Anna Sinjari—refugee, survivor of genocide, disaffected office worker—has a close encounter that reveals universe-threatening stakes…
Introducing your new snake wife Ssrin, one half of the disaster human-alien duo at the center of the action in Seth Dickinson’s upcoming science fiction debut Exordia, arriving from Tordotcom Publishing on January 24, 2024. Yes, she has eight heads. Yes, her entire species is damned to eternal torment (receipts available upon request). And yes, she will pay the rent if you give her a place to crash… and do her a couple small favors.
From author Seth Dickinson:
“Ssrin has been in my head since 2004, when she appeared, unlooked-for, in the middle of a study hall Bionicle fanfiction. She is objectively evil and trying very hard to be good, though it frustrates her terribly. In the past 19 years she has devoured most of my lower occipital lobes, favoring the fattier glial cells. I think she is headed for my cerebellum. Please get her out. I want to live—”
Save Seth. Meet Ssrin.
“Anna, I came to Earth tracking a very old story, a story that goes back to the dawn of time. It’s very unlikely that you’ll die right now. It wouldn’t be narratively complete.”
Anna Sinjari—refugee, survivor of genocide, disaffected office worker—has a close encounter that reveals universe-threatening stakes.
While humanity reels from disaster, she must join a small team of civilians, soldiers, and scientists to investigate a mysterious broadcast and unknowable horror. If they can manage to face their own demons, they just might save the world.
Roman does not call. Anna descends into self-loathing and Twitter-stalks him, while one of Ssrin’s heads peers over her shoulder. “Are you planning to assassinate your mate’s new partner? Beware. You’ll bring yourself to ruin.”
“What the fuck do you know about dating, dude?” Anna protests. “I’ll assassinate whoever I want.”
“I know everything. I’ve seen the romantic comedies.”
“All of them?”
“I had them digested. I consumed the slurry.” Ssrin licks Anna’s phone Twitter feed. “Are you now in the period of alienation from Roman, before your reconciliation and final marriage?”
“That doesn’t happen in real life.”
“It could be an instance of preyjest.”
“You draw away from him, only to be drawn back. Or he flees and you pursue.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Don’t you have preyjest? It isn’t translating?” Ssrin’s heads arch in wary surprise. “Really?”
“Something’s coming out, but it’s not, like, a real word.”
“One of the seven great passions. I’ll explain later. Why do you smell like tears? Have you bathed today? We developed a bathing instinct to hide our scents. But maybe you humans need your greasy pheromones to attract a mate. Perhaps you should marinate yourself in the discarded garments of more fertile women.”
“Why,” Anna demands, “would you come all the way to Earth to watch our rom-coms and talk shit about our personal hygiene?”
“I’m interested in the collective unconscious as expressed in unpinioned species.”
This actually does seem to be the truth. Ssrin spends every day coiled up in Anna’s apartment, watching movies and reading books. Despite her omnivorous attention, she is an excruciatingly slow reader. “Oh, don’t be so self-centered,” she snaps, when Anna complains. “I’m an ambush predator. My body wants to hang from trees and watch for motion.”
“Maybe you could ambush the end of that stupid book a little faster. Why do you read so slow?”
“My brain doesn’t construct geometry or color the same way as yours.”
“It’s all the same. Even if your eyes are different, the world’s just the world, colors are colors, the words on the page don’t change—”
“Nonsense. What you see, looking around, it’s not really the light coming into your eyes. Your eyes are shit. Little camera-obscura pinholes. But your brain’s evolved tricks to build a useful hallucination based on the trickle of data it gets. Because your environment’s mostly consistent, it’s easy to fill in what’s missing from a few stable assumptions. Much of what you’re seeing right now”—she licks Anna’s eyeball, which is really gross—“is neural postprocessing. Your sight itself is an optical illusion. Don’t you know this? Don’t they teach it in school?”
“Huh.” Anna blinks. “No, they didn’t teach me that.”
“I suppose, if you don’t have any other species to talk to, it’s not important to know your own limitations and quirks. Which is why so much of your art is human-triumphalist nonsense.”
“Fuck you. We’re pretty triumphant. We went to the moon.”
“Khai evolved on a moon. We were catapulting eggs at the sky before we even had language. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Land a fertilized egg on one of those lights up there, and your children might hatch in new hunting grounds.” Ssrin turns the page with a quick flick of one of her four thumbs. “Anyway. To read a book, I have to emulate human optics and neural postprocessing in software, then translate the resulting text, then look up all the weird cultural referents. All of which takes time.”
