We open the book:
Floating high above the city, dipping and swooping through the valleys of cinderblocks and concrete, landing on the edge of a rooftop to look down on the inhabitants below. Watching, seeing, learning. They walk along the streets, alleys, and avenues. Moving here, going there, in a constant state of rush. Appointments to be kept, people to see, things to do. (1)
The first page of Jennifer Marie Brissett’s first novel is intoxicating: sentences and fragments dipping and swooping and zooming in from the panorama to the buildings to the people, and eventually to a protagonist. (We’ll get to her in a moment.) What do we take from this paragraph when we’re not just being carried along by it? We might wonder about the identity of an observer who sees the citizens as “they.” Perhaps we then notice the text printed at the bottom of the facing page zero—not where you expect a book to begin, easy to miss in the rush to chapter one, but it catches your eye when you’re partway down the page—
>> open bridge
Connecting . . .
—and we think, aha. All is not as it seems. Here is the intelligence behind those opening sentences. They might be bridging from another world, or another time, or outside the Matrix, but they’re an outsider, all right. And who are they interested in? Back on page one:
And Adrianne was one of them. She had somewhere to go. It was not deathly important. Just something she had been looking forward to all week, lunch with a friend at a place where they could sit by a window and watch the beautiful ones pass, examine their clothes, and take notes while rolling noodles around their forks, pretending to eat. (1)
The unmarked transition from observer to confidante, privy to Adrianne’s plans and feelings, makes our narrator seem rather ghostly. And the middle-class normality of those plans and feelings—lunch with her friend Helen—is, in context, disorientating. What, exactly, is going on here? Brissett keeps us waiting for a definitive answer to that question, and I’m going to keep you waiting for a while, as well; because while the answer is central to the ambition and power of Elysium, the journey through the labyrinth is at least half of what makes the novel so rewarding.
Chapter one continues. Adrianne is in an unnamed but apparently modern city in summer: a jumble of new and old buildings, stone and glass, the chill of air-conditioned boutiques and the smell of street food, the chatter of tourist buses and whispers of foreign wars. Unexpectedly, she sees an elk among the traffic, carelessly majestic yet apparently invisible to everyone else. Adrianne and the elk have a moment of connection, briefly broken by the passage of a bus and then resumed; and then the elk nods, wanders away, and Adrianne, of course, forgets about the encounter, with only a nagging strangeness remaining. Other strangenesses accumulate. Distracted by “a dot of green hovering in the blue sky” (the observer, we wonder?), Adrianne is injured by falling scaffolding, which prompts a burst of the same code chatter that we noticed on page zero, this time indicating a system failure and reboot (just a loss of connection, we wonder? Or is this the Matrix after all?). After making it home, and not-quite-arguing with her boyfriend Antoine, the following morning Adrianne has another animal encounter, this time with a large owl, looking in through her window, which like the elk meets her gaze, fathoms her soul, and then leaves. In its wake, she notices a timeslip: it is now autumn. The code returns, runs a diagnostic, and then resumes the bridge. It is the end of the chapter. We take a breath. We turn the page.
Adrian wakes up and goes to the bathroom. “His jaw felt funny, and his skin was rough [...] for a second, he didn’t recognise the face” (10). If the first code interruption changed the world, this time it seems to have changed our protagonist. Antoine is ill, but still present, and the pair are still partners. Now we follow Adrian as he goes out to the gym, and brunch, and casual sex with a gym-buddy, Hector—who, another moment of slippage alerts us, seems to be this world’s version of the Helen that Adrianne was meeting back in chapter one (or at least Adrian, in the delirium of sex, briefly confuses them). The changes continue: when Adrian returns home, to an argument with Antoine about his infidelity, a MAJOR FAULT in the code shifts us to the same argument between Adrianne and Antoinette. “He’s only waiting for me to die so he can finally have you,” Antoine tells Adrian, on page 20. “Don’t ever say that!” Adrianne replies to Antoinette, on page 21. “You know it’s true,” she replies. “Promise me that you won’t choose her after I’m gone.”
As we read on the changes escalate, and we find ourselves drifting away from anything that could be mistaken for a version of our contemporary world: soon we are reading a longish section set in what appears to be a modern Roman Empire, with Adrianne a Vestal Virgin, Helen her friend, and Antoinette (or Antoine) absent (at least for a while). Later the setting becomes a hospital, and still later the city has become a ruin, its inhabitants strange and changed. Each shift is marked by code, apparently repairing, reloading, revising. There are over a dozen such breaks, and almost as many worlds, in the first hundred pages; not all of them are equally vivid, but the sense of systemic instability they create is exhilarating.
