This morning I was contemplating the difference between “speculative fiction” and “science fiction.” For fans of realistic fiction, the distinction may seem a quibble–both deal with imagined worlds, maybe focusing on space, maybe the future, maybe technology, maybe aliens…. Whatever.
But I’d argue that “speculative fiction” uses the fantastical to draw attention to cultural and social challenges in the real world. And in the last decade I feel like I’ve seen more and more “literary” writers embracing speculative fiction to address cultural anxieties over issues such as class, technology, authoritarianism, religion and climate degradation.
Familiar bestselling-examples in recent years include Karen Walker Thompson’s moving novel about coming of age at the end of the world, Age of Miracles, and Tom Perotta’s novel The Leftovers, And the scope ranges from an intimate novel like Joshua Ferris’ The Unnamed, a haunting story about the illusion that we have control over our bodies and psyches, to sweeping scope of the book of the moment, American War. (Can’t wait to read it!) Margaret Atwood might well be the mother of this kind of novel in the contemporary era. Her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale is over 30 years old and has never lost its unnerving currency.
Add to this body of literary speculative fiction Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan.
Of her last book, The Small Backs of Children, the Los Angeles Review of Books wrote:
[This is] an important book…Yuknavitch’s formal and linguistic playfulness, and her insistence that this experimentalism is distinctly gendered, places her in the vanguard of contemporary American writing… and places [the novel] squarely in the realm of the most accomplished experimental fiction…. Yuknavitch’s novel, like the work of the radical artists who inspire her, is difficult in the truest and best sense of the word. While male writers, such as Franzen and Marcus, remain busy debating the value and future of experimental fiction, Yuknavitch and her female peers have written their way into its canon.”
Rebecca Solnit likewise comments on the marriage of the feminist and the experimental in Yuknavitch’s work
All my youth I gloried in the wild, exulting, rollercoaster prose style and questing narratives of writers like Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, and Jack Kerouac, but cringed at the misogyny; couldn’t we have the former without the latter? It turns out we can, because: Lidia Yuknavitch. Buckle your seat belts; it’s gonna be a wild feminist ride.”
So, what about the plot? In the smallest of nutshells Yuknavitch reimagines Joan of Arc as the heroine of a ruined Earth fighting the wealthy elite who have withdrawn from Earth and live above it in a suborbital complex, leaving the rest of humanity to a grim fate. Yes…I agree it sound like a Matt Damon sci fi movie. But as with so much that involves literature, the magic is in the telling. Check out the reviews below. Those readers who pick up Yuknavitch are in for a wild and worthy ride.
The book has already been optioned for film by the same production company working on Station Eleven (another gem of literary speculative fiction). The Book of Joan will be covered on NPR’s Weekend Edition, in Salon.com, the Washington Post, NYT and O, the Oprah Magazine at on sale.
Earth in 2049 is ravaged…. Christine Pizan (a nod to medieval court writer Christine de Pisan), at age 49, resembles the other inhabitants of CIEL [the refuge of the wealthy]: physically androgynous, completely white “like the albumen of an egg,” and covered in scars and skin grafts. These deliberate body modifications, or ‘skinstories’, are Christine’s expertise, and they are some of the only reminders she has left of life on Earth…. Christine has seared into her body the story of Joan, a young eco-terrorist from the time of the geocatastrophe…. [Yuknavitch] writes with her characteristic fusion of poetic precision and barbed ferocity…. Perhaps even more astounding is Yuknavitch’s prescience: readers will be familiar with the figure of Jean de Men, a celebrity-turned–drone-wielding–dictator who first presided over the Wars on Earth and now lords over CIEL, having substituted ‘all gods, all ethics, and all science with the power of representation, a notion born on Earth, evolved through media and technology.’”
— Kirkus Reviews
“This ambitious novel encompasses a wide canvas to spin a captivating commentary on the hubris of humanity. An interesting blend of posthuman literary body politics and paranormal ecological transmutation; highly recommended.”
— Library Journal (starred review)
“Nearing her final, 50th birthday, the master graft artist Christine begins to burn the outlawed story of Joan on her body. Joan was a child warrior whose great power came from her connection to the natural …. The novel is most memorable from a thematic standpoint, particularly its insistence that “the body is a real place. A territory as vast as Earth.”
— Publishers Weekly
Where humanity has driven itself to the brink of extinction, Lidia Yuknavitch finds amid the rubble an urgent yearning for hope. Brutality and love, creation and destruction, desolation and the richness of art all move through this novel with a forceful energy, translating the transcendent power of the human experience into something to be felt on a visceral level. Or, as whispered by one of our narrators, ‘Bodies are miniature renditions of the entire universe…This is what we have always been.’ The Book of Joan is an unforgettable work of speculative fiction.
— Kelsey O’Rourke, Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, MI
“A sci-fi, dystopic retelling of the Joan of Arc story, Yuknavitch’s latest feels particularly essential at this moment in history. But then, every time we read something by the immensely talented Yuknavitch, it feels particularly essential.”
— Nylon Magazine
“Riveting, ravishing, and crazy deep, The Book of Joan is as ferociously intelligent as it is heart-wrenchingly humane, as generous as it is relentless, as irresistible as it is important. In other words, it’s classic Lidia Yuknavitch: genius.”
— Cheryl Strayed
“Lidia Yuknavitch is a writer who, with each ever more triumphant book, creates a new language with which she writes the audacious stories only she can tell. The Book of Joan is a raucous celebration, a searing condemnation, and fiercely imaginative retelling of Joan of Arc’s transcendent life.”
— Roxane Gay
The Book of Joan (9780062383273) by Lidia Yuknavitch. $26.99 hardcover. 4/18/17 on sale.