Sunday, March 20, 2016

Think Galactic- Elysium

For the March convocation of Think Galactic, we discussed "Elysium" by Jennifer Marie Brissett.

This novel is *really* difficult to describe without spoiling. And also just difficult to describe...The key feature that strikes one first is the gender-swapping of all the main characters, from chapter to chapter, sometimes from sentence to sentence. As it goes on, there are elements of dystopia, alien invasion, and AI.

Spoilerific and intriguing discussion points below:

So to try to lay out the basic structure, as we reconstructed it: the book mostly follows Adrian/ne, their relationship with Antoin/nette, and a number of supporting characters, most notably Helen/Hector. The story kinds of "resets" and reconfigures at every break, with characters switching gender and the background story radically changing. We move from a fairly standard setting to one in which aliens have invaded, unleashed an environmental apocalypse, and in which humans have retreated to underground sanctuaries (and also launched colony ships to other planets). Throughout, there are "intrusions" of computer code, indicating that what we're reading is some kind of simulation.

Ultimately, our reading (or at least mine; I think we generally agreed on this, though) is that what we've read is a simulation being run by a literal cloud computer (some kind of distributed airborne nanotech or some such), long after humans on Earth have gone extinct, prompted by the investigation of an alien researcher whose ancestors triggered the genocide. *Whew*.

We opened the club by distinguishing the book from Neill Blomkamp's recent film (2013), as well as from Hans Zimmer's song of the same name in Scott's "Gladiator" (2000).

Usually at Think Galactic, we start by going around the table and listing a few initial thoughts, before jumping into a more free-form discussion. Some of our comments:
  • While the book is somewhat hard to follow, a struggle to read for some of us, it ties together nicely at the very end, with the overall structure making more sense.
  • The theme of being conquered, the difficulty of a partially- or totally-destroyed culture in making sense or communicating intelligibly, is a major idea that we returned to.
  • Comparisons to Leckie's "Ancillary Justice", which we read last year, wherein the Radch have "eliminated" gender, reflected in the language. Very different unsettling of gender here--not erased, but rapid switching is an interesting technique.
  • Leitmotifs like the elk, owl, and "The Dozen" people with similar descriptions--we picked up that they're there, but not sure what to make of them beyond that.
  • Think Galactic word of the month: leitmotif.
  • We're intrigued by the Earth-abandonment starship project at the end, and played around with the Earthseed/Earthcede pun.
  • I found the ending very troubling even as it wrapped things up a bit--as with many AI/simulation tales, there's elements of solipsism here, and Adrian/ne's decision to shut down rather than let an alien even attempt to understand is a move that way.
  • A number of us had some STRONG critiques of the writing style. There are some severe technical problems at the sentence level that interfered with our ability to enjoy it (particularly modifier and punctuation use), but thankfully we were able to read past that.
  • We also noted the large chunks of word-for-word repetition. This was definitely intentional, but possibly done too much or at too great a length--felt lazy and distracting, rather than effectively doing anything with the circular/spiral narrative.
  • We praised the striking imagery, but found the symbolism "frustrating & disjointed".
  • Lots of discussion of the computer, AI, & simulations--particularly whether the "characters" we're reading about have agency, or even sentiency. WEIRD.
  • Lots of detailed analysis of the plot, many variations on the same structure. While we note with sadness that there's little cartography here, Michael actually had drawn out a complex map of the character relations through each iteration. Think Galactic: we will map something.
  • We also learned that the audio book apparently has a good creepy computer voice.
  • And we all kind of groaned at, but were also fascinated by, the "America the Beautiful" variant.
Musical tie-in time: I really can't suggest Island's album "Return to the Sea" (2006) enough, and had it going through my head through much of this novel. It's an uptempo, mildly psychadelic, sort-of-ballady musing on the ending of the human race, and really quite fun. And the lyrics to "Humans" seriously resemble a lot of what's going on in "Elysium".

The "hiding underground, waiting for the end" society obviously has a lot of examples; I was thinking most of the last few chapters of Baxter's "Evolution" (2002).

So I'm realizing there is a really "sub" sub-genre that I'm kind of enamored of: the "computational tragic" or "AI dementia", wherein AIs, simulations, or robots realize their own doomed, incomplete, or otherwise disastrous nature. And apparently, I love this. "Elysium" brought the following to mind:
  • Greg Egan's "Permutation City" (1994), about a virtual world where fully autonomous copies of humans run many different versions of themselves. His "Diaspora" (1997) is in the same vein, and there's also the poignant "Zendegi" (2010), a very near-future tale about a terminally ill father's attempt to upload a copy of himself to give advice to his son later in life.
  • Richard Powers' "Galatea 2.2" (1995) about the power of literature and neural-net AI creation and the EMPTINESS OF IT ALL. Highly recommended.
  • The Welcome to Night Vale episode "Numbers" (2014). (Listen via Podbay or iTunes.)
  • One cannot over-cite GLaDOS from "Portal" (2007).
  • Dick/Scott's "Do Androids Dream"/"Blade Runner" (1968/1982), particularly the former. With its toxic dust, doomed replicants, struggles with identity, and recurrent animal figures, it feels like a possible influence on "Elysium".
  • The Star Trek: TNG episode "Masks" (s7 e17, 1994), wherein Data is infected by the uploaded memories of a dead civilization. See also the (drastically better) episode "The Inner Light" (s5 e25, 1992).
(And by the way, there's a similar but longer list of suggested reading in the notes from the Chicago Philosophy Meetup on AI if you're interested.)

