Anna Aslanyan

Close to the bone

In Lidia Yuknavitch’s dystopia, Earth’s richer inhabitants have moved to a space station. But passion still burns through the universal gloom

Close to the bone
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The Book of Joan

Lidia Yuknavitch

Canongate, pp. 266, £

Does J.G. Ballard’s ‘disquieting equation’, ‘sex x technology = the future’, still hold? Not in Lidia Yuknavitch’s novel, which imagines a society better described by the formula ‘the future = technology sex’. There is no procreation in it, and any manifestation of sexuality is a crime. Its inhabitants have left Earth for a space station, a hi-tech prison only the rich can afford, moving away from ‘a lunar landscape of jagged rocks, treeless mountains, or scorched dirt’, the scene of endless wars fought by child soldiers, where ‘technology is seized by those who kill best’. Both the ruined old world and the AI-ruled new one are frightening, and not so much because of their fantastic aspects as because they look so probable from today’s perspective.

The only vestiges of humanity retained by the space-dwelling elite are skin grafts: texts they burn on to their biosynthesised, nano-enhanced bodies as a way of telling stories in their ‘paperless existence’. This gives them a chance to put up a collective performance, a ‘literary and flesh uprising’ against the dictatorial world order. It all starts with the main narrator writing on her own skin the story of Joan of Dirt, an ‘eco-terrorist’ burnt at the stake — at least according to her ‘official deathstory’.

Growing up, Joan develops an uncanny intimacy with the natural world, already doomed for extinction. Soon a technological boom triggers global violence, and the planet, gripped by inequality and anthropocentricity, run by men who can only move ‘warward’ or ‘fuckward’, is headed for the end. Although Joan has what it takes to launch a crusade to save the Earth, her superhuman powers prove too destructive to restore the balance of things. And yet the story of the Maid of Orléans transferred to the age of AI is a timely reminder that resistance, however futile or dangerous, is always preferable to a passive acceptance of what’s imposed from above in the name of progress.

As far as dystopian sci-fi goes, the plot centred on humankind that has fallen victim to its own advances dates back to the dawn of modernity and has never gone out of fashion. The Book of Joan stands out from the genre as a cross between the apocalyptic tale and the erotic poem. The theme of invincible sensuality, conveyed by lines whose passion burns through the universal gloom — ‘In place of their sexual union, she’d written desire straight into his flesh’ — gives hope that no amount of technology can eliminate life forms from Ballard’s equation.