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Feb 01

Book Review: Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett

What’s It About

This is not an easy book to describe without giving away spoilers.  So I’ve borrowed from the back cover blurb.

As the novel’s characters struggle to survive apocalypse, they are sustained and challenged by the demands of love in a shattered world both haunted and dangerous.

Should I Read It?

Yes.  While it’s another apocalypse novel it’s also the most imaginative book on the PKD ballot.  Crammed with SFnal ideas that go well beyond your traditional apocalypse narrative, the novel has an innovative structure that means the setting is always changing and so is the gender and identity of the protagonists.  What’s remarkable is how Brissett ties all these disparate ideas and threads together into a satisfying resolution.

Like Cheryl Morgan, though, I was less than convinced by the novel’s “interrogation” of gender.  Not that this is a deal-break – Elysium is an exciting debut novel.

 

Representative Paragraph

I’ll be honest, I have no idea what the elk symbolises – the passage below is not its first appearance – but the imagery here is lovely.

A side door opened and a sizable elk trotted onto the field of artificial green.  Its tall head of antlers spread wide and pointed in all directions.  It pranced about, clearly stunned.  Adrianne had a nasty, sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.  It soured still more when another door opened.  Something from the darkness growled angrily, then snarled.  All went quiet.  The elk stood stock-still.  A large cat sprang out, maybe a mountain lion.  It eyed the elk and ducked low, slowed its motion to small graceful steps.  Adrianne wanted to yell to the elk to run.  Instead she remained frozen in her seat.  Her mouth went dry and her heart pounded.  With incredible speed and to be the cheers of the enthusiastic crowd, the cat pounced.  The elk galloped, but the lion was too quick.  It pulled down the elk with its mighty paws.  The audience jumped to its feet and applauded wildly.

Adrianne screamed.

Commentary

In November last year, Jennifer Marie Brissett wrote about her inspiration for Elysium on the SF Signal website.  She remarked,

I mean the whole book came to me, not word for word or even chapter for chapter, but the story and even the structure of the book all flowed from the theme that appeared in my mind: the story of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and his lover Antinous.

As I wasn’t aware of the story of Hadrian or Antinous, or that Hadrian built monuments in memory of his dead lover, this thematic hook made no impression on me.  But I don’t think it matters, Elysium is recognisably a story about coming to terms with lost love.

Having said that, what excited me about the novel was less the relationship between the protagonists and more the novel’s non linear structure and its playful mash-up of traditional SF ideas.  Everything from the end of the world, to the development of a powerful AI, to an alien invasion, to the possibility of human colonisation on other planets features in the novel.  If that’s not enough, our protagonists regularly experience shifts in their setting, ranging from present day New York to an alien prison camp to survival in a post apocalyptic city.  Each of those reality shifts spark a change in gender Adrianne / Adrian – Antoinette / Antoine – and the status of their relationship – lovers / parent and child / brother and sister.  It makes for an unpredictable and unsteady reading experience.  Unlike the other novels nominated for the PKD Award, I had no idea where Brissett was going to take us next and which iteration of her protagonists would be in the starring roles.  What’s especially remarkable is just when you think the ideas and concepts are going to go unresolved, the last third of the novel satisfyingly ties everything together.

Because gender is pivotal to Elysium‘s structure, the implication is that Brissett is saying something profound about sexual identity.  At one level it could be argued that with all the shifts and changes, she is arguing that when it comes to love and grief, gender and identity are constructs that don’t matter.  However, I’m less than convinced with this reading, especially when I consider this observation from Cheryl Morgan in her excellent review of the novel :

The thing that occurred to me very early on in reading the book was that the gender performance of the characters was always normative. That is, when a character had a male name, he behaved like a man; when she had a female name she behaved liked a woman… Also, as we get further into the book, it becomes obvious that these characters are not always the same person, in which case they are not actually switching gender. In neither case is anything particularly innovative about gender being said.

But if the gender aspect doesn’t entirely work, this shouldn’t be seen as a deal-breaker.  The book has been described as ambitious, a term often used when an author strives to do something different but doesn’t entirely succeed.  I think Elysium, for the most part, does succeed.  Brissett, in her handling of structure, plot and characterisation, gives us an SF novel that’s not only about the ideas, and not only surprises with its shift in setting and gradual reveal of the truth, but does that rare thing of actually sticking the landing.

Buggered though if I know what’s going on with that elk.

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