BOOK REVIEW: Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell
Her name is Severin Unck. She is ten years old. She is talking to her father, Percy.
She is dead. Almost certainly dead. Nearly conclusively dead. She is, at the very least, not answering her telephone.
Severin Unck is the headstrong young daughter of a worlds-famous film director. She has inherited her father’s love of the big screen but not his exuberant, gothic style of filmmaking. Instead, Severin makes documentaries, artful and passionate and even rather brave – for she is a realist in a fantastic alternate universe, in which Hollywood occupies the moon, Mars is rife with lawless saloons and the solar system contains all manner of creatures, cults and colonies.
They didn’t build Te Deum, nor Herschel City, nor Harlequin. Didn’t have to. They grew these stained-glass slum-gardens like mushrooms on a dead log. Salted the sea with a confetti of exotic hydrocarbons and up they sprung: unpredictable, enormous, disorganized – unless you dig an anemone’s sense of feng shui. That’s all they are. Anemones as hard as a man and as big as his ego.
For her latest project, Severin leads her crew to the water planet of Venus to investigate the disappearance of a diving colony there. But something goes wrong during the course of their investigations, and her crew limps home without her.
All gone except for the something new. Only this time, it’s not a reel and it’s not a voice. It’s a little boy, left behind. They say he’s still there. I’ve heard it on the radio, so it’s as true as anything is. He’s stuck, somehow, in the middle of where the village used to be, just walking around in circles. Around and around like a skip on a phonograph. They can’t get him to talk.
All that remains of Severin are fragments. Can these snippets of scenes and shots, voices and memories, pages and recordings be collected and pieced together to tell the story of her life – and shed light on the mystery of her vanishing?
There are sounds in this house… sounds I can scarcely begin to describe. I might call them howlings, and yet there is nothing in that lonely word bloody and primeval enough to encompass what my ears have been made to endure. Perhaps if I knew the Sanskrit for it, that ancient tongue of tongues, that would suffice.
Aesthetically recalling A Trip to the Moon and House of Leaves, and told using techniques from reality TV, classic film, gossip magazines, and meta-fictional narrative, Radiance is a solar system-spanning story of love, exploration, family, loss, quantum physics, and silent film.
She said: “He kicked me right in the face,” at just the same second as I said, “I love you.” She laughed and she kissed me. The Kallisti water tower exploded. And after that, we always said “I love you right in the face.” And bit by bit, that’s how a couple gets pounded together out of two busted people.
The press release for this book describes it as “a decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery set in a Hollywood, and solar system, very different from our own” and if you think that sounds complicated, you have no idea.
I’m not going to lie; this is not an easy book to get into, and it’s not a light read. This is not the sort of thing you can pick up while on the edge of sleep, when your brain has started shutting down and you just want to relax.
Stories are like that. They love havoc, especially their own.
Many of these stories involve sleep. That is because we are all afraid of sleeping. We know it deep in our blood and our marrow. A panther, a bear, a Cro-Magnon may find a child while she’s sleeping. And so we tell tales of a girl who pricked her finger on a navigational array and fell asleep for a hundred years. A girl who ate an apple that wasn’t really an apple and fell into a deep sleep until a handsome businessman with a Kleen-Krop patent came along and kissed her awake again. A wise scientist who gave away his notes for free, so his assistant put him to sleep in a tree forever.
This book requires your attention, and it requires a lot of work, especially at the start.This is a thinking-person’s… decopunk, pulp, SF… in an attempt to be concise, let’s just call it speculative fiction!
But if you put the effort in, if you keep going, you’ll be privy to a world that is so skillfully built, intricate, and just so beautifully written that it will stay with you well after you turn the final page. Once you pass the 25-30% mark, everything will start to come together in your mind. The struggle you went through to get here will now help you understand more about the world(s) within these pages and work out what’s going on, without having been hand-fed every little answer.
Valente doesn’t hold your hand and walk you through it, but rather throws you in and lets you absorb her world through the telling. It’s on your own brain to work out what’s going on, and how everything ties together. The writing, itself, is a part of the story, and if you pay attention you will get your rewards.
This epistolary novel, told in negative space, comprises gossip articles, film transcripts, diaries, scripts, fairy tales, advertisements and more, and shows us who Severin was through the eyes of the people who knew and loved her.
It might all seem like a half-heard conversation when you first join the story, but by the time you reach the end you’ll be looking for more pages.
No good thing can last forever, because people are terrible and we have this feeling, we all have this feeling that if not for that essential terribleness we could have gotten further by now. Done better. Done more. We have failed collectively since Plato first choked on an olive. So it’s no surprise when we fail individually – when we shirk duty, when we hate our parents, when we run away, when we get drunk every night, when we lose love… when we lose love. Because by all rights we should be living in the crystal palaces of Atlantis or in the Tower of Babel’s penthouse apartments, right? Comparatively our private blunders are insignificant. Just part of the general pattern of human awfulness. We map our little disasters onto a beautiful picture of a great one, so that there’s continuity. So that there’s balance. We fail because we always fail. It’s not our fault. For evidence, see the paradise we lack.
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