The Book of Joan: A Novel, by Lidia Yuknavitch
It’s always exciting to find a book, particularly in a favorite genre, that pushes the barriers to an extreme. This is especially true when the book fits within a trope one normally avoids. I try to avoid post-apocalyptic sci-fi. It’s worn, generally an easy reach for poor writers, and devolves too often into zombies. There are exceptions, of course, when a truly great writer takes on the subject, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or in true classics like Earth Abides, one of the first books to cover the subject by George R. Stewart. But now, when one of the many booklists I receive mentions a book is “post-apocalyptic”, I scroll on by.
This is a book I took on twice in two days to absorb. I’ll admit it’s not a book for everybody. If, however, you’re as keen on sci-fi as I am I believe you’ll be running across this title in booklists for decades to come.
I should say first that this is a highly sexualized book. If that’s the kind of thing that makes you uncomfortable then move on, please. I’m not talking romance. In fact the human race has become physically desexualized through a catastrophe. Love exists, as do some hormonal cravings, but humans are no longer able to reproduce and even imitative attempts at sexuality have been forbidden on CIEL, the suborbital station hovering over earth where one of the principal narrators, Christine, lives. Bodies are bleached white, hairless, stripped of sexual organs. Christine spends time modifying her own body and the bodies of others with painful cauterizing lasers and other tools. At age 49 Christine only has a year to live, as those living on the station are killed and recycled at age 50.
This upper world is ruled by a sadistic emperor named Jean de Men, a former media personality and billionaire who became the leader on earth and later migrated the existing population to CIEL.
The remaining humans on earth have undergone the same physical transformations, with the exception of Joan of Dirt. As a young girl she underwent a different type of transformation which allows her to reach into the soil and create earthquakes and fissures. Otherwise she is the last remaining person on earth to have retained her sexuality, her skin color, and her hair. She is a soldier in the revolts against Jean de Men. When she’s captured she goes through a trial similar to the faux trials given to her namesake Joan of Arc by her English captors. And like that Joan, Jean de Men arranges for her to be burned at the stake. She is saved through a sleight of hand arranged by the woman she loves.
The remainder of the book is an increase in tension as the narrative passes between Joan and Chris which will end in the destruction of one of the three main entities in the book, Joan, Chris, or Jean.
It’s a perception of a world that’s both horrifying and mesmerizing with dozens of subtle themes on sex, love, power, and pain. As mentioned, it’s not a book that will be to the taste of everyone but it certainly sits comfortably in the company of books by other transformative sci-fi writers of the past 50 years like Delaney, Butler, and LeGuin.