Jonathan Crowe

Book reviewer, cat photographer, fanzine editor, map blogger, snake whisperer.

Tag: Catherynne M. Valente

Books Read: February-April 2018

  1. Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets. Because Star Trek Discovery (which outright steals Stamets’s name for a character and uses his ideas about mycelial networks); also see Stamets’s TED talk. Also because we have multiple mushroom species growing on our property, some of which are actually edible. As I expected, a bit more woo than I’m comfortable with, but I learned a bit about mycology.
  2. Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book 1 by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Graphic novel. Because of the movie, and it was available.
  3. The Art of Map Illustration by James Gulliver Hancock, Hennie Haworth, Stuart Hill and Sarah King. Reviewed at The Map Room.
  4. The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard. Novella set in her Xuya universe. Holmesian detective story about a disgraced teacher and a traumatized ship mind: they solve crimes. Stories like these should come in six-packs, and I’d binge-read them that way; just one is just too little and too thin.
  5. Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson. Novella in which cyborg time travelling environmental remediators from a despoiled future travel to ancient Sumeria. You know, when you put it that way…. Review forthcoming.
  6. Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente. Batshit comedy sf novel, basically Douglas Adams meets Eurovision with just the hint of a post-Brexit edge and a ton of heart. So much goddamn fun. Strongly recommended.
  7. The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell. Reviewed here.
  8. Head On by John Scalzi. Review forthcoming.
  9. Lock In by John Scalzi. Reread for my forthcoming review of Head On.

Radiance

radianceWhen 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.

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