Contributors Lisa Mahoney and Theodore McCombs are teaming up again to review Radiance, the latest genre-defying novel from Catherynne M. Valente. Valente, probably best known for her runaway hit The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, now brings us a "decopunk pulp SF alt-history space-opera mystery set in a Hollywood — and solar system — very different from our own." In this reality, space travel took off in the Victorian era (you see, there was this very large cannon...). All the biggest film studios and directors are on the Moon and the planets are habitable wonderlands, with buildings that grow like mushrooms and lizard-like buffalos. Sound ambitious? But you know what they say about shooting the moon...
Lisa Mahoney: This week we’re excited to have another book to rave about, just in time for holiday gifting! The scope of Radiance is so ambitious; I really admire Valente’s confident writing. It really shines here, both in terms of style and story. The setting is an alternate solar system, with a path that seems to have diverged sometime in the late 1800’s, when Edison was actively inventing. Valente tackles noir detectives, screenplays, Gothic penny dreadfuls, advertisements, fairy tales, silver-screen gossip columns, murder mysteries, and the multiverse, all the while revealing pieces related to a mysterious disappearance and the people left behind trying to make sense of it.
Theodore McCombs: I'm raving too. This book is such a fount of imagination. Each planet has its own personality, its own brilliant idea that makes you sit up and go, Cool! I loved that Uranians watch 'ringrise' and are so far from the sun, it’s just a phlegmy smudge in the sky. I loved the scene on Neptune, in the floating city in the storm. From an observation deck, one can see a tempest-tossed fishing vessel hauling back a majestic ichthyosaur. Everyone is in his or her outdated finest for a celebration: Neptune is about to pass behind the sun and out of radio contact with Earth (and France, her imperial mother) for seventy-two years. Rappeler qui vous êtes, the radio announcer pleads, N'oubliez pas d'où vous venez. Remember who you are. Don't forget where you come from. It's a breathtaking scene.
LM: And I loved Pluto. Our intrepid noir/Gothic/fairy-tale detective, Anchises St. John, is picked up from his rocket by furry-dragon-buffaloes pulling a crazy coach, which takes him to a foreboding mansion ruled by a former lighting engineer for the movies, now the "Mad King of Pluto." The host arranges a shocking play, but realizes he has hit too close to home. Later, in the detective's room, the King rages and tears through walls and furniture, revealing it’s all a set, all tricks of staging and lighting, while he succumbs to tears and confessions.
TM: The nature of reality is at the heart of Radiance, isn’t it? It has a metafictional structure revolving around the disappearance of Severin Unck, a promising young documentarian who vanished on Venus while filming the callowhales — enigmatic, island-sized leviathans whose milk is harvested to make interplanetary settlement possible. Her father, Percival, is a famous director known for his cheesy Gothic movies, and he’s writing a movie about his daughter’s disappearance. Sometimes, we read tape-recorded story-breaking sessions between him and Vincenza, his longtime screenwriter; and sometimes we read the story they're writing, in which Anchises investigates Severin’s disappearance. The Pluto chapters, for example, are Anchises’s investigation written in the Gothic horror genre. Did any of it "really" happen, though? Is that what Pluto is really like, or is this just Percy and Vince’s pulpy fantasy?
LM: But Ted, “What really happens” is the fundamental disagreement between Percival and his daughter Severin, isn't it? Severin thinks her dad’s genre movies are silly crap, so she rebels by making documentaries. Percival thinks life itself is a movie — he carries his camera everywhere and will do multiple takes on Christmas morning to get the lighting or Severin’s squeals of joy just right. Percival found Severin abandoned on his doorstep in the rain as a baby, and he did a re-shoot of that, too — then he “cast” a mother for her, marrying a sequence of women.
TM: So it's ironic, then, that Severin’s last documentary is the most fantastical part of the book. (No spoilers!)
LM: Well, one spoiler: in the fairy-tale version of Anchises’s story, he has a "gift" for making wishes that never come true. And he desperately wants to see the face of a callowhale. Everyone’s seen the huge, humped shapes in the Qadesh, the red Venusian ocean, but never a face. So he wishes he will never be able to draw a callowhale’s face. And immediately, he draws a field of stars.
TM: That was so frickin’ cool.
LM: Wasn't it? The truth about these callowhales is also a tricky question. One recurring theme of the book is that there are no true endings to life — that tidy, true resolutions only happen in fiction, in novels or movies. In this Percival and Severin agree: only directors have the power to control story content and to end them logically. Percival struggles repeatedly to end this last, greatest story. I liked how Valente underlines that concept by leaving us with two possible explanations for Severin’s disappearance. But I kind of wished she'd left it there, without that last chapter.
TM: Yeah, “The Lady, or the Tiger?” this is not. That last chapter clearly favors one explanation over the other and frankly, I liked that. I found it refreshing. My main criticism of Radiance was how some of the genre pastiche overstayed its welcome: I could have used fewer twee fairy-tale locutions, a more dialed-down Gothic castle. Though that’s a matter of taste, really: “less is more” is not at all the aesthetic of this book!
LM: No, "crazy fun" seems to be the aesthetic — loving genre parodies, cool ideas, and bizarre alien animals and landscapes. There are fantastic details everywhere.
TM: How does this rate on your orphan scale? Percy is a "fun dad," and Severin’s birth mom is mostly offstage...
LM: Percival is not the Disney trope “dad who’s so awesome he's everything his child needs, even the mother figure.” He knows he needs the help of a mother, and laments, correctly, that he was not a strict enough father. Although Severin is without her "real" mother, she gets many replacement mothers, some of whom she loves, and many of whom leave her with things she needs, like animals, or acting tips, or confidence. There’s so much love and support for Severin that I don’t think I’m going to dock Valente for using a motherless protagonist.
LM: How do you think this book will be received? Where will bookstores put it? It is very conscious of the concept of genre. At times it feels like Valente's making fun of genre distinctions.
TM: And bless her for it. It’s literally a genre mash-up, with genres existing side-by-side and crossing over into each other like connected alternate realities.
LM: Exactly. And just as Severin is too good for her dad’s vampire movies, will the "literary fiction" world ignore Radiance because it has elements of a mystery and takes place in an alternate solar system?
TM: I hope not. I loved it, you loved it, it's wild and ambitious and unafraid of the conventional literary world. And I think there's definitely an audience for that.