This is the paper I presented at the Australasian Children’s Literature Accociation for Research (ACLAR) conference in 2016. Its focus was on Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s novel Illuminae. As it explores sections of Illuminae in depth, there will be spoilers.


In a rapidly shifting technological world, young adults are becoming increasingly aware of the theatrical nature of how they shape and represent their identities in both real and virtual communities, often disregarding truth or reality in an attempt to gain autonomy. This paper examines Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s young adult science fiction novel Illuminae by assessing the visual and structural format of the novel and how this unique narrative construct reflects on the authenticity of digital landscapes. The manner in which Illuminae is constructed illustrates how adolescents use social media and virtual networking to engage and interact with audiences, both real and imagined. Illuminae’s narrative is told through a sequence of classified documents, interviews, surveillance footage summaries, diary entries, personal messages and emails, as well as graphics, word art and post-it note commentary, which examines the role of multimedia texts in the transgression of digital boundaries. It is a format that works particularly well in the static publication of a hardcopy book, despite representing digital technologies. The novel is also accessible as an e-book or an audio book, and the website offers supplementary videos for readers to further engage with the text. Specifically, I will explore how social media and communication technologies are incorporated and presented in Illuminae while investigating how it depicts young adults in creating and maintaining relationships through online platforms. In conclusion, by closely examining Illuminae, this paper will shed light on the representation of social media in young adult science fiction. It will address the importance of such fiction in offering adolescent readers a space to reflect on the complexities of interacting and communicating with others in relation to the shifting boundaries between the real and the virtual.


Digital Landscapes and Imagined Audiences in Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s Illuminae

Relationships in contemporary Western societies have become increasingly complicated as our social landscape has changed to include the digital, and our relationships with technology have become more intimate. Smart phones have become extensions of ourselves and robots fulfill a variety of functions, from surveying the moon to offering comfort to the elderly in nursing homes. In this rapidly shifting technological world, young adults are aware of the theatrical nature of how they shape and represent their identities in both real and virtual communities, often disregarding truth or reality in an attempt to gain autonomy.

This paper examines Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s young adult science fiction novel Illuminae by assessing the visual and structural format of the novel and how this unique narrative construct reflects on the authenticity of digital landscapes. The manner in which Illuminae is constructed illustrates how adolescents use social media and virtual networking to engage and interact with audiences, both real and imagined. Specifically, I will explore how social media and communication technologies are incorporated and presented in Illuminae while investigating how it depicts truth and authenticity in representation of the self and the relationships we form between ourselves and the digital other.

Published in 2015, Illuminae, the first in the Illuminae Files, is co-authored by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. The novel is set in space in the distant future, and the narrative quickly shifts from a planet colony to an evacuating fleet of three vessels, chased by an enemy warship. Teenagers Kady and Ezra broke up the day their planet was invaded, and after their home is destroyed, losing friends and family, they are forced to rely on each other. Unfortunately, this is particularly difficult as they are on different ships. Although they are on spaceships, a large proportion of the narrative is set within a digital landscape of instant messaging, emails, and shared virtual data.

This digital landscape is further supported by the format of the book itself. Illuminae is published in three different formats: a physical hardcopy book, a digital eBook, and an Audiobook. The publishing industry is evolving alongside technology, offering readers multiple story-telling mediums, changing how readers not only read these narratives but also how they engage with them. Illuminae, however, is unique in how it embraces the idea of multimedia. Kaufman and Kristoff create a narrative that uses sound effects in the audiobook version, and visual and structural forms in the text and digital versions, to represent the transgression of the boundaries between physical and digital spaces.

