Erot­i­cally cast into the fu­ture

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Doug Wallen

Fold­ing sen­si­tive threads of erot­ica into mind-bend­ing spec­u­la­tive fic­tion, Krissy Kneen’s lat­est novel is an am­bi­tious genre hy­brid that ad­dresses both moral­ity and mor­tal­ity from unique van­tage points. Yet An Un­cer­tain Grace opens with an al­most com­mon­place scene as a mid­dle-aged lit­er­a­ture lec­turer proudly re­counts to him­self the ro­bust pro­ces­sion of af­fairs he has cul­ti­vated with his fe­male stu­dents over the years.

Kneen dis­man­tles that breezy boast­ful­ness piece by piece, af­ter the lec­turer re­ceives a part­ing gift from a past pro­tege and lover, Liv, in the form of a body­suit hous­ing a first-per­son, vir­tual-re­al­ity mem­oir of their his­tory to­gether.

Soon the haughty men­tor is not only sur­ren­der­ing his sense of gen­der and iden­tity (“And I am her. I am Liv. This is my room and it is his room and he, I, put my hand up her, my, skirt.”) but ex­pe­ri­enc­ing first-hand Liv’s starkly dif­fer­ent mem­ory of what he had long con­sid­ered his heroic, mutually plea­sur­able act of tak­ing her vir­gin­ity: “She was wet and ready for me, urg­ing me on. Wasn’t she?”

Such pointed ques­tions of con­sent drive the start of An Un­cer­tain Grace, a novel in five parts that at first con­jures a sort of dystopian erot­ica be­fore es­tab­lish­ing a deeply hu­mane med­i­ta­tion on how tech­nol­ogy trans­forms (and ex­tends) our lives. The book fol­lows the cen­tu­ry­plus life of Liv, who works at the in­ter­sec­tion of nar­ra­tive and tech­nol­ogy, although she ap­pears mostly on the pe­riph­ery un­til the last two parts — and only the fi­nal one is ac­tu­ally from her own per­spec­tive.

Af­ter the near-fu­ture premise of that first part, Kneen casts deeper into the fu­ture, with each sec­tion tak­ing us fur­ther along what might soon be pos­si­ble. That in­cludes child­like cy­borgs de­signed to study (and par­tially sat­isfy) sex of­fend­ers, means of pro­long­ing con­scious­ness well af­ter the death of one’s bi­o­log­i­cal body, and a wide un­gen­dered space be­tween male and fe­male iden­ti­fied as “the twi­light”: “It’s get­ting eas­ier, quicker. The tran­si­tion isn’t even un­com­fort­able any­more. I might be a man one day, and then a woman the week af­ter.”

These de­vel­op­ments are fas­ci­nat­ing in their own right but, as with the best spec­u­la­tive fic­tion, what hits home are the com­mon­al­i­ties with our own time. We see a fu­ture world plagued by de­pleted oceans and ex­treme weather events, but still of­fer­ing the lo­cal Macca’s as a teen meet­ing place. Can­cer has yet to be con­quered, and com­merce is still very much a part of ev­ery challenge and ad­vance­ment. (Bris- bane-based Kneen’s cho­sen set­ting is only sug­gested as Aus­tralia in a few fleet­ing ref­er­ences, mak­ing it feel all the more uni­ver­sal.)

Named af­ter a fa­mous photo by Brazil­ian­born French pho­tog­ra­pher Se­bas­tiao Sal­gado, which fac­tors briefly into the story, An Un­cer­tain Grace echoes long­stand­ing fairy­tales as well as more mod­ern sto­ry­telling such as tele­vi­sion’s Black Mir­ror and David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud At­las, which em­ployed re­cur­ring mo­tifs to link dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives, as Kneen does here with jel­ly­fish.

Of course, lit­er­a­ture’s con­cerns about tech­nol­ogy’s en­croach­ing reach into medicine and mor­tal­ity date back to Franken­stein and be­yond. But Kneen makes those preoccupations very much her own, thanks to a deeply hu­mane ap­proach. She pro­ceeds with sen­si­tiv­ity, sin­cer­ity and, most of all, cu­rios­ity. Some read­ers might be put off by her graphic de­pic­tions of sex (or even her cere­bral sci-fi con­ceits), but Kneen isn’t out to shock. With its page-turn­ing clar­ity, her writ­ing is as com­pas­sion­ate and em­pow­er­ing as it is edgy and provoca­tive. In the end, her char­ac­ters are striv­ing for the same things that any of us are.

This is also a re­mark­ably im­mer­sive read, which is key to the suc­cess of risk-tak­ing leaps of imag­i­na­tion. Of course, Kneen comes well pre­pared, hav­ing pub­lished mem­oirs, po­etry, short sto­ries and other books, in­clud­ing her break­out 2015 novel The Adventures of Holly White and the In­cred­i­ble Sex Ma­chine, as well as hav­ing writ­ten and di­rected TV doc­u­men­taries.

So it’s no sur­prise she could pull off a novel that is both a heart­felt love story and a fore­bod­ing snap­shot of hu­man­ity tee­ter­ing at a po­ten­tially treach­er­ous tech­no­log­i­cal and en­vi­ron­men­tal precipice. Once we’re able to skirt death al­to­gether, what of our cur­rent lives will re­main? And what ex­actly will re­sult once two in­di­vid­u­als are able to in­ter­twine their con­scious­ness? “I am a part of the weave of her brain pat­terns,” writes Kneen, in one of many lovely evo­ca­tions of two souls merg­ing to man­i­fest some­thing greater than the sum of their parts.

“Pornog­ra­phy is the driver for most in­no­va­tion,” quips that sor­did lec­turer, and Kneen is ea­ger to con­sider where that in­no­va­tion might take us. If vir­tual re­al­ity can suc­cess­fully colonise the zones cov­ered by books and films, sto­ry­telling will merely thrive in other forms. As the lec­turer muses, with his own job de­scrip­tion sud­denly in doubt: “Soon the page will not be the place for it.” is a free­lance arts jour­nal­ist.

Krissy Kneen cre­atively ad­dresses both moral­ity and mor­tal­ity in her lat­est novel

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