OCTOBER 16, 2021
DESTROYER OF LIGHT is Jennifer Marie Brissett’s second novel, after Elysium (2014). Brissett is part of a cohort of African American women writers — including Andrea Hairston, N. K. Jemisin, Nisi Shawl, and many others — who have been revitalizing speculative fiction in the early 21st century. Destroyer of Light has a wonky, science-fictional feel to it, which is something that still deeply appeals to me, even though fantasy, horror, and weird fiction seem to be more widespread and popular these days. Brissett plays with and transforms a number of familiar science-fictional tropes: we have humanity colonizing a faraway planet; a number of genetically altered human beings with special abilities; a world-spanning computer network dedicated both to communication and to surveillance; passages written in computer code; a time-traveling artificial intelligence; a menacing, technologically advanced alien species; and exotic drugs.
Reading Destroyer of Light is a disorienting experience. As with so much of the best science fiction, the details of its worldbuilding sound crazy and arbitrary if you just summarize them flatly — as I will be compelled to do at least to a certain extent in this review. And yet these details coalesce into compelling and disturbing patterns as you read the novel as a whole and reflect upon the implications not just of its plot, but also of the overall environment that it renders. Brissett creates a weird and alien world, but one that resonates deeply with our own contemporary concerns. The book is filled with scenes of children kidnapped and pressed into service as soldiers, of patriarchal abuse, of environmental precarity, of desperate people for whom drug addiction is the only means of escape, and of cities starkly divided between rich and poor. The tone of the novel is often quite harsh, and the prepublication copy I read rightly comes with a trigger warning for “scenes of sexual violence.”
Destroyer of Light also combines old and new in compelling ways. It is deeply concerned with the social effects of computerization and digitalization. But at the same time, it is loosely based upon the ancient Greek myth of Persephone, the goddess who was raped, abducted, and forcibly made queen of the underworld. The novel’s protagonist, known both as Cora and as Stefonie, is a variant of Persephone. Persephone’s mother, Demeter — her equivalent in the novel is Cora’s mother Deidra — is the goddess of crops and fields. The myth explains the death of plants in the fall as the result of Demeter’s mourning for her daughter, and the revival of agriculture in the spring as the result of Persephone’s annual return to the world of light. The myth combines a sense of time as a cycle (the continual recurrence of the seasons) with a contrasting sense of history as irreparable loss (the trauma of Persephone’s rape can never be undone; she can never entirely free herself from the underworld). This duality is central to the novel, as it depicts human exile on a distant planet.
Destroyer of Light is set on an alien world called Eleusis — echoing the name of the Greek city that was the center of the cult of Persephone and Demeter. The Eleusinian Mysteries, held every year, celebrated the two goddesses and their promise of overcoming adversity. In the novel, Eleusis is a tidally locked planet: that is to say, one side always faces its sun, and the other side is always in darkness. Though astronomers have discovered numerous tidally locked exoplanets in recent years, this sort of environment has not often been explored in science fiction. Off the top of my head, the only previous examples I can think of are Roger Zelazny’s 1971 novella Jack of Shadows and Charlie Jane Anders’s brilliant 2019 novel The City in the Middle of the Night.
In Destroyer of Light, there are no day-night cycles, and no seasonal cycles; differences of light and dark, and of hot and cold, are distributed according to spatial location. The Day side of Eleusis is a scorching desert, too hot for human habitation, though solar panels have been placed there to supply the world’s energy needs. The Night side of the planet is a realm of perpetual ice and snow, a kind of underworld; the rebel leader Aidoneus Okoni has his headquarters there. Most of the human communities on Eleusis are located in Dawn and Dusk, the zones of perpetual twilight along the planet’s terminator. Here the climate is neither too hot nor too cold, and the horizon “glows a golden yellow shimmer, mocking a rising sun.” It is hard not to see this detail as having symbolic weight; the sun that never rises is like a utopian promise of redemption that never quite arrives. In any case, farmers live and grow their crops in Dawn, supplying the planet with both food and drugs, while Dusk is dominated by the planet’s biggest population center, the great city-state of Oros. In the city, crime lords and other wealthy property owners live in glorious skyscrapers, while poor people inhabit slums in the lowlands known as the Bottoms. Power is directly inscribed in geography.
The backstory to Destroyer of Light is deeply distressing. Four hundred years before the time of the novel, aliens called the krestge attacked the Earth with biotoxins, making it uninhabitable. Most human beings were killed, but a few were able to hide underground and then escape on spaceships that took them to Eleusis. Human beings built a new society on a new planet. This does not mean, however, that they left social injustice behind. Most of the people on Eleusis are dark-skinned, but a form of racism persists based upon eye color instead of skin color. “Brown-eyed people” have privilege; people with differently colored eyes “were assumed to be no good, weird, and/or have leanings towards criminality.” In some cases, though, people have differently colored eyes as a result of genetic experimentation — splicing in krestge genes — that has also given them new abilities.
In any case, the krestge show up again, years later, on Eleusis. They say that this time their intentions are peaceful; they only want to establish trade relations with the new human society. A treaty is signed. Now a number of krestge live on Eleusis, alongside all the human beings. Human attitudes toward this situation differ. Some people accept the krestge at face value. Others cannot forget that the krestge “took our history.” Okoni, the rebel leader sequestered with his troops on the Night side of the planet, wants to kill them and expel them. As for the krestge themselves, they have never apologized for their past acts of genocide, and Cora cannot help wondering about this:
These creatures that had pushed humankind to the edge of extinction had come and offered the hand of friendship. Was she and her people supposed to be all right with everything and say, “All is forgiven, all is forgotten, no hard feelings, these things happen”? Did they really think that just showing up and being friendly was enough to make everything okay?
