AT ONE POINT in Jennifer Brissett’s science fiction novel Elysium, the protagonist goes to bed for a much-needed rest:
She fell asleep and wrestled in her dreams. In her sleep she was herself, but not herself. She went to the in-between space, neither here nor there, moving in and out of her body with ease, being herself, then staring at herself. It felt real. So fluid and natural, she was herself — just different.
This passage epitomizes the novel as a whole. The book is not bound firmly to the earth; it moves in an “in-between space, neither here nor there.” It is also filled with characters who are both themselves and not themselves, fluctuating from one identity to another. Elysium is a powerfully ambitious book. In a certain sense, it is a love story. But it is also a book about identity politics, about history and collective memory, about technology and culture, and ultimately about extermination and genocide.
The most immediately striking thing about Elysium is its use of proper names and pronouns. The novel’s characters fluidly shift genders and sexual orientations from one chapter to the next — along with ages and roles. The main character is called Adrianne when she is a woman, and Adrian when he is a man. Adrian(ne)’s lifelong partner is known as Antoine (when male), or Antoinette (when female). Sometimes these characters form a gay couple; sometimes a lesbian couple; and sometimes a heterosexual couple, with or without children. They are also sometimes adolescent brothers, or father and daughter, or father and son.
Of course, science fiction has a long history of messing with our preconceptions about gender. Theodore Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X (1960), Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), Deb Taber’s Necessary Ill (2013), and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (2013) and Ancillary Sword (2014) all present characters who either have no gender, or whose gender is not made known to the reader. In these books, it isn’t just a matter of describing characters as being androgynous or neuter. It is also a matter of writing differently: for instance, by using unexpected pronouns. In Taber’s book, neuters are called “it,” instead of “he” or “she”; in Leckie’s books, all characters are called “she,” regardless of anatomy. In this way, science fiction not only imagines a different world but also undermines our baseline assumptions and reading protocols.
Elysium is a bit different from these other works, because its characters’ genders and sexual orientations are always definite and clearly marked. It is just that these characteristics shift unpredictably from one chapter to the next. In Brissett’s world, there is no escaping particularity. You can shift between genders and sexual orientations, but you cannot escape these categories altogether. You may be either male or female, but you are always one or the other — never both at the same time.
In Elysium, therefore, we never get beyond the question of identity; at the same time, however, every particular identity remains open to question. In the world of the novel, there are no unmarked terms. We cannot ground ourselves in any default assumptions. Specifically, this means that we cannot take white, cis-gendered, heterosexual masculinity as the baseline to which all other identities would be compared. Although race is not foregrounded in Elysium to the extent that gender is, the novel presents a world that is largely devoid of white people. This is mostly conveyed in passing through mentions of various characters’ physical features (specifically brown skin). At one point, however, we are told that “those with more melanin” are “spared” the “harshest effects” of the catastrophe that the novel describes.
If Elysium can be thought of as a love story, this is because Adrian(ne) always loves and longs for Antoine(tte) — whatever their genders may be at any given moment. An author’s note refers us to the love of the Roman Emperor Hadrian for his consort Antinous. When the boy died, the Emperor was inconsolable; he built monuments to his lost love all through the Empire. The multiple scenarios in Elysium might be regarded, in a similar way, as monuments of loss and remembrance. Adrian(ne) is continually losing Antoine(tte), whether to illness, war, misadventure, or simply harsh circumstances. At other times, Antoine(tte) is the survivor, and Adrian(ne) is the one who has died. But in any case, the trauma of loss is repeated, in different forms, in nearly every chapter.
At times, Elysium reads like a science fiction version of the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet. As the characters change, so do their circumstances. The book offers us a whole play of permutations, recombinations, or multiple variations on a theme. It is filled, among other things, with familiar pulp science fiction tropes. There are underground cities, alien invaders from the fourth dimension, sinister mutants, spaceships for colonizing planets in other star systems, software personality backups, virtual reality environments, and men and women with prosthetic wings that allow them to fly like birds. There are also chapters that seem to take place in a society much like ancient Rome, but with 20th-century technologies like subways and telephones. All these figures come up again and again, in multiple combinations.