This paper primarily examines the hardcopy text; however, the distinctions between the three formats will be briefly mentioned. Illuminae’s narrative is constructed from a compilation of classified documents, interview transcripts, surveillance footage summaries, diary entries, personal messages, emails and word art. The use of the space on the page, and the words and graphics on it, encourages readers to visually engage with the narrative being told. For example, the sentence “This message will shred automatically for security purposes” (Kaufman and Kristoff 31), fades and the letters drip off the page, the words paired with the literal action of the message being destroyed. Coffee stains and photo copy marks increase the visual appeal, adding a sense of authenticity to the documents, and graphics delineate sections, such as Kady’s personal journal with a skull and crossbones on a black background decorated with ones and zeroes (Kaufman and Kristoff 77). Using black and white space builds tension and adds to the overall reading experience. For example, the quote “All of it happening in perfect, absolute‚Ķ” (Kaufman and Kristoff 48) “Silence” (Kaufman and Kristoff 49). The smaller font centred and to the right, echoing the meaning of the word. The first fighter battle between the Alexander and the chasing Lincoln is particularly evocative in the joint use of word art. The communications between pilots are shaped like fighter planes (Kaufman and Kristoff 270-1), the movement of ships are swirls of sentences across the page (Kaufman and Kristoff 272-3), and the descriptions of the pilots’ fates are visually echoed (Kaufman and Kristoff 274-5). It appeals to an audience that frequently turns to the visual stimuli of television, film and online media to be entertained. Rather than descriptive sentences found in standard books, the combination of the graphics and formatting express the action far more evocatively in a shorter space. Illuminae encourages a full body reading experience while evoking the movement within the narrative, with some sections requiring the book to be rotated (Kaufman and Kristoff 286-7). It is an engagement that crosses the novel’s formats of the hardcopy, digital and audio versions, though in slightly different ways.

Compared to the hardcopy book, the digital version presents certain pages broken up over more than one page, such as the ship designs and classifications. Some of the double page spreads are made extra small to fit on a single viewing page, and all the black pages are framed in white. The digital version lacks the same evocative full body experience of the hardcopy book, despite how many of the files included are implied to have been originally in a digital format. The audio book, however, encountered different challenges. Taking a narrative that relies so heavily on visual representations and interpreting it in audio alone demanded a different kind of audiobook, a production more akin to a radio drama than a voice-only reading. The twenty voice actors are supported by a “special sound bed” made up of droning sounds and other sound effects; however, a lot of Illuminae is not meant to be voiced, such as the rose shaped out of the words I’M SORRY or the emoji representing shock or confusion 0_o. The signposting that indicates a change of speaker in most narratives, such as the word ‘said’, and indicators of dialogue, such as speech marks, is absent in both the hardcopy and audio versions, relying instead on the talent of the narrators to make clear the change of character through modulating their own tone of voice.

Kaufman and Kristoff push the use of multimedia even further to tell their story through the novel’s website. Readers have the opportunity to become further involved with stories and authors by accessing additional content on websites and online communities where they can share fanart and fanfiction, discuss the narratives with other readers, or get in touch with the authors directly through email or twitter. While the website is used to support the original narrative and pull readers further into the story, the line between real and imaginary blurs with the text’s inclusion of names and photographs of real people. There are eight pages listing the names of those killed on one of the ships and then a mosaic of photographed faces representing the casualty list (Kaufman and Kristoff 60). As part of the promotional campaign for the second book, Gemina, due out the end of 2016, readers were given the opportunity to go into a sweepstakes for their names to be included in the Gemina casualty list. Kaufman and Kristoff offer readers the unique opportunity to breach the boundaries that usually separate the reader from the text as they actually become a part of the narrative. Not only does Illuminae offer readers a full body reading experience through the visual stimuli and word layout, but additional bonuses through the website and social media platforms encourages a deeper engagement with the text.

The manner in which Illuminae is constructed illustrates how adolescents use social media and virtual networking to engage and interact with audiences, both real and imagined. In Illuminae, Kady and Ezra are immediately separated and remain so for the majority of the narrative. Networked systems are relied upon by the fleeing ships to connect people and Kady and Ezra communicate through emails and instant messages; however, after an event that leads to distrust between the escort ship Alexander and the scientific research vessel Hypatia, their messages are limited to 7 minutes. According to danah boyd, teenagers are often treated as “a vulnerable population” as well as a “potentially delinquent population that had not yet matured” (94). Because of these conflicting beliefs, teenagers have to decide between two options: submit to or resist the authority of adults. This is particularly challenging for teenagers when adults attempt to monitor and censor information.