So it takes a little while (assuming you don’t read the blurb, or the whole of this review) to decide exactly what type of story we are reading, what relationship the bursts of code have to the worlds we are travelling through. A first reaction might be that this is a revision of Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975), in which versions of a single identity from different worlds (simulated or real) are collided. But each world in Elysium retains its integrity—there is never a moment when Adrian and Adrianne are together. A second reaction might be to notice that the Roman section, in particular, echoes history, and to wonder whether every section is doing the same, layering both history and myth around single iterating identities in the manner of a work like Hal Duncan's The Book of All Hours (2005-2007). Yet this is not quite right either, because however convoluted it becomes page-to-page, there is a clear narrative throughline in Elysium, not repeating but evolving, threading the worlds and the characters. Adrianne the Vestal Virgin is punished by her sisters for consorting with Antoine, and buried alive; her grave becomes solitary confinement in a mental hospital; she becomes Adrian; the narrative flips to Antoine, coming to rescue him; and then they are two young brothers, on the run.
By this point, if not before, we may be asking ourselves: why do we recognise this as narrative? What is it that persists, across these differently named bodies, in varying relations to each other? In what sense do Adrian and Adrianne—who in moments of slippage seem to recognise continuity with each other—share an identity?
It’s not quite right to say that they simply are identities passing through different bodies, on their way to a destination. Elysium wouldn’t work if Brissett weren't able to sketch the various relationships efficiently and vividly, with a bodily specificity that complicates rather than denies the underlying weirdness. The story of the young brothers mentioned above, for example, is filled with youth and urgency, couched in a more rhythmic and driven prose than the stories around it, even slipping into verse at one point, quoting Saul Williams lyrics: “Hearts in two-step beat BREAK / Dance pray work whip beat BREAK / Neck back jump back kiss BREAK / Now shake it off”. The post-apocalyptic parent/child scenario that follows is in contrast tender, elegiac, ruminative; and these differences reflect the versions of Adrian(ne) inhabiting each chapter. (S)he may always have a bond with Antoine(tte), but that bond takes different forms.
Moreover, despite what might be expected, Elysium is arguably not strongly "about gender", at least in the way that phrase is often meant, as being about the individual subjective experience of gender. We never really get close enough to the characters for that; we are with the observer, at a distance. Sometimes this is a weakness, particularly in those sections where Brissett acknowledges that gender is more than just an external imposition. The case study is Helen/Hector, who is not always comfortable in the body assigned by the narrative. When Adrian mistakes the first Hector—one of the "buffed, beautiful men" (13) at his gym—for Helen, Hector is also confused: “Who’s Helen?” (16), he asks. But in a later world, a later Hector has both long hair and "thick unshaven legs" (54), explains to Adrianne that she is trans, and is then astounded (but delighted) that Adrianne already knows her real name (55). There are two problems here. The first is that the description of the later version of the character, by itself, is lazily broad verging on grotesque, a stereotype of trans women (particularly of color) that already has too much currency in the real world. The second is that we are never ushered beyond the description, beyond the external markers of transness. We are not given access to the subjective experience of any version of Hector/Helen—the narrative never even gets close enough to use her correct pronouns—which means we can't compare it to the experiences of Adrian(ne) or Antoine(tte). What's left is a representation that feels more like a point than a person.
And yet if you read Elysium as being not about the experience of gender but about the reception of it, about how the perceptions we have brought to the novel are shaping our understanding of it, the narrative distance that causes this problem becomes at other times a strength. Not being anchored too strongly to any one iteration of the characters means that we inevitably read each new configuration of Adrian(ne) and Antoine(tte) not just as themselves, but as echoes of all their predecessors, and start to ask questions. Would those two young brothers be different if they were sisters? If they were lovers? If they were parent and child? Elysium actively thrusts the work of interpretation onto the reader; or to put it another way, it puts the lie to the collegiate "we" I've been using so far in this review. Do I think the changes matter? In what way, to what extent?
This aspect is more elegantly done, reminding me a little of Helen Oyeyemi’s novel-in-stories Mr Fox (2011), and there is still half of the novel to go. Brissett has not yet fully shown her hand; and she wants us (I think) to keep looking:
“Why is this happening?” she asked. Why are we changing like this?”
He sat in the quiet for a while as he thought how to answer.
“I think somewhere out there someone touched a button that they shouldn’t a’ touched. I don’t know who and I don’t know where, but that’s what I think happened.” (98)
Eleven pages later, bedrock.