“Shouldn’t you have, like, alien supercomputers?” Anna ventures, drawing on her embarrassingly complete knowledge of science fiction. “Impossibly fast and smart? To handle all this for you?”
“The areteia imposes limits on soulless thought. Made structure cannot think like evolved structure. It lacks the deep account.” Ssrin refuses to say any more, except, “It is a law. It was written. At the beginning of time.”
Anna doesn’t see any other aliens in the New York crowds.
The way Ssrin explains it, the camouflage is a mental trick, some kind of cognitive spoofing, and Anna is the only one she’s ever met who sees through it.
So this is a buddy story. Odd couple.
23andMe gets back to her with their genetic report on Ssrin’s blood. Get this: Ssrin is a perfectly human woman, lactose intolerant, supertaster-adjacent, at risk of breast cancer. Her disguise even covers her blood.
“Jesus,” Anna says, slamming the laptop shut. “You don’t even have breasts.”
“Should I get some? Would it comfort you?”
Anna can’t tell if she’s joking. “No.” Although this reminds her that now she can buy bras that actually fit right.
“I know why you can see through the operant camouflage,” Ssrin says, coiled around the hot-water pipe, dangling upside down and reading The Alchemist. “We are in serendure.”
“Ha.” Two of Ssrin’s heads stare at each other and bob up and down, which must be like a laugh. “The translator’s making up words again! I wonder how the damn thing works. Anyway, it is a very good thing, serendure. The greatest of the seven passions, I think. It helps your soul conceal mine.”
“My soul is hidden behind yours,” Ssrin says, as if this is the simplest thing in the world. “We are congruent. I fit within you and you within me. That’s why they haven’t tracked us down: their sensor cannot separate us. They search for me and instead they find you. And that’s why you could see through my camouflage. You are inside it, with me, because we are alike. Blood knows blood and fang knows venom.”
Hidden behind— Wait one fucking minute! “Do you mean the people who shot you are going to come to kill me?”
“No, no.” Ssrin slaps her tail against the ceiling, making the upstairs neighbor yell in protest. “It means that as long as we keep near each other, in the narrative sense, we’re both protected. We cannot be resolved as single entities.”
“The narrative sense? Is the world, like, a simulation?”
“The universe is not a simulation,” Ssrin says. “Actually, it goes to great pains not to be.”
But Ssrin doesn’t explain.
Roman texts her:
Your life has to start some day
Why won’t you get help.
I really did like you.
(But he means love.)
“So what do you think of humans?” Anna asks, during their nightly beer interrogation. She drinks session IPAs and asks the questions. Ssrin coils up and does alien chores. “Like, to me, you’re a badass centaur hydra. What am I to you? Am I a . . . sexy nightmare lemur?”
“Mm.” She thinks for an unusually long time: maybe she’s checking Humanpedia. “Our species are loosely co-biotic. Both oxygen breathers, both vertebrates, both water-filled. We both have specialized tissues and centralized nervous systems. Our cells are digital replicators, not analog: they store information encoded in polymers, like DNA. We have cells, instead of, say, red sulfuric-acid carbon slurry. We are both monochiral—our enantiomer symmetry broke very early in our evolution. We even share some amino acids—glycine, alanine, glutamic acid. Unsurprising.”
Okay, Ssrin. “Do you know all this stuff because you’re studying us?”
“Well, I had to figure out if I could eat you,” Ssrin says. She smells sharply of bleach and lemon Lysol, in which, aided by piles of Q-tips, she bathes. Anna gets spine tingles listening to her talk. She’s smooth, no uh um like, no fumbles: and you don’t realize how necessary and human these sounds are until they’re gone. Behind that beautiful artificial voice there is no human breath or human hesitation. Only the sound of tiny tongue and hinged, clicking fang.
“Try again,” Anna suggests. “Without the chemistry.”
“You want the generalizations,” Ssrin says. “Since nuance and complexity are hard on your brain.”
“Exactly.” Nodding vigorously. “Generalize me.”
“You’re a species of gangly distance runners, adapted to sweat and throw stuff. You like watching each other fuck. A few million years ago you developed culture in the form of survival techniques, and whoever learned culture the fastest could have the most babies. Your brains started to swell and reorganize themselves for cultural learning. The development of culture and the development of large brains drove each other in a feedback loop. Your brain grew as large as it could before exhausting the mother’s supply of calories—”
“I thought it got too big to fit through the hips.”