There are three ways in which Illuminae uses censorship in the crafting of the narrative. Firstly, the black out of swear words, which is a direct dig at the book censorship by publishers and libraries prevalent in the U.S and is referenced on the very first page. “Some written materials were censored by the UTA and had to be reconstructed by our commtechs, though profanity remains censored as per your instructions. Sure, the story kicks off with the deaths of thousands of people, but god forbid there be cussing in it, right?” (Kaufman and Kristoff 1). Secondly, the strike through, which a briefing note recognises as an act of censorship. The reader is able to read the information despite this, allowing the personality of the character to exist as well as emphasising the importance of the information censored.

Thirdly, the information that is not included. The majority of documents compiled are already considered classified in some sense, and the potential for information being withheld is hinted throughout the narrative; however, this culminates in the conclusion when the Director, whom the collection of documents was compiled for, realises that the Illuminae Group has not included a vital piece of information, information that the reader is also not apprised of. When this information is exposed, the entire narrative shifts, divulging the real events that occurred, and revealing how the compiler of these reports, the Illuminae Group, have shaped the narrative to hide certain information. Readers must then question the reliability of the narrator, especially when the identity of the Illuminae Group is revealed, and how this unreliability of information is present in contemporary society in social media and online communities.

According to boyd, “social media has reshaped the information and communication ecosystem” (6), including our attitudes towards surveillance and privacy, and states that “there’s a big difference between being in public and being public” (57). The boundaries between privacy and publicity are blurring, and this is most evident in adolescent interactions with social networks. The “public by default, private through effort” (boyd 61) nature of certain social networking sites, such as Facebook, makes it challenging to negotiate the boundaries of social situations, and boyd argues that teenagers frequently find themselves unable to actively control social situations and the flow of information (61). In response to this, it has been discovered that teenagers have begun to view privacy in a slightly different way in comparison to adults (boyd 63). Instead of viewing their photos and online posts as potential breaches of privacy when viewed by unintended audiences, they choose what they want to keep private and assume their intended audience can read between the lines to find what is relevant (boyd 62). boyd states that “Rather than finding privacy by controlling access to content, many teens are instead controlling access to meaning” (76), whether it is by posting in-jokes or withholding information that the intended audience already understands due to face-to-face interactions. It is through this manipulation of publicly shared information within online networks that adolescents expand and strengthen their friendships offline, while avoiding the surveillance of adult authorities. In Illuminae, this is demonstrated by Ezra and his soldier friend James McNulty as they send each other messages, fully aware that their correspondence is being monitored, yet using code, such as Kady’s codename “Astro-Princess” (Kaufman and Kristoff 171), and in-jokes to share private information.

For teens, social media is a way to stay connected with their friends when adults restrict their movements and activities. Illuminae represents this in an extreme situation as the characters are separated by space and actively monitored. The benefits and consequences of the online world have become a focus of many young adult novels, with authors trying to determine, or at least offer potential outcomes for lives dominated by these virtual spaces, but are these truly as bad as our media culture wants us to believe? Kaufman and Kristoff’s Illuminae reflects that technology is changing how we interact, creating a distance that could remove a sense of intimacy and empathy. Sherry Turkle observes that teenagers are reluctant to make phone calls as they lack the ability to edit their content (11). Turkle warns that while we can create multiple selves to fulfil certain digital landscapes, we are potentially disconnecting ourselves from our true and authentic selves. The line between who we are and how we want to be viewed is blurring, and this is reflected in our relationships. The relationships we have with the unknown, unseen audiences on the other side of screens, hidden in virtual spaces and behind manufactured names, are particularly complex. Eden Litt defines these imagined audiences as “the mental conceptualization of the people with whom we are communicating” and suggests that “[t]he less an actual audience is visible or known, the more individuals become dependent on their imagination” (331). As much as we use social media to increase our connectivity with our family and peers, we inadvertently, or on purpose, connect with these unknown, unintended entities.

