Catherynne M. Valente is one of my favorite authors. The quality of her prose is consistently draw-dropping. Her stories are fantastical, miraculous creations that deconstruct narratives and characters and genres at every turn, and push the reader’s imaginations far beyond what they thought was possible. Valente’s stories are filled with humor, warmth, and amusement at humanity’s foibles and society’s eccentricities, be they benign or malignant, and they are filled to the brim with imagination.
Valente’s latest novel Radiance fits right in amongst her oeuvre. Described by the publisher Tor as “a decopunk pulp SF alt-history space-opera mystery set in a Hollywood—and solar system—very different from our own,” Radiance tells many stories, but at the novel’s heart is the tale of the disappearance of Severin Unck. Severin’s origins are as mysterious as her disappearance—as an infant, she was placed on a doorstep to be discovered and adopted by Percival Unck, one of Hollywood’s top directors whose speciality is gothic movies. Percival doesn’t feel as though an event has really happened unless he’s behind the camera directing and recording the moment, and Severin spent her childhood being filmed and growing increasingly disenchanted with her father’s unrealistic, fantastical movies.
As an adult, Severin has made a name for herself as a documentarian, traveling from planet to planet filming strange and unusual occurrences. For her latest—and last—film The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew, Severin and her crew fly to Venus to investigate the disappearance of a village populated by divers. These brave souls were tasked with milking the great whale-like creatures known as callowhales, whose milk allows human bodies to survive and thrive in space. Instead of coming home with a movie, Severin’s crew returns limping home without her, unable to explain what happened. She’s not dead, but no one knows where she is or how she vanished. Her disappearance, and the lack of a proper ending for her story, will haunt Hollywood and all who knew her for years to come.
So yeah. There’s a lot going on. I didn’t even touch on the alt-history aspect of Radiance. In this early 20th-century universe, humanity has perfected space travel (don’t ask how), the Edison family controls the patents for sound and color in films (film has thus matured into a primarily silent, black-and-white medium), and Hollywood is located on the moon (giving the stock dream “I want to be a star” a whole new meaning).
And then there’s the pulpy, pastiche SF aesthetic informing the world-building. Valente drew inspiration from the classic SF writers of old who wrote lurid, fantasy-esque stories where the planets were habitable, and filled with strange flora and fauna and geographies. In Radiance, space is literally the final frontier—each planet, including the moon itself, is under different jurisdictions from the countries on Earth. The citizens of each planet have developed their own planetary identities and cultures, and they all have mixed feelings and strained relationships with the Earth their ancestors left only a generation or two ago.
The narrative of Radianceis a nonlinear mix of screenplays, diary entries, film reels, commercials, gossip rags, and more. All these disparate pieces capture snippets of Severin’s childhood, her adulthood escapades, and her disappearance. None of them are capable of elucidating the full narrative of Severin Unck’s life—only when put into proximity with each other does a strange shape being to emerge that’s as close to the truth as anyone can get.
Finally, there’s the genre-hopping. In the span of one novel, Catherynne M. Valente demonstrates her acumen at writing pretty much any single genre or style you care to name. Noir, gothic romance, fairytale, locked-room mystery, infomercials for adults and children, pastiche radio dramas—they’re all there, and Valente passionately embraces each genre’s narrative and stylistic quirks and absurdities, telling the same story through different sets of lenses.
The image of the all-powerful, all-seeing lens is (unsurprisingly) predominant throughout the novel. Just as Valente’s unzipped and inspected narrative elements of fairy tales in The Orphan’s Tales, Deathless, and the Fairylandseries, Radiance tackles the construction of narratives through film: who is telling the story (the director? the person behind the camera? the screenwriter? the actors on the stage?), filming fantasy versus reality (which version contains the most truth? just how staged is reality?), and the need to know a story’s beginning and ending. Severin’s story lacks both—she showed up on Percival’s doorstep when she was born, and she disappeared leaving no clue as to where she went or why. As Severin says:
“[A]ny story is a lie cunningly told to hide the real world from the poor bastards who live in it. I can’t tell you that lie. That’s Dad’s game, and I’ve been sick of playing it since I was four.”
There is one quirk in Valente’s writing that’s been bothering me recently, and shows up in just about every one of her novels I’ve read. Each character, no matter who they are or how they speak, has at least one point where they go off on a monologue where they deconstruct a societal or narrative assumption.
“Because noir isn’t really a new thing at all. It’s just a fairy tale with guns. Your hardscrabble detective is nothing more than a noble knight with a cigarette and a disease where his heart should be. He talks prettier, that’s all. He’s no less idealistic—there’re good women and bad women, good jobs and bad jobs. Justice and truth are always worth seeking. He pulls his fedora down like the visor on a suit of armour. He serves his lord faithfully whether he wants to or not. And he is in thrall to the idea of a woman. It’s just that in detective stories, women are usually dead before the curtain goes up. In fairy tales, they’re usually alive. Fairy tales are about survival. That’s all they’re about. The princess lives to get married in the last act. The detective solves the woman; the knight saves her.”
I love stories that tackle the construction of stories head-on, and these asides are consistently insightful and well-written. But nine or ten books later, they have become distracting—it doesn’t feel like the character talking anymore, but Catherynne M. Valente. (This is also why I haven’t read the fourth Fairyland book, as this writing tick shows up far more frequently in that series to the point that it hindered my enjoyment of the third book.) Even though I like the analyses themselves, I am tired of the consistent inclusion of passages that sound more like the author’s voice than the characters who are saying them.
I also wasn’t so keen on the novel’s ending. One of the thematic threads of Radianceis the unrealistic, constructed nature of endings, which I loved. On the other hand, I am still a traditionalist in some ways, and when reading a story, I want an ending that at the very least feels satisfying. The book’s other great mystery aside from Severin’s disappearance is the identity of the callowhales, from which humans extract the callowmilk vital to humanity’s existence in space. The ending provides answers of sorts, but I did not find either of them to live up to the suspense built up by the narrative regarding these two mysteries.
While Radiance is not my favorite novel of Catherynne M. Valente’s, it is an extraordinarily ambitious novel that’s near-flawless in its execution. I loved the decopunk, pulp pastiche of space travel and the planets, the glitz and glamor of show biz transported to space, and the ensemble cast of characters that appeared in the novel. When you read one of Catherynne M. Valente’s novels, you know you will be reading something that is literally unlike anything else being written or published. And so I keep returning, every single time.