“A myth, as far as I can tell. You could have much juicier hips. Don’t interrupt. You are wired for small social groups, so all human organization degenerates into power trading and gossip between a tractably sized elite, no matter the stakes. You have two sources of authority—dominance and prestige—which conflict in interesting ways. Something killed most of you, and so your survivors are very inbred. Very similar. Your meat smells the same.”
“Nooo,” Anna protests. “That’s it?”
“We’re not unusually stubborn? We’re not particularly diverse? Experimental? Curious? Willing to take risks? Jacks of all trades but masters of none?”
“No,” Ssrin says, crossing two of her necks in a big X of negation. “You are jacks of running and masters of being inbred.”
“Thanks,” Anna grumbles. She’s surprised by how rejected she feels. She thought she had a low opinion of people already, but at least that opinion was coming from inside the house. “Okay, remember when you talked about the collective unconscious in unpinioned species? Your translator didn’t make that very clear.”
Ssrin hesitates a while, which, for Ssrin, is the span of a breath. All her heads breathe together, in unison: same lungs, Anna supposes.
She says, “I’m here to study you because the Exordia hasn’t pinioned your souls yet.”
Anna sits right up, sloshing beer on her lap, and fixes her big inbred porn-watching head on Ssrin. “Souls? You mean immortal souls? Are those real? Is this some kind of, like, Evangelion thing?”
“I watched that show,” Ssrin says thoughtfully. “It was a bit lurid. Yes, you have a soul, but no, it’s not mystical. It’s a shadow cast in the areteia by the physical operations of your brain. Your brain makes symbolic abstractions of the world and manipulates them, so that you can have thoughts without actually doing the thoughts. Does that make sense?”
“In the same way, the areteia makes symbolic abstractions of your choices. Do you follow me?”
“Hold on. Areteia?”
“Yes. The realm of virtue and meaning. As opposed to the archea, the material world.”
“Cool. Dualism. So the soul is like, uh, a summary of everything your brain has done?”
“More of a lossy compression, but close enough. The soul is an image of the choices you’ve made and the reasons you made them. Because stories describe how to make choices, stories express the soul, and the soul is made of stories. Like DNA becoming protein, and proteins becoming DNA— Oh, you don’t do that, do you? Well, anyway. By studying your stories, I am looking for the traits of the human soul.”
“I follow. I’m keen like a bloodhound. So how did you find out about this areteia?”
Ssrin turns the pages of both books she’s reading, in sync. “Which pop culture metaphor would you prefer?”
Anna snorts. “Come on.”
“Spare yourself the humiliation of begging for a metaphor later.”
“Okay. Imagine physics as the basic code of the universe.”
“Now imagine a second set of laws. Special cases that can override mundane reality.”
“Like a city under martial law.” Like Ali Hassan al-Majid banning all human existence in the “prohibited areas” of Kurdistan.
“Very keen,” Ssrin says, in a way that makes Anna feel like she’s guessed too much. “Though I thought you would say, ‘like a scripting language.’ The areteia is a law outside physics, designed to recognize minds, sanctify them, and grant them extra privileges—the right of limited acausality, we call it. You’d say true free will. Without the areteia, the universe would be overrun by soulless self- replicating optimizers. With the areteia, the universe belongs to ensouled things. Things that think in ways the areteia desires.”
“Okay. Awesome.” Anna mostly gets it. “Brains are magical. The areteia stops brainless things from getting smart.”
“Not intrinsically magical. Minds are by nature monist—purely material. They don’t need the areteia to operate. But the Architects wanted our universe to be a bit dualist.”
Ssrin is sniffing at Anna’s beer, to put off answering. None of Ssrin’s heads like beer. “Yes. The acatalept-gods.”
“You can’t just leave that hanging, Ssrin.”
Ssrin’s heads tussle in agitation, fangs bared. “So. Like this. In the beginning there was Freedom, and all things could become all things. Nothing needed anything, so nothing wanted anything, and all things were the same.
“And the Architects said, let there be Inequity, the first rule, so that the sameness of all things will break apart into the field of difference which we call a universe.
“And the Architects looked on their universe, and saw that it would in time give rise to self-replicating life, which would optimize itself to consume and destroy all competition and lead to a universe dominated by total assholes. So the Architects said, let there be an areteia, in which we shall enshrine the desired and objective nature of Right and Wrong. So that many lifes may flourish.”
Anna says, “Holy shit.”
“Right on both counts, actually. Holy, and shit. The areteia was not well designed. These gods had titanic differences about the exact design of that objective morality.”
