By Victoria Hoyle
Radiance — Catherynne M. Valente (Corsair)
Imagine a table laden with all the food you can think of; things you like and things you don’t like; cuisines from all around the world; the fresh and the fast; three thousand calorie freak-shakes next to organic kale salads; dessert piled on top of nachos sitting on a bed of pears. The table is groaning, under the physical and the metaphorical weight of the feast. It’s wonderful and disconcerting and a bit horrifying and deliciously tempting at the same time. This is the gastronomic equivalent of Cathrynne M. Valente’s Radiance, a virtuoso outpouring of language, style, trope and intertext fit to overwhelm any appetite. It took close to a week for me to sit down and start this review after I finished the book; I needed that long to digest it. If you like your novels spare or clean this one probably isn’t for you.
Severin Unck is a documentary film-maker, infamous for the excoriatingly personal tone of her work. As the only child of Percival Unck, a director of big budget fantasy films, she has grown up in front of the camera lens. The world is her stage and the solar system her set. In her alternate early 20th century all of our system’s planets as well their moons have been colonised by humans, each one with a unique ecosystem and environment to which settlers have adapted. On Neptune people live on great floating boat cities, sailing in an endless sea shared with leviathan monsters; on Uranus the lifetime-long winters are moderated by a lively drug culture; and on Pluto the necessity of protection from the -270 degree temperatures has inspired a fashion for extravagant masks. Luna, Earth’s moon, is home to the film industry, carved up into studio territories that churn out blockbusters for interplanetary audiences. All of this is made possible by consumption of callow-whale milk, a substance harvested from mysterious creatures on Venus which keeps human bodies functioning and viable in low gravity.
This is not the sort of science fiction where the science makes a whole lot of sense. Radiance imagines a hospitable solar system, every planet capable of sustaining life, with native flora and fauna, animals we can farm and food we can eat. Cultural rather than physical or technological adaptation is all that is required for us to move between one and another. Space ships – which are fired out of a cannon-like contraption – are first launched from Earth in 1858 and by the time Severin is born in 1914 the universe is our oyster. Otherwise, for all intents of purposes the book is set in the 1930s and 1940s, with the limited technologies of that time. The patent battles over ‘talkies’ and colour film rage much as they did in our world but to such an extent that silent films are far more fashionable and sound is considered brash. In this way the book powerfully recalls the planetary fantasies of C.S. Lewis, in which late Victorian social mores and early 20th century culture are exported to the prelapsarian stars.
All is not entirely well however. Over the last thirty years several human settlements have been inexplicably and absolutely destroyed with no rational explanation. Prosperine, an American colony on Pluto, disappeared in 1902; Enyo, a Russian mining settlement on Mars was destroyed in 1917 and Adonis, a callow-milk station on Venus, was lost in 1934. In each case the people vanished leaving behind nothing but ruins; no bodies, no living creatures. Except on Adonis, where a young boy survived unscathed apart from a strange wound in his hand. He has apparently spent the decade since walking around the memorial at the centre of the village. Around and around and around, without eating or sleeping or aging. In 1944 Severin Unck decides to make him the centrepiece of her newest documentary, The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew, and sets off to Venus with her support crew, including her producer and lover Erasmo St. John. Severin successfully makes contact with the boy, who she calls Anchises, but the situation quickly deteriorates. Several of the crew members die or are injured in mysterious circumstances – one commits suicide, another contracts a parasitic disease – and then, just as they are preparing to leave, Severin herself disappears. She flickers out of being between one shot on her camera and another. Erasmo, Anchises and Percival will spend the rest of their lives trying to work out what happened to her.
Setting out the plot up front like this is somewhat disingenuous because all this action takes place stage left of the novel we’re reading. Radiance is actually a jigsaw mystery, a mishmash attempt to recover the truth about Severin’s death or disappearance through archival fragments, and fictional interpretation. We only ever see her through a filter darkly and never directly; an irony for a story about the fate of a narcissistic documentarian. We are given extracts from gossip columns, transcripts of the Uncks’ home movie footage and the diary entries of one of Severin’s stepmothers, as well as a recording of a debrief interview with Erasmo St. John conducted by Radiant Car’s production company. By far the most dominant figure though is Anchises; or at least Anchises as he is imagined by Severin’s father. Almost twenty years after her death in the early 1960s Percival decides to make a film about her. We are witness to the development process as he tests out a range of modes through which to tell her story: noir, gothic, fairytale and comic mystery. In each version Anchises is cast as a detective on the hunt for answers about her fate, travelling from Uranus to Pluto to Venus in search of the truth. Percival’s motivation is to give his daughter an ending he feels she was denied and to make sense of what happened to her and, by association, what happened to Anchises and to Adonis.
