It’s the year 2049, and ecological disaster has rendered Earth inhospitable to human life. The wealthy life on something called, CIEL, a life raft in space cobbled together from pieces of space junk that is tethered to the Earth with invisible umbilical cords that drain what resources are left from the planet below.
Humanity itself has also changed in this novel by Lidia Yuknavitch. The combination of geocatastrophe and radiation has caused people to shed all their hair and absorb their own genitalia. The human body has become a place not of reproduction but of storytelling. The people of CIEL burn narratives into their bodies. Christine Pizan intends to graft onto her skin the story of Joan, a warrior who had a special connection to the Earth and seemed like she could save them all, until she was caught and burned alive.
This futuristic Joan of Arc story is full of ideas about life, the environment, the human body, and the power of story. It also sometimes feels shatteringly relevant, as in this early passage:
We are what happens when the seemingly unthinkable celebrity rises to power.
Our existence makes my eyes hurt.
People are forever thinking that the unthinkable can’t happen. If it doesn’t exist in thought, then it can’t exist in life. And then, in the blink of an eye, in a moment of danger, a figure who takes power from our weak desires and failures emerges like a rib from sand. Jean de Men. Some strange combination of a military dictator and a spiritual charlatan. A war-hungry mountebank. How stupidly we believe in our petty evolutions. Yet another case of something shiny that entertained us and then devoured us. We consume and become exactly what we create.
So, yeah, there’s that.
I was pretty into the concept of this book, although I question setting it in such a near future. Maybe that’s my version of denial, but technology and human culture, never mind human physiology, seemed to have changed too much. But when I look back to what life was like 30 years ago, the technological advances seem a lot less far-fetched, and Yuknavitch has an explanation for the devolution. So that’s settled.
The story, though, I never could quite get into. I liked the idea of it, but I ended up bewildered by the shifts from CIEL to Earth, into the past and back to the present. There were some abrupt point of view shifts that I missed altogether. (I was reading an e-galley, so it’s possible that the final print book will at least have some spacing to provide visual cues.) I think I ended up able to put together all the many threads of the plot into something that sort of makes sense, but I never could wrap my mind around the skin graft storytelling.
I suspect a lot of people will love this book, because of passages like the one quoted above and how it draws on our current anxieties about the state of the planet. I’ll be interested to see what others think!
I received an egalley for review consideration via Edelweiss.