Elysium, or, The World After
Jennifer Marie Brissett
Aqueduct Press, 2014
Philip K. Dick Award nominee
Locus List: Best Debut Speculative Novel
Science fiction books often get a bad rep for being weird as sin and hard to follow. Yeah, Elysium, Or, The World After is all that.
And totally worth the effort.
I will say, however, if you’ve never read a science fiction book before in your life, Brisset’s debut novel is not the one to start with. Longtime science fiction readers have learned to roll with things they don’t understand for as long as it takes for the story to reveal itself. If you’re used to a traditional narrative, you may have a hard time rolling with the shifts that happen constantly in this book. Our main character, Adri[enne/ian] is sometimes a woman, sometimes a man. The universe s/he exists in shifts at every break, too. Sometimes, Adri[enne/ian]’s world is nearly identical to present day, sometimes it’s full of mutants and aliens, and sometimes it resembles something out of Handmaid’s Tale (by Margaret Atwood.)
Each shift is signaled very plainly by an interruption of computer code—a sting of commands to reconfigure or defrag the system. Each time we see that, the reader knows that what follows will not be the same as the last.
The story is held together by a core relationship. Most of the time Adri[enne/ian] is lovers with Antoine (who also shifts gender), but sometimes they’re siblings, sometimes parent/child. Regardless, they’re always together in some way and always about to be torn apart by danger, death, and/or a nebulous coming war.
As the story progresses, the reader (and the narrator) get more and more aware of what might really be going on. Similarly, the deeper into the book the reader goes, the more outlandish and science fictional the world becomes—which made me more and more satisfied, but which could frustrate a more traditional reader. For instance, if you hated the sudden turn towards science fiction in “Vanilla Sky,” this could really bother you (though this outcome is far more telegraphed than that one. In fact, an observant reader might see it coming from the first shift.)
Brisset’s writing is very sensual, which helps ground the reader in each new reality as it appears. Once I realized that I should stay detached and to try not to invest too much in any given situation, I began to look forward to what new strange society our hero/ine might find her/himself in. The only problem with that, of course, is that when you find one you really like the narrative will suddenly shift and you’re never allowed to truly explore all the edges and implications of that relationship or the world it exists in. Then again, when you hit one you don’t like, it’s gone before it really starts to bother you.
I’m not surprised that this book is getting the attention that it is. Elysium, or, The World After is dense, it makes you think, and very slyly brings up social-political themes, both with the shifting gender and sexual orientation and race of the character, as well as the ultimate outcome of the society. It’s a science fiction reader’s science fiction read.