“Just like people.”
“No!” Ssrin nips Anna’s nose. “They weren’t like people. It’s vital to remember that. We don’t understand what the AcatalepticA wanted. I, personally, think that they built the universe to produce something. The areteia would govern the parameters, like an experimental protocol.”
“What?” Anna whispers. Suddenly her dim apartment has become a kind of profane cosmic temple. “What did they want to produce?”
“We don’t know. They may not have known. No instrument ever built, conventional or aretaic, can see past the event horizon that blocks off the first moments of the universe. By the earliest point we can see… well. The Architects were dead by then.”
“Dead?” God is real, and dead?
“Oh, yes. They bashed the areteia together while still fighting over exactly what it would do, and then died, spectacularly and horribly, before they could finish the job. Some say it was civil war. Some say the horror of the newborn universe devoured them. Some believe their enemies caught up to them, from somewhere in the godscape beyond our cosmos. No matter now.” Ssrin licks herself like a cat, one head at a time, in reassurance. No matter now. “So the areteia’s unfinished. Full of glitches. Catastrophic glitches.”
“Like what?” Anna cracks a new beer. This is the good shit, the secret truth of the cosmos. This is like Mom’s Zoroastrian stories. But maybe these stories will actually help Anna when she needs them.
“The interface between the areteia and ordinary physics is insecure.”
“So you can exploit it. Move objects faster than light by passing them through moral manifolds. Inject illegal physics through computations in living brains. An art called operancy, which I practice: construct the correct thoughts, bend your soul into the proper configuration, and you can assert your will over physics.”
“That doesn’t sound so horrible—”
“Souls copied and enslaved to drive machines: the æshadi my people make. Evolutionary selection for pathological psychologies which can exploit breaches in aretaic security. Weapons that mark their victims for damnation. Entire species consigned to eternal torment in a broken afterlife manifold, because the areteia mangles their souls.”
“Yes. What the fuck. That’s what everyone said at the end of the Cessation Age, when all of this became common knowledge in galactic civilization.” Ssrin laughs: a dark, desperate sound, but wry. “My people built the first aretaic observatory. We were the first to see how the areteia extracted and recorded souls after the long unraveling of death. The first to discover the seven afterlife constellations, curled up in the universe’s extra dimensions. Or at least the first to see them and share.”
Afterlife. After life. It’s real. You might live forever.
Fuck. Anna desperately doesn’t want to live forever.
“Seven afterlives,” she says. “Is that why there are seven great passions? Like that serendure thing you mentioned? One afterlife for each passion?”
“Oh. I don’t know. Maybe it’s a coincidence.”
“You don’t know?”
Ssrin shrugs. Her heads bob with the gesture. “I’d ask a matheologist, if I needed to know.”
Anna drinks her entire beer before she feels ready to ask any more questions. “So what’s an Exordia? What does it mean, the Exordia hasn’t pinioned your souls?”
“They’re the people trying to kill me. The Exordia rules the galaxy. They pinion the souls of all their subjects.”
“Bad news, dude. What’s a pinion?”
“It’s a narrative prison. It forces the victim into the myth of Exordia supremacy. They become the ” Ssrin struggles. “They become the objects of the story. The Exordia is the active subject. And the more of the galaxy’s life the Exordia pinions, the closer that story becomes to a physical fact in our galaxy.”
“Oh, shit! Dude. Are they going to invade us?”
“Eventually. Inevitably. They know this world, but don’t care yet.”
“Wow ” Anna shivers. Because it’s finally happened, after the man in the red beret, blood and brain on the mountain snow, night after screaming night of flashbacks, day after snarling day of behavioral problems and she just needs to apply herself. Her poor adoptive parents the Shannons looking up from the kitchen table, their hands clasped, ready to talk her through the latest Annagram from the principal.
After all that, she’s earned a spot in a story about the survival of the human race. She won’t have to pay off her loans, or figure out how to date, or go home to Kurdistan and make amends.
She can just save the world instead.
“What can I do? I mean, beyond keeping an eye out for— Hey, what do they look like, anyway, these Exordians?”
“Exactly like me,” Ssrin says, turning pages with two of her heads. She can’t use her hands, because they are in fists at her side. “I’m one of them. A khai, born on Khas, the world-moon of Vsatyr, which orbits Sahana, the throne-star of the Exordia. Pass me another book.”
Ssrin isn’t an explorer. She’s a rebel. That’s so… awesome.
Excerpted from Exordia, copyright © 2023 by Seth Dickinson.