A tale may have exactly three beginnings: one for the audience, one for the artist, and one for the poor bastard who has to live in it.
The plot of Catherynne Valente’s latest novel Radiance centers around the mysterious disappearance of a woman – Severin, who’s origin is also something of a mystery – during her investigation of yet another mystery. The book jacket describes it as “a decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery,” and that doesn’t even come close to the wonderful weirdness of a book set in a 1930’s that never existed, in a version of the solar system that only appears in pulp paperbacks and black-and-white movies.
Darn it. If I’d known I was going to enjoy the book this much I would have read it in time for our “Best Books of 2015” list; it would definitely have made it into the top ten. Maybe even the top three.
The “alt-history” part of the book description doesn’t just include little things like no World Wars, no slaughter of Tsar Nicholas and his family, and no “talkies”. (Well, not many of them, anyway. Thomas Edison’s grandson killed that particular innovation by keeping a stranglehold on the audio technology patents.) Oh no, the strangeness extends much, much further.
Take everything you know about our solar system and throw it out the window; in Valente’s alternate-world version the planets are a whole lot closer. Space ships are launched with canons, and then travel through a current of ice and ether that flows between the planets. Earth’s moon is close enough (and the taxes are cheap enough) that all of the bigger Hollywood studios have relocated there (the amount of silver in the water supply means that the skin of everyone who lives there eventually turns blue, but films are all black-and-white anyway, so it’s not a huge problem.)
All of the other planets and their moons have their own topology and unique flora and fauna. Neptune is a planet-wide ocean with floating cities. The rings and twenty-seven moons in the sky of Uranus reflect off of the planet’s crystal cities, which are actually thousands of gigantic crystal anemones. Pluto, one of my favorite planets, is covered with white lilies, and it’s linked to the moon Charon by a river of vines that have been built over with skyscrapers.
And then there’s Venus, with the callowhales. Those are important, but it isn’t completely clear why at first.
The style of the book hearkens back to the bizarre worlds of Valente’s utopian “A Dirge For Prester John” series, or her mad fairytales from “The Orphan’s Tales”. I could fall forever into her descriptions about the lives of the people on each planet and moon: the drugs made from Venusian callowmilk, the levitator cult on Neptune’s moon Halimede, turf wars between film studios on Luna, 1920’s fashion that includes tuxes with feathers and evening gowns with teeth, even the personal airbreathers on Pluto, which come in so many designs that the city streets look like an insane combination of Mardi Gras and Halloween.
Everything in this story is layered with fragments of mythology – mostly Greek and Roman to echo the names of the planets and moons – and every tiny detail has layers and layers of meaning. The real complication though comes from how the story is told.
If I slice it all up and stitch it back together, you might not understand what I’ve been trying to say all my life: that any story is a lie cunningly told to hide the real world from the poor bastards who live in it. I can’t. I can’t tell you that lie. That’s Dad’s game, and I’ve been sick of playing it since I was four.
Valente wrote the book in epistolary format (a series of documents from different sources rather than a single narrator; that’s the same format Bram Stoker used for Dracula. End of literature lesson.), and if you think this author would tell everything in chronological order then you haven’t been paying attention. The book starts with a snippet of a movie being projected directly onto a helpfully disrobed audience, one of four pieces left from the last movie the main character, Severin, ever makes. The history of the solar system is fed to the reader in pieces, served up by radio plays, gossip columns, black-and-white newsreels, and a couple of relentlessly cheerful ads for Prithvi Brand Callowmilk.
Severin’s own story is told from several angles. Her father – Percival Unck, the famous director of Gothic horror films – filmed every moment of Severin’s childhood. And when I say filmed, I mean he made everyone do a retake of every reaction to any event, over and over, until he could get it just right. Severin runs away from this sort of thing as soon as she can, creating award-winning documentaries instead. She tells us in her own words the story of being abandoned on Percival’s doorstep as an infant and her fairytale succession of seven stepmothers, all of them surprisingly delightful, including a ballet dancer, an opera singer, and a lion tamer.
And mixed in with all of that is the film Percival Unck creates to tell the story of his daughter’s final movie. How exactly do you come up with a tale that’s true and satisfying, when you’re estranged from the main character and you don’t even know how her story ended? Film noir? Gothic mystery? Fairy tale? Unck tries them all, dragging in every trope you can imagine for each genre, mashing them together and then finishing with a Mad Tea Party and a denouement that could have come straight out of a murder-mystery flick.
If you want to know if you actually find out whodunnit and whahappen…you actually do! Sort of. For a couple of the mysteries, but not all of them. Valente is always reaching for something that can’t be put into words, trying to show how people’s lives can’t be wrapped into neat little packages. The ending of the book comes in a swirl of experimental physics, lost romance, and somewhat happy-ever-afters, and there are a few different options offered for what the ending of the story could be. You’re left to wonder which of the endings are real, and whether there’s any such thing as a real ending to any tale, especially since none of us know whether we’re the audience, the artist, or the poor bastard who has to live in it.