Amie Kaufman might have a degree in law but even that was not enough to crack the tax documents she needed to file as an Australian author working with U.S. publishers. Then she heard about fellow writer Jay Kristoff, who had figured it out on his third try and who was willing to help.

The Kaufman-Kristoff partnership might be rooted in international taxation law but it has since moved on to bigger and better things. Case in point: Illuminae, an imaginative sci-fi thriller set far in the future when young-adult protagonists Kady and Ezra have to use every ounce of their resources to outsmart the bad guys. After an attack on their illegal mining colony, the two end up on different spaceships and must navigate a way to safety even as a destructive artificial intelligence force, AIDAN, is looking to decimate everything they hold dear. Top it all off with a nasty virus, Phobos, which is systematically infecting the population, and you’ve got the recipe for an epic disaster for Illuminae’s characters. 

Kaufman and Kristoff worked together seamlessly—no fights yet, they say. Kaufman wrote Kady’s lines while Kristoff filled in Ezra’s. The reader pieces the story together using an assortment of emails, dossier-style reports, and other snippets of information. “We wanted to credit the reader for being smart,” Kaufman says. “We wanted to put it all out there and for them to slowly figure it out.” Kristoff brought his background in visual design to the table, with the result being a novel punctuated with breathtaking visuals that propel the plot forward. These graphic elements also helped them map out AIDAN, the destructive AI force that animates much of the novel. “As AIDAN takes one too many hits to the brain and its injury affectsIlluminae_cover its madness, we wanted that to have an effect on the documents, and it was really cool to play around with the fonts and typography to illustrate that,” Kristoff says.

The novel’s foundation is based on a war over natural resources, an element called hermium. The larger message about wanton environmental destruction is seamlessly tucked in. “We desperately need to get our act together,” Kaufman says. “How are we going to explain to future generations that we had a clean, free energy source literally shining down on us and yet we went to war over a different resource?”

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The story eloquently emphasizes our place in the universe, our mortality, and insignificance compared to the grand scale of the universe. Tucked into one of the binary patterns in the visuals is a quote by T.S. Eliot, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” There is plenty of levity in here too, what Kaufman says is the “importance of the nervous giggle,” as emphasized by their editor. “People are better able to digest the heavy stuff if you give them moments of relief,” she says, adding that it’s also why Kady feels so familiar. “It’s the end of the world, there are nuclear missiles flying around, and she is able to crack a joke,” Kristoff points out. “She’s nerdy, she’s really great at programming, but she’s not a superhero. There’s humanity in that.”

One thing that Kaufman can’t relate to? Kristoff’s taste for heavy metal music. He listened to “Bleed” by the Swedish band, Meshuggah, as he teased AIDAN out. “It’s not for everyone,” he laughs. “Yeah, if you listen to it, turn the volume way down,” Kaufman recommends.

Poornima Apte is a Boston-area freelance writer and book reviewer.