Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

radiance!Here’s a book I liked but am mildly disappointed because it has all the elements of something I should love.

  • A twisting, unique narrative: the story moves not merely back and forth in time, but also into the actual screenplays and in-film narrative of its cast of directors and set people. A fictional filmography essential to the plot (like Infinite Jest!)
  • Good writing: Rare among SFF writers, Valente gives a damn about prose/style/craft and the sentence to sentence work of Radiance is quite good.
  • A fun sci fi premise: Radiance jumps around an alternate history of the early 20th century, where space travel rapidly exceeded the pace of our world’s and all the planets of the solar system turned out to be habitable.

A woman is missing. Severin Unck, the most skilled documentarian of her time and daughter to Percival Unck, a renowned pulp genre director. After shooting a series of films across the solar system — from hunger strikes on one of Mars’ moons to the final cruise of Neptune’s city-boats before the planet goes behind the sun — Severin sets off to Venus. Venus is unique among the planets because it is home to the callowhales — enormous, country sized beasts (or maybe plants, who knows?) — from which humans harvest ‘callowmilk’. Callowmilk is basically oil ramped up to a hundred. It’s an essential ingredient in everything from fuel to heroine. A village full of callowmilk divers recently disappeared — well the people disappeared, the village was smashed to bits — and Severin and her crew set out to film it.

And then she disappeared too.

We never see Severin’s point of view. Just that of the people around her, or segments from her films. There’s a point early in the novel where a character is watching one of Severin’s documentaries and observing how everything is staged. Her hair, clothes, the lighting, tone of voice, pauses, the dialogue itself — everything is framed completely by the director despite its aim of authenticity and gritty realness. It’s effective. And true. Most documentaries have an angle, manipulate their facts just the right way, and lie by omission. Doesn’t it gall to discover all this when reading about it later on the internet after being impressed upon, had your passions risen by a particularly good documentary?

This chapter lays a pall over the rest of the novel. You know you can’t trust anything Severin says. You know you can trust her dad even less, and large swathes of the book aren’t actually happening in your run-of-the-mill narrative sense, but are excerpts from a new film written by Dad to honor Severin.

The book only sort of wants us to buy into this criticism though. It’s actually married quite closely to these characters and their fates. From the overly saccharine excerpts of Severin’s childhood (she’s just so precocious) to the brooding fate of the child Severin found on Venus shortly before her disappearance. What I mean is that the gorgeous styling is not the point of the book, the story is still the point of the book and I just don’t trust these characters or feel invested in their twice fictionalized fates.

Furthermore, and I’m still mulling this notion over because I’m aware it sounds half-formed and contradictory, I started to rotate this ‘is she lying?’ lens from Severin to Catherynne M. Valente, the author herself! I understand this sounds ridiculous. It’s a work of fiction, of course the author is ‘lying’, she’s making it all up and we all know this. But I mean more in the tonal manipulation the narrative warned us Severin is employing. I started to notice the commonalities between author and heroine. From the blurb calling this “decopunk pulp SF alt-history space-opera mystery”, which is some mystical in-group nonsense to the almost too-self aware look at me look at me retellings of old advertisements and gossip rags. Some indefinable sense that this is less a novel and more like a too-personal performance of which I wasn’t supposed to be able to see the strings. But I did, and felt mildly embarrassed for everyone involved. Like the child Severin wasn’t Severin but instead it was Valente writing Severin without knowing she was writing herself. This was followed up in the acknowledgements where Valente reveals she’s the daughter of a filmmaker and the phrasing Severin uses with her lover “I love you right in the face”, she deploys to her lover. So the question is, is Valente playing me like Severin is playing her audience?? Don’t all good authors? Should I let her play me?

With a more absorbing tale and dramatis personae, I think the answer would have been a resounding yes, willingly or not. I wasn’t sold. I gush enough about Infinite Jest on this blog but to compare to a similar conceit, even though I know David Foster Wallace was making it up, I still believed James Incandenza made those movies. I could find them, somewhere. Complete. By contrast, Severin’s films were a mere author-brain construct.

So it’s ultimately a beautifully stylistic romp, that lacks character depth and some sort of immersive spice. The first part makes it worth reading, one hundred percent. But it also left me wanting something more.

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