Review: Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente
If my recent inquiry into SF literary theory has taught me anything, it's that the value of science fiction is in its ability to provide a new lens for interpreting reality. In Catherynne M. Valente's Radiance, I found not only an interesting new lens, but lenses within the lenses, each refracting the novel's entire potentiality across numerous characters and storytelling modes.
Fiction of this style is only capable of delivering on interesting themes and well wrought characters if the disparate styles and modes expand into a coherent narrative as the tale unfolds, becoming more than the sum of their parts, and, in my opinion, Valente achieved just this.
On one level, Radiance is the story of a film director Percival Unck, who specializes in pulp Gothic horror films in the 1920's and 30's. However, this is not the 20's and 30's as we know them. Unck occupies an alternate universe where interstellar travel became possible in the 1850's, and the countries of the world occupy the various planets and moons of the solar system: The English own both Luna and Uranus, the Spanish control Mercury, Mars is split between China and Russia, the Ottoman Empire controls Jupiter, the French Neptune, and the Americans Pluto. Venus is a condominium, with installations by all the countries of Earth.
Unck's films are renowned across the solar system, popular with everyone except his daughter, Severin, who, upon coming of age, begins her own directorial career. Unlike her father, Severin composes documentaries. She wants to differentiate herself from her father by showing the world something more real and genuinely visceral than "silly" and "trivial" Gothic fictions.
When a Venusian colony is inexplicably wiped out with only a sole survivor, Severin seizes upon the opportunity to bring to light to the dangers of extraterrestrial colonization. She takes her crew to Venus to film a documentary titled "The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew," and it is from here that the narrative of Radiance fractures across many realities that maintain strong thematic correspondence despite being internally self-contradictory.
One level is the story of Anchises St. John, the sole survivor of the Venus calamity, rescued by Severin just before the catastrophe of her filming "Radiant Car." Many decades after her death, he is drawn into a plot that will send him back to Venus to uncover the truth of what happened to Severin during the "Radiant Car" incident.
However, in another narrative line, Percival Unck is writing, and revising, and re-revising a film about Anchises St. John, which he hopes will help him come to terms with his daughter's death and give him the closure reality can never provide. The difference between his screenplay and Anchises's reality is never defined with any certitude.
In other narrative lines, Erasmo St. John, Severin's fiancé, is interrogated by the legal department of the film studio following the "Radiant Car" incident, Severin is interviewed about memories of her childhood, and broadcast-style interludes show us everything from this universe's popular radio entertainments to advertisements that remind us to drink our callowmilk.
The effect is all this is that of being tuned to a radio intermittently being dialed between many different realities of the same story. At one moment we're hearing about the writing of a film, and the next moment that film plot is reality for an individual in the story. More to the novel's central metaphor, the narrative style also recalls the feeling of many disparate bits of film footage gathered up from the editing room floor and cobbled together.
If the novel has any flaw, it is certainly that the solar system as created defies scientific possibility perhaps a bit more than it should with its construction. While I might buy an alternate universe where humanity developed spaceships in the 1850's, the planets themselves are inconceivable as presented. Alternate versions of Venus and Mars that are habitable in some parallel universe? Sure. I can get there. But on account of the others, the author seems unaware of basic astronomy. The gas giants have no surface to inhabit (they're all gas) and are so immensely large that they would crush human inhabitants with their gravitational forces, and draw the smaller planets into their gravity well if the planets were "nearer to one another" as the text suggests. And no planet out as far as Jupiter and beyond receives enough solar radiation for any kind of sustainable biome to emerge. It's a bit difficult to imagine the "surface" of Uranus at a balmy 10 degrees Celsius, as the text suggests.
Still, I will take strong characters and themes over a meticulously coherent alternate science any day of the week, and Radiance delivers on those former promises so well that the science gaffs are easy to overlook. If one considers Radiance a work of fantasy (or speculative fiction, or a genre blender), which I think is entirely plausible, then the scientific concerns can be dismissed entirely.
Radiance's universe (or universes) are populated with compelling characters, who remind us of the triviality of social politics and the importance of humility and compassion toward the loved ones in our lives. At the end, after all, when all that is left of us is a pile of film clippings, or perhaps a pile of words, how will we be remembered? What kind of narratives will we have made of ourselves?
Radiance is a compelling literary experience, and I recommend it highly.