Thursday, January 29, 2015

Erica's Infrequent Book Reviews Presents: ELYSIUM by Jennifer Marie Brissett

Note to people recommending books to me: all you really have to do is say that the book deals with the shifting nature of reality. I will snap up that book like other people snap up sasquatch porn or cat-themed mysteries. Granted, I will be horribly disappointed if the book in fact is not about the shifting nature of reality, but Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett totally is! This experimental SFnal book, published by Aqueduct Press, is a book in the grand weird tradition of The Lathe of Heaven (my favorite book of all time) and everything PKD ever wrote, though with an Afrofuturistic and queer bent that places it firmly in the modern era.

(Note to readers: this review is chock full of SPOILERS although I was spoiled before I read the book and I still enjoyed the hell out of it. Elysium is really not a book that you read for the plot.)

Central character Adrianne/Adrian is ostensibly a human being who shifts through genders, ages, and scenarios. The only thread which is consistent in each of these scenarios (none of which last for more than a chapter or two) is her/his relationship with Antoine/Antoinette. Sometimes it's a parental relationship, with the two trading off roles. In others they are spouses or lovers. Other characters are also constants in the book, likewise swapping genders, sexual orientations, backgrounds, etc. As the story unfolds, Brissett slowly paints a picture of the true reality: an Earth overtaken by aliens, where the scant population of remnant humans lives underground, slowly dying off and being replaced by projections. Surprise! Adrian(/ne) is not a human at all, but a piece of AI tasked with uploading the human history of Earth onto a massive datanet. The coda states that the relationship of A. and A. is inspired by the relationship of the Roman emperor Hadrian and the Greek boy Antonius, and I really appreciated the book all the more when I read up on them afterwards.

The scenarios are interesting enough in and of themselves, but the main "plot" here is the AI's fractured psyche and above all its devotion to its mate/counterpart. Even though the relationship between the two is constantly changing (** BREAK **), it's also the thread that binds this crazy-quilt of a novel into a mostly cohesive whole. Though it would never be classified as such, Elysium is at its heart a love story and an examination of both parental and romantic relationships. It's also worth noting that Brissett accomplishes all this in only 199 pages in a time when most writers think they need three to seven books to tell a complete story. And best of all, Elysium is a debut novel, so we should have many more of her novels and stories to read over the years to come.

Elysium is nominated for this year's Philip K. Dick Award, and while I haven't read any of the other nominees yet, if it wins it's an honor well deserved. This is really not a novel for everyone. If you like your prose told plainly and your plots straightforward you probably won't like this. But this book is parked right in my own personal wheelhouse of strangeness and unreality. So read it if you're me is what I'm trying to say here, I guess.

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