One of the richest topics that we kept returning to was of "the conquered", the trouble with talking about a culture after its sufficiently damaged--by natural disaster, internal breakdown, or foreign invader. Sara had a great line--paraphrasing a bit, but essentially: we usually think of objective truth as coming up from the facts in this pure way,  but this is more like archaeology, digging down, arguing over and constantly revising the story. We talked a lot about Mayan & Incan culture, how even though their are still living peoples descended from them, those cultures were smashed away so thoroughly that there's no way to tell a Mayan or Incan story from their point of view. The idea of that happening to humanity as a whole is one of the most powerful parts of "Elysium".

We noted a lot of tonal shifts in the book that we weren't quite sure what to make of. The initial third or so of the book is very sexually charged, for instance, after which the relationships flip to primarily parent/child or sibling interactions. Each section also fluctuates between feeling pragmatic/realistic and mythic or surreal. In addition to character "reincarnations", we noted things like winged flight constantly recurring, but the switch between organic and mechanical wings was a particularly good example of narrator unreliability--were they both real? We did note a few pleasing foreshadowing/thematic recurrences, though, like the vestal virgin "buried alive" storyline echoed with humanity as a whole moving underground.

And there's also the shift that this moves between a surreal flesh-and-blood tragedy to that "AI dementia" kind of tragedy.

Hadrian & Antinous busts in the British Museum.
Getting into some of the mythic angles, we talked about Elysium (the Greek conception of a heavenly afterlife) versus Hades--while not named as such, it's interesting that much of the later human history seems to take place in a hellish underground. As the afterword makes clear, some of the story here is inspired by Hadrian & Antinous, which those in the know explained to the rest of us. Christine also let us know that there is an Antinous exhibit coming to the Art Institute.

With our heads already in a Greco-Roman space, the character of Helen/Hector also led us to talk about the Trojan war a bit. Also, the recurrent owl put us in mind of Pallas Athene and her sweet robot Bubo.

The circular, eternal-return-with-variation themes led us to talk about Egyptian mythology a little bit as well, and I was also reminded of some Hindu & Buddhist stories, particularly traditions that have characters reincarnated multiple times with different relationships to each other. And I also still have Zelazny's "Lord of Light" fresh in my brain, so, there's that.

The "living in some kind of unstable virtual world" trope led us to talk about "The Matrix" (1999) and it's (perhaps-justly) forgotten twin "The 13th Floor" (1999). Someone also brought up Proyas' "Dark City" (1998), which is strikingly apropos: mysterious powerful aliens that don't deeply understand humans, an environment that is constantly reconfiguring itself, and people constantly waking up with different memories/situations.

Plato's Cave jokes were made, I assure you.

Virtual reality and the theme of conquered civilizations brought us around to SF/F that addresses that aspect of history--through time travel, alternate history, virtual recreation, or different bases for fantastic worldbuilding. Primary examples included Orson Scott Card's "Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus" (1996) and Kim Stanley Robinson's "The Years of Rice and Salt" (2002). We also came back to our recent discussion of Swanwick's "Stations of the Tide" (1991), with its near-extinct alien civilization and heavily oppressed Mirandan human cultures.

(As an aside, I'm increasingly tempted to suggest Card for a future Think Galactic or even Megatext pick, because while his politics have are increasingly visible & reprehensible, his works are just so strongly conflicted that they'd be fun to talk about.)

Those were the days.
"Elysium" features intrusions of computer language & code, which we get as a device, although we had some questions/critiques of the actual words on the page. Spent some time talking about daemons and the defragmentation process.

There's this barely-hinted at plot-point about darker-skinned humans resisting the toxic/mutagenic effects of the dust more, and the "paler" humans resisting that; but there's not much there to talk about. While we really liked the diversity of the cast--gender, sexuality, and age changing constantly, and non-whiteness indicated here and there--the tensions of the books are all concerned with survival versus the increasingly toxic environment, so it's hard to figure out what to say about intra-human issues like race or sexuality.

If geometrical humor that is also dated social
commentary sounds like your thing (and why
wouldn't it be?), Flatland is widely available online.
Interesting discussion about the "multi-dimensional" aliens and what that's all about. One reading proposed is that there's nothing physically weird about the aliens, it's just that they exist in the material world and are interacting with a virtual one. Alternately, there's something about their multi-dimensionality that speaks to the intranslatability of radically different cultures. We referenced Abbott's "Flatland" (1884) as an example of fun dimensional weirdness, and also L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" (1963), a stage adaption of which, incidentally, is coming to the Lifeline Theatre early next year. I was also reminded of some of Stanislaw Lem's short work, especially "Non Serviam", about virtuality & theology. Not dimension-related, but on the theme of tragic-misunderstanding contact stories, we riffed on Mary Doria Russell's "The Sparrow" (1996) a bit.

You should probably watch that.
A really delightful discussion, and this is one of those books where the discussion really enhanced the book. I don't want to speak for everybody, but at least a few of us felt that the book was actually pretty unpleasant to read, fun as it was to talk and think about--it's just kind of relentlessly scrabbling, struggling, doomed, with not really enough character building or interesting moments to get our heads above the gloom for long. Sub out robots for the aliens though, and one could easily make the case that Flight of the Conchords have adapted this tale to music, which makes it rather cheerier.

Next time for Think Galactic we're discussing "Souls" by Joanna Russ, possibly in conjunction with Tiptree's "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?", as they were once published together as a double. We'll also be picking the next round of books for the rest of 2016, possibly leaving gaps to allow for the Tiptree winner and next year's Wiscon Guest of Honor(s), which we won't know until to Wiscon itself.


  1. I came to Think Galactic when I lived in Chicagoland . I Read Elysium late 2015 , I concluded it might not be a novel at all , but instead a meta-fiction that is a prose meditation on gender , identity and race along with alien invasion . YMMV I might be full of crap , too . To say a minimum , I found it an interesting tead , and selected because it was on the Locus 2014 recommended list .

    1. Definitely an interesting read & discussion.