I should also mention the book’s varied, recurring motifs. In the opening chapter, for instance, Adrianne sees an elk wandering incongruously through the city streets. In the second chapter, Adrian sees a glass figurine of an elk. In the third chapter, Adrianne sees an elk being killed by a mountain lion. In the fourth, she sees a medieval tapestry depicting an elk hunt. And so on, throughout the novel. At some points, there are even monstrous entities who walk on two legs like human beings, but have elk antlers sprouting from their heads. The elk doesn’t necessarily symbolize anything in particular; but tracking it through the novel helps us to maintain our bearings.
Instead of a single, consistent story, therefore, Elysium gives us a discontinuous series of dreamlike episodes, each of which revises — or in some cases, flat-out contradicts — what came before. Every new situation plays out for a few pages, until it is interrupted by error messages and garbled bits of computer code. After each of these breaks, the story resumes, but the details have somehow been rearranged. We were in a city apartment, and now we are in a hospital. Antoine was ill, with Adrian caring for him; now Antoinette is ill, with Adrianne caring for her. And then again, Adrian is near death, and Antoine tries to rescue him.
Despite these changes and repetitions, the novel does offer a sort of progression. The earlier chapters mostly seem to be taking place in the present, in New York or some other large city. We hear rumors of distant war or of men sent away to fight in a war. We move on to scenes of war and devastation as the city is directly attacked, depopulated, and destroyed. The later chapters depict the aftermath of the war: a ravaged and poisoned earth, no longer suitable for human habitation. There are only small groups of people around, eking out a living by scavenging through the rubble.
One way to make sense of all these changes and variations is to think of Elysium as being more like a computer game than it is like a traditional narrative. The media theorist Lev Manovich argues that the characteristic aesthetic form of the digital age is the database: a vast collection of items that are all available simultaneously so that they can be accessed and strung together in any order. The database makes it possible for there to be many paths through the same landscape, and many different events and encounters, leading to widely varying outcomes. Elysium is a novel that gives the deliberate impression of being compiled from a database through a serial procedure of selection and recombination. Nearly every section of the book ends in an impasse; the following chapter then offers a sort of a reset, like in a video game. As a result, the book does not tell a story so much as it narrates the very process of telling a story.
All this gets literalized at the end of the novel. It turns out that the trope of the story-as-database is not a metaphor. In fact, the action of the book — including both the narrated incidents and the gibberish interruptions of computer code — is entirely a digital simulation. The novel actually recounts a virtual reenactment, within a computer, of events from the distant past. The variations from one chapter to the next are the result of corruption in the database and of the computer program’s efforts to repair itself. There are no human beings left on the earth; our planet has long since been cleansed of our presence, so that it can become the home of an alien species. These aliens exterminated us from the world in much the same way that we rid a habitat of insects. Before the last humans died, however, they left behind a database of all that they remembered. Adrianne learns that she herself (in the novel’s final iterations) is only “a memory written in the sky”: a digital construct, reliving her own past memories. It is only at this point, at the very end of the book, that we are able to retrospectively reconstruct anything like a linear story.
In this respect, Elysium is indeed something like a computer game. But it is a game that can never actually be “won” because all has already been lost, even before it begins. This is what accounts for the novel’s mournful, elegiac tone. History, it is said, is written by the victors. But Elysium imagines a scenario in which the experiences of the losers — the victims of colonialism and genocide (which is to say, in the novel’s context, us) — have nevertheless somehow been preserved.
The alien who restarts and repairs the database, thereby reviving Adrianne, wants to make reparations: “a great crime has been done to your people … I will not rest until the truth of what happened here is revealed.” But for Adrianne, this is too little and too late. There is something insulting and belittling in making such a safely magnanimous gesture. The database “wasn’t meant for the likes of you,” she tells the alien, “this information was not for you.” Rather than being commemorated by her destroyers, she chooses to lock the aliens out of the database. Only actual human beings, if any should survive, will have the ability to access these records. Adrianne shuts the entire program down, erasing even the memory of what happened. And that’s it. Faced with the horrors of history, the cost of even (or especially) our greatest triumphs, there is very little that any of us can say.