Krissy Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace is a marvelous book, the sort of marvelous book that deserves the type of in-depth analysis that I don’t have time to provide. It’s a toss-up between this novel and Jane Rawson’s From The Wreck as to which is my favourite book (so far) for the year. While I might struggle to pick between the two, what I do know is that Australian women are currently producing some top-flight science fiction.
The novel is a story-suite (quickly becoming my preferred form of narrative structure) with five novella sized pieces linked together by Liv, a woman with an interest in the limits of identity, sexuality, consciousness and sentience. When we first meet Liv we do so, literally, through the eyes of Caspar, a university lecturer who gets a thrill from seducing his female students. One day he receives a memory stick from Liv – a previous conquest – that, when hooked up with a virtual reality suit, allows Caspar to experience his seduction of Liv from her perspective. Caspar’s erotic memories of the short relationship, especially the joys of the chase, are tainted by Liv’s repulsion as she is drawn… coerced into fucking this obese older man – who happens to be him. For those of us who’ve read plenty of science fiction – or watched episodes of Black Mirror – there’s a familiarity to the shape of the plot, in the set-up and resolution. But that’s not the point. What becomes evident throughout the whole novel is how Kneen uses language to elicit a mix of repugnance and eroticism. Caspar can’t look away, even when he stops watching he inevitably goes back for more.
This push and pull – repulsion and attraction – is evident in the next story told from the perspective of a pedophile and Liv’s experiments with consciousness to possibly alleviate this man from his base desires. And it’s there in the following piece – my favourite in the book – about a synthetic boy, Cameron, designed by a team headed by Liv, to love men who love boys – to provide those men with a “safer” outlet. At one point in that story the boy meets a barely teenage girl in a playground, and in a secluded spot she pressures him to fuck her. As he’s fucking her… this fabricated sex toy for pedophiles… Cameron thinks:
Children are to be protected from their sensuality. Children are to be protected from sex. I remember the feel of her soft bottom bouncing up and down in my lap and I feel the blood rushing to my cheeks.
It’s a brilliant, powerful summation of the effect Kneen is striving for.
Sexuality and sexual perversion are not the only themes of the novel. As noted this is a book that’s fascinated in identity (especially gender) and sentience and the complexity of the human (and non human) mind. And it’s also a book that explores the nature of story-telling, a topic that particularly interests Liv as shown in the memory stick she sent to Caspar and her work with Cameron the synthetic boy and in the reconstruction of her own identity later in the book – though to say more would be a spoiler.
The point is that An Uncertain Grace is a layered and complex and beautifully written novel that never flinches from the difficult topics it tackles.