A Tunnel in the Sky

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Elysium
by Jennifer Marie Brissett

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted August 22, 2021

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If you take the publisher's blurb as the best indication of what this book is about, you would conclude it is a hard-SF tale of alien invasion and human sacrifice "A computer program etched into the atmosphere has a story to tell, the story of two people, of a city lost to chaos, of survival and love. The programs data, however, has been corrupted. As the novel's characters struggle to survive apocalypse, they are sustained and challenged by the demands of love in a shattered world both haunted and dangerous."

Presumptuously, I'd say there could be a different way to interpret it. Maybe it's just a dream, or a sequence of dreams, either naturally occurring or the result of a traumatic accident. Several times a person suffers a head injury, in at least two cases from scaffolding falling on them, another is due to a war wound. The war is supposedly against the invading aliens, the krestge, nicknamed roaches due to their appearance. If this is what is happening, or has happened in the past, the computer program has jumbled up different experiences, or some of the uploaded memories could be dreams that different people had, or dreams that had been told to the person uploading his memories. The computer program scenario can be believed due to the many times the narrative is interuppted with code, such as:

***SYSTEM FAILURE***
CREATING FILE: core.dmp
>>
>>
>>
ERROR: CANNOT OPEN FILE
>>opendoc / d core.dmp
>>delete core.dmp
*FILE DELETED*
>>bypass error
SYSTEM ERROR BYPASSED
>>restart
BRIDGE PROCESS: **RESTARTED**


(or similar sequences)

My dreams will often have similar incidents recurring throughout. I'll be in one location, then the scene shifts in the blink of an eye to a different location, among other people or I'm alone, without any logic or continuity, but sometimes events repeat. The dream interpretation of this book is believable when you realize people keep shifting personalities and relationships, even their names, gender, or sexual orientation. I'm sure this is the main reason it received a Tiptree Award nomination (more recently renamed the Otherwise Award). I think I can relate some of these without spoiling too much, especially because it is difficult to know if any of it is real. In the first chapter Adrianne is injured, and her husband Antoine returns home to see her head in bandages. The accident occurred shortly after her friend Helen, with whom she may be having an affair, couldn't make their lunch appointment. The scenario shifts, and Adrian is distraught about the declining health of his husband Antoine. Adrian leaves when a nurse arrives, goes to his gym, then later to the home of his friend Hector, with whom he is having an affair. During their lovemaking Adrian calls him Helen. In a later sequence Hector is the person's dead name, she is now Helen. In another, Adrian is married to Antoinette. Yet another has Adrianne in some religious cult of vestal virgins, slightly different but still reminiscent of The Handmaid's Tale. In that one, Helen is also in the cult, she and Adrianne have a secretive affair, and Antoine is believed to have been killed in the war (but later returns).

Although there had been a few hints before, it's not until at least halfway through that the alien presence is mentioned. They have supposedly 'dusted' the planet, which induces mutations in some humans, causing them to grow scales over their skin, or wings. In one of those scenarios, Antoine is Adrianne's father. He has grown wings, and the same happens to her later, so he teaches her to fly. I think flying dreams are common, although I haven't had one in a long time. In another scene Adrian is Antoine's older brother, helping him to escape a mental hospital. Multiple generations of people alternately named Adrian/Adrianne, or Antoine/Antoinette, and in many of the scenarios Antoine has been killed, or is thought to be dead, but sometimes he's just missing. Everything is either a computer simulation, or memories uploaded to a computer network, or it's all in the mind of one person. But which one? Adrian supposedly is an engineer who designed the underground city where humanity moves to flee the aliens. He calls above ground Elysium, because that is where his wife Antoinette is buried. Their son Antoine grows up to replace his father in the administration of the city, and to oversee the construction of a starship which will hopefully carry a select few to another planet. Or all of it is a simulation within a computer system designed by the aliens. It can be interpreted either way without negating the powerful prose of people fighting against fate, whether that fate is just personal relationships, or if it's the possible end of humanity. It's about love and loss, of fear of commitment or fear of rejection.

Early on I was thinking of another E word that would have also made a good title. Elliptical, if you use dictionary.com's fourth definition "of a style of speaking or writing tending to be ambiguous, cryptic, or obscure." In the afterword, Brissett talks about the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who had taken the young boy Antinous as a lover. While in Egypt Hadrian falls ill, and the distraught Antinous takes a boat trip on the Nile, where he died of drowning, either suicide or murder by those who wanted Hadrian to abandon him. What any of that has to do with the characters in this book is debatable, although Hadrian had mourned Antinous enough to rename a constellation after him, and cast himself in the guise of an eagle. I'm not even going to venture a guess as to why almost everyone eventually sees an elk moving through what had originally been human territory. I can't interpret my own dreams most of the time, this book is even more complex. But still very good, and recommended.

 

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Author
Jennifer Marie Brissett

Published
December 1, 2014

Awards
Finalist for:
Tiptree
PKD
Locus

Purchase Links:
Amazon
Bookshop

A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.