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Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett
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Elysium

by Jennifer Marie Brissett

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Elysium opens with a series of vignettes depicting Adrian/Adrianne and Antoine/Antoinette, in each of which the two are of different genders – male/female, male/male, female/female; as are also some of the supporting characters. This section (sections) reads like mimetic fiction, but breaking them up is what appears to be output from a computer program (in the form of error messages). The novel then takes an abrupt swerve into alternate history, in which Adrianne is a Vestal Virgin in a modern-day Western city, before then heading into post-apocalypse territory as off-stage alien invaders release some form of dust which mutates human beings and brings about the collapse of civilisation. One of the two main characters becomes one such mutant herself and develops wings. Another shift, and now Adrian is the chief designer of an underground city – a geofront, from the description – in which some of humanity plan to survive, safe from the mutagenic dust and the alien invaders. They’re also building starships to take them to another world. It is at this point in the story that the novel reveals a plan to use the atmosphere to store an archive of human civilisation, and it is the operating system of this which is genersating the computer messages and actually “telling” the story of Elysium. In the final section, Adrianne is a prisoner in a concentration camp run by the alien invaders, and when one of the aliens is imprisoned with them, she learns from it that the aliens had killed all the humans who had not escaped Earth, and that she is no more than a simulation run by the archive in the atmosphere (as, indeed, were all the other narratives in the novel). While Elysium certainly has its moments, the writing is rough to begin with – “The water of sorrow ran like a river down the curve of Adrianne’s cheek”? – but soon improves, or at least becomes less of a barrier. The gender- and sexuality-switching in the opening sections is also neat and cleverly-done, and I thought the Vestal Virgin part especially good… but the post-apocalypse section, and the geo-front section, were a bit dull, and the novel only picked up again with Adrianne in the prison camp, a section which pretty much seems to serve no purpose other than to explain the entire book. In many respects, Elysium reminded me a lot of Sue Thomas’s Correspondence, although I thought Correspondence a much more difficult, but more rewarding, read. ( )
  iansales | Sep 5, 2016 |
Hot damn. Debut novelist Jennifer Marie Brissett takes a simple story of loss—a very human story of loss and love—and refracts it into multiple narratives to explore interesting ideas related to AI, alternate realities, and memory and history.

The opening scene in Elysium starts off with a literary kick. Those first few pages read like a surreal, ghost-in-the-machine version of Mrs. Dalloway. In the first line, an omniscient observer of some kind swoops down and zeroes in on a city scene. It observes a woman, Adrianne, going about her business, running errands, contemplating lunch with a friend, doing some window shopping. Things seem ordinary enough until Adrianne starts noticing a few things along the way: an eerie green dot in the sky; an elk wandering the streets; an owl on the windowsill. Each encounter (or vision) seems to stir something deep in Adrianne’s soul.

When Adrianne is injured by some falling scaffolding, the event seems to open up some kind of narrative glitch. A burst of code babble spills out on the page and suddenly the entire world of the novel is reset. Pick your jargon: System failure. Connection broken. A diagnostic program tries to fix things.

And then we’re returned to the story. Adrianne goes home and we learn of her strained relationship with her live-in boyfriend, Antoine. She goes to sleep and wakes up. But something’s off. It’s no longer summer but autumn. With the turn of a few sentences, a kind of timeslip takes place. If you aren’t paying attention, you could almost miss it. Adrianne is now Adrian, a man. Something or someone (the AI?) has swapped out our leading lady so seamlessly you might think it were a typo.

Half the fun of reading Elysium is diving into the mystery of why this is all happening. The bursts of code obviously have something to do with the narrative slippages, but how and why? Previously, it was Adrianne and her boyfriend, Antoine; now, it’s Adrian and his boyfriend Antoine. Helen, her friend, is now Hector. Readers will quickly realize that we’re looking at variations of Adrianne / Adrian – Antoine / Antoinette. The relationship continues to twirl and change: We also see lovers, father-daughter, husband-wife, siblings. Barring the AI element, this might as well be an exploration of eternal recurrence or reincarnation.

Somewhere, always watching, a program is rebooted; a diagnostic scan is run; lines of code are repaired and reloaded. Narrative elements are constantly being reshuffled like a deck of cards—and we’re treated to a new story. These cascades of instability can be whiplash-inducing, but follow along and an elegant form is revealed. Like in any programming, there are patterns. Motifs keep appearing: the elk, the green dot in the sky, the reference to vestal virgins, and so many others.

In the hands of a less skilled writer, the novel’s ambitious scope might have backfired badly. But Elysium was surprisingly readable and it was relatively easy to keep track of who was who. Brissett keeps every iteration fresh and each new pairing we meet feels vivid and unique. She might not have the character ventriloquism of say, David Mitchell, but Brissett holds her own and manages to give the characters their own individual voices and cadences. The most evocative sections for me are the ones with the two young brothers and the father and daughter.

As the book progresses, the stories and setting become more and more fantastical and bleak. The standalone quality of each iteration starts to break down and a larger, more integrated story picks up speed as the mystery of the shadowy AI is revealed. Who built it? Why was it built?

By the middle of the book, things get complicated. At one point, we learn that aliens invaded and settled on Earth. Their arrival precipitated a kind of mutagenic dust bowl and infected the air, changing all life on the planet. From the beginning, we know there has been some kind of super-intelligence at work, a kind of AI set up high above ground, observing the world below. It lurks in the background, though we can’t be sure of causality: Is it creating the different worlds we’re seeing, or is it merely responding to it? It’s a kind of chicken-and-the-egg conundrum that doesn’t show its hand until the end.

Brissett gives us layer after layer, seemingly making things more complicated and opaque but what she’s actually doing is pulling back the curtain ever so slowly. The structure of the book made me think of Ravel’s Bolero, a composition that builds slowly from a single tendril of sound. It meanders but gathers power and force over time.

It’s inevitable that people will compare the novel to the film, The Matrix, but Elysium is much more nuanced than that. The big difference is that Elysium never really steps outside of itself like the characters in the film do, splitting their time between the real, drab world—the desert of the real—and the glittering, computer-imagined world. In many ways, Elysium is all about that ‘imagined’ world, history and memory.

Readers will have their theories, but for my money I think Brissett fundamentally sets out to tell a story of soul mates and love—and the threats to those bonds. It’s not death or betrayal that threaten those ties with our loved ones; rather, it’s the threat of forgetting. So we create our avatars, murals, homages and memorials and write songs and poetry and tell stories. Again and again. In his in-depth review, Niall Harrison writes: ”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 I’ll say is that Elysium has an ending that is both expected and surprising. The revelation is a slow build; I appreciated that we aren’t just given a deus ex machina ending or an info-dump.

And then there’s the silence where you close the book…and press reset.
>>
>> open bridge
Connecting . . .
*BRIDGE CONNECTED*

( )
1 vote gendeg | May 11, 2015 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Jennifer Marie Brissettprimary authorall editionscalculated
Wilham, KathrynDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The flutter flutter of death's wings came for my beloved, but I was not ready to let go...
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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 upon the inhabitants below.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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