When reading a novel by Catherynne M. Valente, it’s important to pay close attention to what she’s doing — and then to take an even closer look. Her novels are like vínarterta: dense, many-layered, and can take a while to digest. Last week as I read Radiance (Tor, October 2015), her first novel for adults since Deathless (2011), I realized that this was not just a book that would reward rereading; it practically demands it.
In Radiance Valente does several things at once, all of which I approve of. It’s set in an alternative-retro solar system that would have seemed like the future to someone at the end of the nineteenth century: the planets are all habitable and colonized by the various Great Powers; space travel is undertaken by means of cannons of the sort Jules Verne described in From the Earth to the Moon. Filmmaking is king, but takes place on the Moon rather than Hollywood; for patent reasons the silent era persists for decades (talking pictures exist, but are seen as vulgar or good only for documentaries).
On top of all that, Radiance is told in indirect and documentary fashion: an interview from the 1960s here, a fragment of screenplay there, a memoir here and a piece of footage there. Slowly the story emerges: the disappearance and presumed death of Severin Unck, under mysterious circumstances, while filming a documentary on Venus called The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew, of which only a handful of scenes remain.
It’s a little bit Dos Passos, or at least a bit Waldrop, but the effect is the opposite: unrealism rather than realism. Radiance deliberately blurs the line between artifice and genuine, between fiction and documentary. At one point in the novel, the filmmaker Percival Unck—Severin’s father—is given cause to say, “The lens, my good man, does not discriminate between the real and the unreal.” It’s as close to a thesis statement as this astonishing novel is likely to arrive at.
Radiance is an expansion of her 2009 short story “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew,” a story pregnant with unanswered mysteries that begged for a more in-depth retelling. With Radiance we have that retelling, but Valente has wisely left many of the mysteries unanswered. The result is a work of surprising depth that belies its fanciful setting and not-entirely-serious tone.