This multi-vocal conceit offers Valente a palette of literary styles and forms to work with, a playground for her considerable literary muscle and she rarely disappoints. The writing is scintillating. Valente proves herself as capable of journalism as of film script as of psychedelia and noir. Her Uranian PI version of Anchises is particularly memorable, a delicious ventriloquists’ act of hardboiled crime. I can’t resist quoting a bit at length, to share the texture:
It was closing in on midnight, the kind of midnight you only get on Uranus after a three-day bender. Ultramarine fog reeking of ethanol and neon and some passing whore’s rosewater. Snow piled up like bodies in the street. Twenty-seven moons lighting up what oughta be a respectable witching hour so you can’t help but see yourself staring back in every slick glowpink skyscraper. And the rings, always the rings, slashing down the sky, slashing down the storm, spitting shadows at the fella humping his carcass down Caroline Street, hat yanked down over his bloodshot eyes, coat hugged tight, shoes that need shining and a soul that needs taking in hand. That’d be me. Anchises St. John, private nothing.
This shotgun styling won’t be to everyone’s taste. No sooner have you acclimatised to the rhythm of one sort of writing and you’re pitched into another. That, combined with the frenetic variety of Radiance’s world, makes for a dizzying reading experience. As soon as you think you’ve got a grip on what the book is doing it’s transformed into something else entirely.
I would argue that this is precisely the point. We can never know what happened to Severin Unck, if Severin Unck ever even existed. We’re chasing a fictional character as she is fictionalised by other fictional characters and once you go down that rabbit hole there is no coming out. Radiance is framed like a mystery with an answer and an ending but closure is not – can never be – its style. What we have instead are a handful of the endlessly possible stories that could be told about Severin’s life and disappearance. She isn’t so much a mystery to be solved as a catalyst. She spent her own creative life baring herself with utmost honesty, trying to harness the reality of other people’s experiences to illuminate her own. This perhaps explains why Percival decides not to make her the central figure of the movie about her death but to put Anchises centre stage instead. As an unknown entity Anchises is available to puppet whatever persona Percival decides; Severin refuses to be drawn. Despite all his attempts to capture her from infancy onwards Percival is only ever left with his daughter’s absence, and so are we. It’s a powerful indictment of our contemporary mission to capture, record and broadcast every moment of our lives, asking painful questions about authenticity and reality.
Valente calls on all kinds of narrative device from the Greeks onwards in constructing the novel. The intertextual references to myth, folklore and other stories are in every line, and not just in the classical language of Greece and Rome but in the cinematic and novelistic dialects of our recent past. Severin acts as a muse to test the usefulness and power of certain types of story, to invoke certain types of character. Late in the book Severin says it herself: ‘…I am a nexus point connecting all possible realities and unrealities…I exist in innumerable forms through the liquid/structure of space/time…’ Ultimately Radiance resists closure, ending on a note that gestures to the millions of stories it could have told but didn’t. Like Central Station it is a novel without internal boundaries, blurring the limits of the story it is telling. Valente’s novel is a grandiose display of our almost limitless human capacity to make meaning out of imagery and words.
There are consequences to writing this sort of book. It makes it difficult to invest in the emotional lives of the characters for one thing. Everyone in the novel is held at a distance, obscured by layers of fictionalisation or hidden behind scripted lines. There are moments of deep emotional connection but they are brief and often dislocated from the surrounding action. Erasmo St. John’s love for Severin is powerful and real for example, but you only hear about it via a transcript of his interrogation. Fragments of friendship, moments of compassion, are scattered throughout but the meta of the style puts their authenticity in question. It’s a book more to admire than to feel.
And then there is the debate to be had about whether Radiance is science fiction at all. I last addressed this question in relation to The Fifth Season, a book marketed as fantasy that could be reasonably interpreted as SF. I feel as though the same argument could be made here except in the other direction. Radiance looks like SF because of the space travel but its lineaments are pure fantasy. The places that Valente describes may have the names of planets in our solar system but they are more like secondary worlds. Humans’ ability to live and thrive in these worlds is made possible by the kind of narrative quirks more usually found in magical realism. You could argue it wasn’t science fiction at all. You could. But I won’t. Valente isn’t a genre conformist, but nor is she transcending genre. She is sucking it all in, like one of her quantum callow-whales, and making something fresh. Fantasy, science fiction, noir, 1920s film culture, gothic horror are gathered in along with classical myth and ground up into a story quite unlike other stories which is, at the same time, the heir of those stories. The sheer ballsy inventive glut of it justifies its place on any shortlist.
Victoria Hoyle is an archivist, blogger and part-time PhD student. She lives with her partner and a dog called Juno in rural North Yorkshire in the UK.