Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente
Valente writes complex and often very dark fiction, strange and beautiful dream worlds inhabited by incredibly interesting, if damaged, people.
Radiance is described as “decopunk”, which I had never heard of, but seems to fit. A la Steampunk, this story is set in an alternate universe with flappers, silent movie studios (headquartered on the moon), colonies throughout the solar system—but no computers or TVs, for instance. This universe is lovingly and lavishly described, especially in the fashions and foibles of a movie company, and the alien planetscapes of the inhabited solar system.
The story involves the life and mysterious disappearance of Severen Unck, and the “cast” of her life, her family and colleagues. The daughter of a film producer, her life plays out on film, and she grows up to make documentary films.
In this universe, film is monochrome (except when hand colored) and silent . (Edison’s family controls the patents for color and sound, and they have held them so close that talkies have never become popular.) Valente gives us some lovely musing on film making, and the virtues of silent film.
Valente is a gifted and beautiful writer, and I do love her writing. This book is rather complex, and absolutely, positively, non-linear; in some cases, there are multiple versions of the same event. It could be a chaotic mess, but she pulls it off, and makes us love it all.
In addition, the solar system is full of inhabitable planets, will with odd flora, fauna, and customs. I loved the descriptions of the alien landscapes filled with sort-of familiar things, with a continuing joke about alien things that people have given names from Earth (“trout” that aren’t really trout, “orange juice” make from a fruit that is orange but isn’t really an orange, and so on.)
I have read a little of her earlier works (e.g. Palimpsest (2014) ) and found it dark, dark, DARK! Radiance (living up to its title) is far less so. It’s not exactly a jolly lark, bad things happen, people are hurt, life is not wonderful. But the tone is positive, and, indeed, the characters are struggling to love and care for each other, even in the face of horror and tragedy. What more can we hope for?
This is certainly my favorite of her works, and may be one of her best.
- Catherynne M. Valente, Radiance, New York, TOR, 2015.
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