Let me just say up front that while I’m all about urban fantasy, I don’t usually go in for sci-fi, alien dystopia-ish books. Movies are a different story, but it’s just not a genre I’ve ever been very interested in — probably because so many authors in the genre are men writing about male characters, driven by war plots and that’s not really my jam.
Jennifer Marie Brissett’s Elysium is not that kind of book. Yes, there’s aliens. Yes, there’s war. Yes, there’s some crazy sci-fi computer glitch mucking up the narrative (in a completely intentional, awesome way). But it’s not the book you’re thinking of. I want to be clear with you right now, nothing I say about the book will prepare you for what’s actually going on. The reveal at the end is a satisfying mystery. Do you know what happened? Maybe. Maybe not. Not completely, and it’s the not-completely-knowing aspect of it that’s gonna stick with you. As a voracious reader, I can tell when a book is going to haunt me and this is one.
I read Elysium in under 12 hours. I put it down to sleep, eat and pet the cat and that’s about it. The book was nominated for a 2014 Philip K Dick Award and it’s been favorably compared to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. As someone who’s attempted Cloud Atlas a dozen times and failed to make it past the first 100 pages, I can say that I see the validity of the comparison and I’ll raise you a perhaps controversial, “I think this is better.” Maybe it’s because I was able to finish this one, but let’s chalk that up to my readerly issues and move on.
Elysium does something similar to Cloud Atlas, structurally speaking, in that it weaves many seemingly different stories together, with the stabilizing force of core symbols and characters that give the reader the sense that they are clicking puzzle pieces into place, chapter by chapter. While Cloud Atlas suggests that reincarnation is at the core of the repeating narrative elements, Elysium does something different. The storylines are separated by broken computer code, suggesting a technological explanation for the different narratives.
I don’t want to say much more about how the story is constructed, because part of the joy in reading Elysium is unraveling the mystery and it is a mystery, whatever you think the deal is for the first half is not what the deal actually is. The novel explores the potential of universal love, by putting its main characters Adrianne/Adrian and Antoinette/Antoine in myriad gender expressions and relationships. They’re lovers in some stories, parent and child in others, siblings in yet others and while this seems as though it might be confusing or jarring, somehow it’s not. Once you get used to the idea that whoever Adrianne/Adrian and Antoinette/Antoine are in the moment is impermanent, you’re left to let the apocalypse sink in.
Because while I would argue that the complicated pondering about love is what the novel is about, this is still sci-fi and Brissett does it well. The story of an invasive alien species, which infects and takes over Earth is terrifying and fascinating all at once. This is where the nested nature of the multiple storylines really shines: the reader gets to see the apocalypse unfold from myriad perspectives that are never entirely unfamiliar.
Brissett’s strengths are astonishing for a debut novel –or at all, really. This is literary sci-fi at its best. The worldbuilding is convincing. The pacing is wonderful. The story is dense, but it never leaves you bored or behind. I swear, the book makes you feel smart and that’s all Brissett’s doing.
But perhaps the most masterful part about the novel is Brissett’s ability to pack so much depth of characterization in the short time you get to know each set of characters. Once I caught on to the fact that I wasn’t going to get to “keep” whatever version of Adrianne/Adrian and Antoinette/Antoine I became even more invested in whatever iteration they were currently in; knowing I might never see them again made them precious to me. Somehow, in the midst of all this Brissett manages to pull together a truly human view of humanity, in that she effortlessly incorporates diverse characters into what you’ve probably gathered is already a densely woven text.
I read so many reviews that called this book “ambitious” and I’ll be honest, whenever reviewers use that word I wonder if there’s the subtext “but misses the mark” behind it. So I’ll say it loud and clear for you, Brissett’s Elysium is ambitious and unflinchingly hits its mark. Readers looking for diverse books in sci-fi/spec-fic will be pleased, as will fans of cerebral, apocalyptic texts.
Allison Carr Waechter is a writer, reader and teacher of business writing. It’s the end of the semester and she sees the light at the end of the tunnel. If you want to distract her, tweet loud, she’s probably listening.