Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

It’s probably for the best that I only end up reading a book like this every three to five years. Not that I intend to space them out that way, or even really know what I’m getting into when I pick up the book; they just seem to find me at the right moments. It seems insufficient in some way to simply call it surrealist – after all, a lot of books and movies that are called surreal… aren’t. It’s like people who say that “Inception was so confusing!” No, no it wasn’t. You just weren’t paying attention. A digression, but I need to talk about another book before I can talk about this one:

In May of 2014, I pulled an all-nighter to read The Islanders by Christopher Priest. It is also a work of surrealist fantasy, contradicting itself, told in anachronistic order, providing you with a thousand questions and answers to few or none of them. I spent… an embarrassingly long amount of time kind of fixated on it, trying to “figure it out”. I was convinced that there had to be a truth to it that I just wasn’t seeing. That there had to be answers to these questions, and correct answers at that, if I just looked harder. It was, of course, a waste of time. There were no answers, Priest wrote no answers, and I wasn’t meant to find any. The point of the story was the questions. But I loved it. It’s still one of the best books I’ve ever read, albeit one that I have no intention to reread.

I don’t think I’ll make that same mistake again with Radiance, but believe me – I am tempted. Of course, Radiance is in many ways more satisfying than The Islanders was. It poses fewer questions and answers more of them. But it somehow did so in a much more… elegant way; it lets you pose your own questions rather than handing them to you on a silver plate. In my last review of a Valente book, I referred to her as a word witch. Not only do I stand by it, that view has been thoroughly enforced by Radiance. It’s a rare book that makes me think “if I can’t write like this, I have no business being a writer” (I got over it).

One of the problems I faced approaching this review is that any description besides the back of the cover seems inadequate, and even that in retrospect feels… small. But it’s a start. “Radiance,” it reads, “is a decopunk pulp SF alt-history space-opera mystery set in a Hollywood – and solar system – very different from our own.” Okay, okay, that’s a good start. I have a feeling that the publisher wouldn’t let them print “mindfuck” on the cover of a book that might be, at some point, within the field of vision of a child (this book is notably not one of Valente’s middle-grade works, like the Fairyland series). The book follows Severin Unck, daughter of a director of dramatic Gothic movie. Severin is “a realist in a fantastic universe”. …I can’t relate.

This story is told in a variety of formats – transcripts of film reels, interviews, personal diaries, a movie itself. I’ve always liked that in a book; I think it shows ambition on the part of the author. The required changes in style and diction to pull it off, that takes skill for a writer.  And, of course, pieces are told incompletely, anachronistically, only maybe filled in later, by somebody else. I can’t imagine what this book (and any like it, really) look like in draft form. A linear story seems so much… simpler, in contrast. But at the same time, less satisfying. It doesn’t feel like the reader… worked for their conclusion in a more linear, grounded story.

I’m struggling to figure out how to talk about this book without giving everything away. The way that all the threads interweave is one of the best parts of a book like this, the reader gradually untangling one knot only to find another, and where the hell did this red string come from anyway? Giving away much detail on even the characters and the worldbuilding feels like a spoiler, even besides the plot(s). Radiance is the kind of book where it’s hard to say what it’s “about”, not because it’s confusing or because it’s not “about” anything, but because it’s “about” so much.

At its core, this is the story of Severin Unck, documentarian, going with her crew to Venus to investigate the lost colony of Adonis, the disappearance of which has never been explained. But it is also several other stories: a young girl going to Hollywood to become a star. A man finding a successive string of mothers for his daughter, raising her in black-and-white. A detective struggling to understand his own origins. A husband mourning his wife. And of course, for the reader, it is the exploration of eight whole planets (and a bunch of moons) of delicious sci-fi goodness, each one unique and contradictory in its own way (eight because Earth doesn’t count – of course Pluto is represented here).

I think one of my favorite things about this book, and I hope this won’t be saying too much, is the frankness of it. Towards the end of the book, there’s a new thread that appears (which is, itself, part of another ongoing thread), in which all of the characters that have appeared so far are invited around for a drink, and say “Okay, what really happened here?” It’s not breaking the fourth wall; they don’t know that they’re characters in a book. But they sure as hell know that there’s a story that hasn’t been resolved yet. It’s meta but also a completely fitting and apropos part of the book, there’s a plausibility to it.

I’d say that the other most appealing part of this book was the genuine inventiveness of it. Valente’s creativity has never been lacking in anything of hers that I’ve read, and this is no exception. I really, really, really don’t want to tell you too much about the callowhales, but the callowhales are amazing. The information that’s given to you right off the bat is that callowmilk is required for anyone who wants to live off of Earth – it gives… substance, or mass, or something metaphysical that allows one to withstand the differing gravity levels of the planets. Callowhales are native to Venus, and are a closely protected resource for all of the Earth nation-states that lay a claim to one planet or another.

This is just a phenomenal book by a phenomenal author and I would recommend it to anyone who likes any of the listed genres that might apply to this book: decopunk, pulp, alternate history, science fiction, space operas, and mysteries. And also if they like old Hollywood glam, or occasionally being smacked in the face by the written word.

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