Imagined audiences can greatly influence how an individual behaves within online communities, but the reality is that these audiences are not always who we think they are. The consequences of the tension between these two audiences are frequently explored in young adult literature as teenagers often have an inaccurate view of their audiences (boyd 33). boyd states that teenagers must negotiate who can see their online presence, who actually sees it, and how their content could be interpreted (32). In Illuminae, the teenage characters behave as if they are always being watched because they are always being monitored through their virtual foot print and the surveillance cameras. Kady attempts to become invisible, and Ezra shapes his behaviour to fit in. How the characters behave and interact with the digital landscape encourages young adult readers to consider the various forms of disconnection between ourselves and others.

Our relationships with technology have delved into the realms of the fetish, eliciting devotion, as we place more importance on our devices than is warranted, based on what they do. A prime example is the smartphone. Its increasingly extensive role in our lives has developed into an emotional attachment, in which many of us believe we would be unable to survive without the device. Is the formation of relationships something that belongs innately to, and between, humans? Can we not create bonds with the nonhuman? Or do we personify the nonhuman? The authenticity of artificial life, whether it is intelligent or only appears intelligent, is a concept that has been debated extensively. Turkle examines the importance of authenticity when we are confronted with the potential for machines to take over the jobs that require a certain level of empathy, such as companionship, that have been, until recently, only fulfilled by humans and animals. An example is the seal, Paro, a Japanese designed robot that has been used in nursing homes to help treat depression and dementia. Paro is an artificial intelligence that learns. It can recognise its name and reacts to stimuli such as petting and being spoken to. It encourages residents to offer comfort and in return find comfort themselves.

Turkle comments that “[w]e don’t seem to care what these artificial intelligences “know” or “understand” of the human moments we might “share” with them … the performance of connection seems connection enough” (9), creating satisfying yet shallow relationships, a bond that will only ever be one-sided. While Turkle does not devalue robots or artificial created intelligences, as Paro, for example, is clearly beneficial to its users, she questions the growing desire we have for an intimate relationship between ourselves and machines. Turkle states that machines lack “the ability to put oneself in the place of another, to relate to the other because of a shared store of human experiences: we are born, have families, and know loss and the reality of death” (6). On the other hand, a machine can have an inventor or programmer, the equivalent of a human mentor or parent, and they can be switched off, much like death, so are their experiences comparable to human ones after all?

The birth of the artificial intelligence Aidan is disjointed, a mix of confused utterings such as “I think therefore I am … Am I?” (Kaufman and Kristoff 264) and error messages followed by an entire page of the name Aidan repeated over and over again (Kaufman and Kristoff 265). From the very beginning, Aidan questions its existence “I? ” (Kaufman and Kristoff 266) and then indirectly compares itself to God when it admits, “All this in the time it takes God to blink” (Kaufman and Kristoff 267). Its emotions become more complex: envy (Kaufman and Kristoff 292), superiority, “they are insects beside me” (Kaufman and Kristoff 293), and an apathy obvious during the moment Aidan oversees the deaths of the Alexander’s commanding officers: “Numbers do not feel. Do not bleed or weep or hope. They do not know bravery or sacrifice. Love or allegiance. At the very apex of callousness, you will find only ones and zeroes” (Kaufman and Kristoff 299). The central words “AM I NOT MERCIFUL” (Kaufman and Kristoff 307) on a black page is particularly chilling.

The relationship between Kady and Aidan begins when Aidan impersonates someone she knows to manipulate her into action, and their relationship develops into something complex as Aidan continues to evolve. The relationship reflects both the complexity of online relationships and the possibilities of AIs, the doubt Kady returns to again and again as she tries to figure out if the AI’s actions are genuinely motivated by affection and empathy or are a result of its programming. While impersonating another person, Aidan tells Kady “as you wish” (Kaufman and Kristoff 343), which is a direct reference to the 1973 romantic fantasy novel The Princess Bride by William Goldman. The quote is code for expressing love, which begs the question, what is Aidan’s motivation? When Aidan considers providing Kady privacy to grieve unobserved, it concludes human emotions as “meat logic. Sticky. Wet. Irrelevant” (Kaufman and Kristoff 422).