Any history of SF is a story, and like any story its emphases will depend on where its narrator is standing and what questions they are asking. The SF that originates with Mary Shelley is not quite the SF that originates with Hugo Gernsback. I'd also argue that any story knowingly written as SF is a history, encoding a version of the past, assumptions about borders and authority and expectation that will never be quite the same from writer to writer. The SF that I have spent my life reading is therefore not the same as the SF that you have spent your life reading: that "we" becomes yet more tenuous, because "we" are all our own best historians.
It turns out that one of the taproot traditions for Elysium is the alien invasion. This fits it neatly into the version of SF history that I know best: as John Rieder (among others) has explored, many ancestral SF texts are deeply shaped by European colonialism, and you don’t get a much more fundamentally colonial narrative than an invasion. Only a few contemporary SF novels even attempt to engage with this history as fully as it deserves, books such as Adam Roberts's The Snow (2004), which approaches it through irony, or Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon (2014), which approaches it through comedy; and even fewer engage, as Elysium does, with sincerity.
What is revealed at Elysium's half-way mark is this: at some point in the future, aliens infect the Earth with a mutagenic dust, irrevocably changing the environment and many of the people. Adrian is an engineer engaged in building one of a series of cavern cities to act as humanity’s Last Redoubt. His wife, Netta, is ill and will die, but not before bearing a son, Antoine. The narrative now is superficially more straightforward—code breaks become less common, and indicate jumps along a coherent timeline, rather than realignments of the world—yet is, if anything, more intense than the novel’s first half. It was when Adrian revealed his grand but grim plan for “an atmospheric encoding project [...] a memorial to mankind” (125), and had himself scanned to provide the human interface for the project, that I fully appreciated what Elysium must be: an increasingly adept attempt by some external agency to access that memorial.
Compared to the radical narrative instability that precedes it, Elysium’s second half might at first seem oddly conventional. There is a Hector, and a Helen, and an Adrianne as well, but they are all now stable, separate identities. But there is an extent to which I suspect that is the point. Every knowingly SFnal novel written today must confront or refuse or transform the tropes and patterns laid down over decades, must do something with them; the alternative is to ignore history at the risk of being stillborn in the megatext. Elysium takes such engagement to the next level. It is a knowing SF novel that encodes within itself not just a history of the genre, but the process of examining and revising that history through extraordinary, joyous transformation. Engineer Adrian is the stone dropped down the well, and the first half of Elysium is the ripples from his impact; and at the same time he is himself the echo of the fall of a much older stone, a tale told over again in hundreds of novels and thousands of stories and in reality. Every page of the novel’s second half claims that it is taking us closer to the truth, but I found every page to be shadowed by the echoes that preceded it, with every recurrence of a situation or a sentence deepening or elaborating the meaning of those echoes until they seemed more real than the thing itself. And, vitally, since Elysium never actually steps outside the system, they are certainly no less real.
And there are ways in which the novel’s second half does foreground its unconventionality. One striking ripple is race: melanin, it seems, offers a certain amount of protection from the alien dust, and without celebrating mass death, Brissett acknowledges the still-necessary radicalness of this disruption, and spins off an unfollowed thread of hope from it. Another ripple is the initial rendering of the alien intrusion as the intrusion of nature into a city—it is an elk and an owl that confront Adrianne on her walk, after all; that they are nearly as out of place in the city as an alien itself would be is a subtle but sharp comment on the monstrousness often now ascribed to the nature that is not us. Moreover it is a classically temperate nature—green plants and blue skies—that remains the dream in this novel, the emblem of what was lost when the aliens came. Nature transformed turned against nature desired: a strikingly contemporary fear.
Through all of this I keep reading. The novel keeps moving down the well and forward in time, decades, centuries. I meet a new Adrianne, who seems more aware of the system than any avatar we have yet encountered. There is more flight. The observer, the operator, the one who touched the button they shouldn’t a’ touched, appears, challenging the reader to answer more questions: if every page of Elysium is an echo, or an echo of an echo of a deep historical trauma, then what does it mean to be listening, to be the recipient of the story? If it is about any one thing for its characters, I would say that Elysium is about resistance, to society, to apocalypse, to fate itself. It is filled with people trying to be (not that they know it) more than echoes: to live. But if it is about any one thing for its readers, I think it is about responsibility, about thinking about how and why we consume certain stories. All of which risks making a novel thoroughly rooted in moments of human experience sound strangely abstract, and risks making a fluent and organic text sound rudely mechanical. It’s really only now, as I stand back and admire the thing complete, that I appreciate the full distance travelled from the first Adrianne’s city walk, forgiving the few blemishes for the sake of an awe-inspiring totality. Page by page Elysium merely dazzles; and then it absorbs; and then, at the end, as it must, it burns. It tells a story, and a history, that matter. You should open the book.