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Elysium Paperback – December 1, 2014
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"Brissett's punch of a debut is bewildering at first, but never so confusing as to frustrate the reader, and repeating elements and symbols help tie everything together--not neatly, for so much of the world is broken, but enough. Brissett deftly handles the challenge of a multitude of characters all being the same people in a multitude of places that are the same place, while exploring complicated questions about identity."
About the Author
Jennifer Marie Brissett is a writer, artist, and former bookseller. She has an MFA in creative writing from the Stonecoast Program at the University of Southern Maine. Her stories can be found in Morpheus Tales, Warrior Wisewoman 2, The Future Fire, Thaumatrope, and Halfway down the Stairs. She is fomer owner of the indie bookstore Indigo Cafe & Books in Brooklyn.--This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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Science fiction is rife with alternate reality stories, in which fixed characters travel to parallel worlds where events have played out differently. But what if we had a single reality instead, and it was the characters themselves who were in flux, shifting in name, appearance, gender, sexual orientation, and so on? That's the fascinating premise behind Brissett's Philip K. Dick award-nominated debut, and she unquestionably does it justice.
To avoid giving you their various names, I'm simply going to call the protagonists A and A. During the novel's first few chapters two things become clear: 1) some kind of AI or computer program is responsible for the constant rewriting of events we're witnessing; 2) no matter how strange the setting, a deep connection binds A and A. The novel's jacket announces that "A computer program etched into the atmosphere has a story to tell," and as you may imagine this relates to item 1. But why is it telling its story, who is it telling it to, and how do A and A figure in it?
To find out, a little patience is required. One of Brissett's narrative strengths is the visceral immediacy of her scenes, wrought through attention to physical detail and sparse prose. The rhythms of urban life and decay are compellingly conjured. Characters -- even when we've caught on to the fact that they probably won't be around for long, at least in their current incarnations -- are absorbing. But this succession of gritty scenes, each with its tunnel vision and emphasis on existential problems, doesn't seem to be getting us nearer to an understanding of the underlying forces at work in their world.
At least, not at first. If we pay close attention we're rewarded. Details that carry from one scene to the next eventually pave the way for much larger revelations, and subsequent time jumps put all the strangeness into perspective. The last few chapters make clear exactly what is happening.
I like the novel's mosaic, hall-of-mirrors structure. The closest example I can think of is the relatively obscure Vain Art of the Fugue (1973 Fr; Eng translation 2007) by Romanian writer Dumitru Tsepeneag, who similarly keeps changing his characters and reshuffling a few basic actions into a plethora of permutations. But Elysium is not ultimately about formal experimentation; its structure serves a plot-related purpose, and the link between A and A transcends particulars, keeping us emotionally invested throughout.
Some of the novel's passages are quite striking, and it's jam-packed with ideas, some of them probably familiar to sf readers. The notion that changing the code of a computer program could rewrite reality, for example, evokes cyberpunk texts, and of course The Matrix (1999). A "dust" virus that causes characters to sprout wings leads to a scene in which they take to the skies and explore ancient, abandoned buildings, which reminded me a bit of Robert Silverberg's Nightwings (1968). And the combination of same-but-different-events, powerful behind-the-scenes forces, and urban angst, made me think of Jack Skillingstead's Life on the Preservation (2013), which was also nominated for a PKD award.
Make no mistake, though, this astutely-crafted novel is entirely Brissett's creation. Her unique voice, elegant narrative structure and pared-down prose result in something fresh and innovative. This is a post-apocalyptic love story in which neither apocalypse nor love are what you expect.
I was stunned that Elysium is a debut novel, and fans of post-apocalyptic fiction would be missing out if they don't pick it up.
I finished this novel in record time on vacation, where I never finish a novel.
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