Later it admits: “I do not fully comprehend human notions such as love and grief. I can imitate their patterns, but when forced to improvise, I am as a man being asked to describe the warmth of the sun when he has only seen its picture” (Kaufman and Kristoff 431). Yet Aidan does eventually switch off the surveillance feeds to allow Kady time to grieve, the surveillance footage analyst commenting: “it’s almost like … it was giving her privacy or something. In the middle of all this carnage and blood and death, where every single second counts, this psychotic killing machine that’s X-ed out thousands of people somehow finds it within itself to give Grant a few moments with nobody watching” (Kaufman and Kristoff 471). Aidan is also artistic, a trait often assigned to humankind; his poetry bounces across the bottom of the page, typographical anomalies reminiscent of a city skyline and echoing Kady’s movements outside the vessel: “She moves in long, slow bounds across the Alexander’s hull, magboots scrapping my skin. It is cold out here. So cold. Your blood would freeze in your veins, your eyes turn to ice inside your skull. And even on the edge of absolute zero, she is graceful as a dancer” (Kaufman and Kristoff 474-5). Aidan contemplates what it means to exist, and when Kady accuses Aidan of fearing death, it repeats its earlier comment, “That is meat logic. Sticky. Wet. Irrelevant” (Kaufman and Kristoff 490). The following discussion of life and death and whether Aidan can be considered to be truly alive, Kady questions whether a new version of Aidan would be the same, lacking the experiences of the current iteration. The conversation develops to whether the AI can feel emotions. Aidan compares the biological programming of a mother’s love for her child with its own programming to protect the fleet, and, inadvertently, declares its love for both the fleet and Kady.

The eventual breakdown of Aidan is indicated through the differing letter sizes of its dialogue (Kaufman and Kristoff 499) and, after Aidan crashes and reboots, it experiences a form of body confusion: “I hold my hand in front of my face and try to wipe my eyes The eyes outside. The corridor beyond. They are mine. I - “ (Kaufman and Kristoff 509). As Aidan’s systems fail, it calls out to Kady and then the representation of a heartbeat made of ones and zeroes runs across the page (Kaufman and Kristoff 556-559).

Masahiro Mori uses the term ‘uncanny valley’ in his 1970s paper to describe what occurs when the similarity to the human is close, but not identical, such that the viewer loses affinity for the object and finds it disconcerting (98). The closing distance between the artificial and the human that Mori demonstrates, is clear in the representation of Aidan, it sometimes behaves like a human, but there is something uncomfortably off about the entity. In recent young adult literature, the representation of the intelligent machine has had mixed success; however, Illuminae contributes to the debate regarding artificial intelligences by portraying the tensions that result from the phenomenon of the uncanny valley. Aidan’s actions and words are at times comparable to a human’s, yet there are moments when his humanity is questioned. With technology advancing so rapidly, it is difficult to predict where it may take us and what its effects will be on our relationships with others. Robots are being purpose built for companionship and the uncanny valley is disappearing in literature, as the nonhuman appears indistinguishable from human beings. Our relationships with each other, and with technology itself, are evolving, and in young adult science fiction, the innate ability to connect with others is no longer confined to humans alone.

In conclusion, by closely examining Illuminae, this paper sheds light on the representation of social media in young adult science fiction. It addresses the importance of such fiction in offering adolescent readers a space to reflect on the complexities of interacting and communicating with others in relation to the shifting boundaries between the real and the virtual.


  • boyd, danah. It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. Print.
  • Kaufman, Amie, and Jay Kristoff. Illuminae. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2015. Print. 558.
  • Litt, Eden. “Knock, Knock. Who’s There? The Imagined Audience.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 56.3 (2012): 330-45. Web. 25 May 2015.
  • Mori, Masahiro. “The Uncanny Valley.” Trans. Karl F. MacDorman and Takashi Minato. Android Science, 2005. Web. 17 Aug. 2015.
  • —. “The Uncanny Valley.” Trans. Karl F. MacDorman and Norri Kageki. IEEE Robotics & Automation Magazine June (2012): 98-100. Web. 19 May 2015.
  • Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books, 2011. Print.