities to be censored in the Illuminae report.
  • Everyone Has Standards: At one point in Gemina, Hanna strips to her underwear to avoid being crushed by an elevator. The tech who transcribed the footage (actually Nik) outright states that since said underwear was clearly for the benefit of her boyfriend, Jackson Merrick (actually Sam Maginot, a.k.a. Bei Tech agent Rapier), he will not describe it.
  • Field Promotion: By the end of the series, literal kids wind up in charge because anyone more competent with rank has been killed off. Same goes with Rhys in Obsidio, as he had only been deployed to Kerenza IV after all technicians on the surface were killed by rebels there.
  • First Kiss: In Gemina, Hanna and Nik each end up kissing Alternate Universe versions of the other who die soon after.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Ezra makes an ASCII flower for Kady, and mentions he spent hours on it. So when he supposedly constructs a perfect, gorgeous portrait of her while hiding in the vents from zombies? That's one of the initial clues AIDAN has started impersonating him.
    • In an After-Action Report (AAR) partway through Illuminae, Ezra reflects that the only difference between an AI and a human is the ability to lie, because what programmer in their right mind would let a machine do that? We later find out that AIDAN has told a whole slew of lies, most notably pretending to be Ezra to lure Kady to the Alexander.
    • Early in Gemina, Hanna responds to Nik's flirting by telling him she'd still have plans to wash her hair if it was "the last Saturday before the destruction of the universe." Two weeks later, they're facing exactly that.
    • AIDAN gets <ERROR> messages all the time, but most notably whenever it tells a lie. During Obsidio, it promises not to kill anyone else without a direct order from the captain. <ERROR>
  • Hate Plague: The Phobos virus in Illuminae is a bioweapon Beitech developed and used on Kerenza IV in its genocide of the colony. Initially it was meant only to make its victims compliant, but mutated into turning them into mindless killers driven by fear and hate. And unfortunately, the refugees aboard the Copernicus were infected...
  • Kick the Dog:
    • Torrence orders the execution of several of his pilots for not wanting to help him cover up AIDAN destroying the Copernicus in Illuminae.
    • Falk shoots the Heimdall's commander for answering his question right after the takeover in Gemina.
    • A BeiTech soldier named Marcino shoots a little girl for stealing protein bars and not being registered in Obsidio.
    • BeiTech does it again when Rhys discovers they've just been dumping the bodies of Kerenza IV citizens in mass graves, while being casually told that most people were slaughtered and the rest will be too.
  • Kinetic Weapons Are Just Better: Fighters and ships use railguns and missiles, while people usually carry a VK rifle and .50 pistol.
  • Meaningful Name: The Norse god Heimdall controlled the Bifrost, leading to the Nine Worlds, and the jump gate Heimdall has seven waypoints.
  • Mind Virus: The Phobos virus in Illuminae. The original version attacked fear centers in the brain, temporarily giving victims symptoms similar to PTSD and rendering them unable to resist an invading force. Later, it mutates and begins eroding brain function, driving the infected irreversibly insane and turning them into Technically Living Zombies.
  • Morality Pet: One of the BeiTech ground commanders in Obsidio has several pets back on his homeworld, so when his soldiers take a liking to a stray cat, he looks the other way. During the final battle, his last act is to throw a rock at the cat, scaring it away from an incoming missile.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!:
    • General Torrence isn't winning any points for good ideas; some of his actions include executing two good pilots with a hostile warship on his tail and throwing computer techs in the brig when all hands are needed to wrangle AIDAN.
    • AIDAN creates a far bigger problem than it solves by releasing those afflicted by Phobos from their quarantine. Even if said action did ultimately give it the means to stop the Lincoln once and for all.
    • Later, the AI releases carbon monixide and kills two thousand people to relieve strain on the refugees' critically overstretched resources. This is the catalyst for a mutiny that gets Syra Boll killed.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain!: In Obsidio, Rhys openly questions orders the soldiers were given (a.k.a genocide), attacks another soldier named Marcino for carrying them out and later reports him to his commanding officer, Jake Christie. Marcino simply laughs the attack and Rhys's You Monster! moment off, while Christie merely reprimands Rhys for "Snitching" and advises him to never do that again or be prepared to suffer terrible consequences. This turns out to be the final push Rhys needs to commit to helping Asha and the Kerenza IV Resistance.
  • Our Wormholes Are Different: In the Illuminae universe, wormholes are created by mobile jump gates, like Magnellan or Alexander, or are surrounded by jump stations like Heimdall.
  • Our Zombies Are Different: Those infected by Phobos certainly qualify as zombies.
  • Planet Terra: Goverment is called United Terran Authority (UTA) and people celebrate "Terra Day."
  • Poor Communication Kills:
    • If AIDAN had explained its reasoning for shooting down the escape pods, and asked the human commander to give the kill order—well, things were already pretty screwed up by that point, but it certainly would have helped.
    • In Obsidio, Syra Boll is shot during a mutiny after she fails to take the complaints of a new crop of refugees from the destroyed jump station Hemidall seriously. To be fair, she had a lot on her plate at the time...
  • Pretentious Latin Motto: Centrum Tenenda. Hold the center.
  • Revealing Cover-Up: This is invoked by the Illuminae Group; they get themselves hired as a clean-up crew for BeiTech to get access to the last few pieces of evidence they needed before reporting everything to the UTA. The first book, which shares its name with the group, is their initial report to Beitech, while the second and third books include court transcripts as the contents of the files are entered into evidence.
  • The Reveal: For most of the back half of Illuminae, it's not Ezra Kady's talking to, it's AIDAN.
  • Rhetorical Question Blunder: In Illuminae, Ezra undergoes a pysch eval as part of the UTA's conscription process. Not very impressed with the interviewer, he snarkily asks if the real psychologist died and he's talking to a medical intern or something. Given how many people Beitech just killed? Yeah.
  • Searching the Stalls: In Gemina, a Beitech soldier enters a bathroom, then spots Nik's jacket and starts looking for him. Nik shoots him in the head over the partition.
  • Technically Living Zombie: Anyone infected with the mutated Phobos virus, referred to as the afflicted. They're reduced to psychotics who kill simply for the fun of it, don't appear to feel pain or fear, and are noted as possessing unnatural strength.
  • The Strategist: Hanna shows off her skill in this area, especially in Obsidio, in which the titular plan is mostly hers. This is what happens when a girl is raised on strategy games mixed with combat sims.
  • Working with the Ex:
    • In Illuminae, Kady dumped Ezra the day of the attack on Kerenza IV. They wind up working together to resolve the conflict.
    • An even more stark example comes from Obsidio, in which Asha and Rhys's relationship ended with the two of them on opposite ends of the universe. Then Rhys comes to Kerenza IV as part of BeiTech's occupation force. After seeing firsthand the horrors his fellow soldiers have perpetrated, Rhys performs a Heel–Face Turn and works with Asha to sabotage the invaders.


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