These difficulties are heightened by the fact that most humans are unable to address the krestge directly or even apprehend them clearly. The krestge are multidimensional phase-shifters whose forms are blurry and unstable to human sight. In order to speak to the krestge, most humans have to wear “biomasks” that hook into their brains directly, while “reduc[ing] their faces to a flat, white glistening blankness.”
There are, however, some ways to overcome this gap and to create closer connections between krestge and human beings. Cora and several others have been genetically altered so that they can phase-shift as the krestge do, read minds telepathically to a certain extent, and understand krestge speech without wearing a mask. The two species can also bind themselves together through the illicit drug escoala. When human beings smoke it, they get a powerful high, but if, when you exhale, you blow the smoke upon a krestge, then the drug temporarily “stills them into this dimension,” stabilizes their profile, and “gives them the ability to interact with the world, to feel and experience the pleasures of being with humanity.” Also, although the krestge are not gendered in human terms (their pronouns are xe and xem), they seem to enjoy having sex with human beings, whom they date and sometimes even marry.
The human-krestge relationship is at the heart of the novel. Science fiction frequently uses encounters with alien species as a stand-in for white Euro-American responses to other groups of people — often those who have been victims of colonization and/or genocide. There is also a tradition of inverting this relationship, as in H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, where the invading Martians treat the British exactly as the British themselves had long treated native peoples from Ireland, Africa, Asia, and North America. Destroyer of Light suggests a reading along these latter lines. The 400 years since the initial krestge attack parallel the roughly 400 years since Africans were kidnapped, taken across the Atlantic, and enslaved for the first time in territories that eventually became the United States of America. The krestge failure to apologize also finds a parallel in the contemporary United States, which refuses to acknowledge responsibility for slavery in the way that Germany has acknowledged responsibility for the Holocaust.
At the same time, human-krestge relations in the novel — like actually existing race relations in the United States today — are not entirely devoid of empathy, interchange, and even complicity. Sometimes krestge and human beings get along, and it appears that some of the krestge have come to Eleusis as living shields, to deter their conspecifics from trying once again to exterminate humanity. In addition, Cora and a few other human characters in the novel are in fact hybrids who have acquired krestge traits and use these enhanced abilities for their own purposes. This turns out to be the key to preserving the human community as a whole from either destruction or assimilation. Sometimes you have to use the master’s tools in order to dismantle (or even just to escape) the master’s house. Destroyer of Light, like most good science fiction, does not admit of an easy allegorical reading, because it treats its elements — characters and settings — as concretely and literally as possible.
The most important thing about the novel that I have still not mentioned is its technological, or computational, viewpoint. The novel is narrated in part by an artificial intelligence construct: the emergent subjectivity of the Lattice, the world-encircling information network of Eleusis. This AI, who eventually calls herself Cate, is the novel’s observer, and sometimes its narrator. She comments on the action from a distance, but she also at time participates in it. Cate’s “I” occasionally enters and takes over human flesh. At other times, this “I” follows along with Cora, whom she addresses as “you.” At still other times, she narrates in the third person. And at yet other times, Cora’s own voice is the “I.”
The novel, or perhaps the AI herself, also scrambles the order of time. On the very first page, the AI tells us that “the past, the present, and the future comingle like a coil.” And indeed, we jump backward and forward in time throughout the text. The novel recounts Cora’s kidnapping from Dawn as a child, her captivity in Night under Okoni’s control, her activities in the Dusk city of Oros, and her struggle with the krestge from a command center buried under the sands of Day. It switches back and forth between times as well as locations. Most of the novel takes place at various moments in the past: “ten years ago,” or “fifteen days ago.” Cora’s apotheosis, when she fuses with the AI and saves Eleusis, is the one event in the novel that is labeled as taking place “Here and Now.” And the novel’s final sections happen in the future, from “in a few days” to “about six months from now.”
The AI, and the reader following along with her, can experience all these different times at once, as well as all of the different places across the globe of Eleusis. Such is the nature of networked entanglement. We are still warned, however, that “the future is unsure, always shifting and changing based on variables that cannot be foreseen.” Indeed, “the energy that surrounds the world” is a multiplicity and not a unity, and its elements “have an agenda of their own,” which we cannot discover. When we get to the end, Destroyer of Light reveals itself to be a book that is not just about pain and oppression but about liberation and healing as well. But we are also left with the warning that “not every hurt can be mended.” The past can be overcome but not repealed, and the wounds it inflicts leave scars behind.
Destroyer of Light concludes with what I regard as the essential credo not just of Brissett’s own writing but of science fiction today in general. The novel tells us that we must remember:
[T]he future is always with us. It shifts and moves and changes, but it is always here. We live the future every day that we breathe, and every yes or no in the path laid before us eventually becomes a history. Nothing is fixed. Nothing is sure. Not unless we want it to be.
We cannot forget the catastrophes of our history, nor evade their baleful effects. But history is never finished; we still continue to make it. This means that nothing is foreclosed, and nothing is preordained. We can still hope, and even in dire circumstances, we can still pledge, as Cora/Stefonie does at the end of the novel, that “[i]t will be different this time.”