Erotically cast into the future
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