Radiance by Catherynne M Valente

In a universe where the worlds of our solar system are close, and every one of them is habitable, humanity left the bounds of Earth in the nineteenth century, establishing itself across all the planets and their moons. This expansion was fuelled by the discovery of callowmilk, a substance extracted from mysterious creatures in the seas of Venus called Callowhales; their milk provides humanity with much of the nutrients it needs to survive beyond Earth. The cities of Luna, the Earth’s moon, became the centre of the nascent cinematic industry; an industry that remained largely silent and monochrome, held back by the exorbitant fees charged by the Edison Corporation for use of their patents on sound recording and colour film.
A filmmaker, Severin Unck, disappears during production of a film about the unexplained destruction of a Venusian colony. Radiance is this universe’s attempt to make sense of what happened, through her films, through recordings of her life and those who knew her, and through the attempts of her father, the legendary director Percival Unck, to tell her story.
It’s a novel that at times feels like a complicated puzzle, presenting pieces of information, telling Severin’s life out of sequence, and circling in on the events that occurred in the village of Adonis – events tinged with weird horror, of which you made gradually aware. There are shifts in tone along the way, through noir and gothic and fairy tale narratives, each taken up and discarded as Percy Unck attempts to find the shape of his film. And it’s this element that makes it the most interesting – the knowledge, repeatedly made clear, that everything in the book is told at one remove; second hand or interpreted by the mind of a filmmaker.
The story of Anchises St John, sole survivor of Adonis, attempting to discover the truth about Severin is not reality, but the plot of Percy’s film. Scenes from Severin’s movies, which are documentary and very personal, we are assured are heavily scripted and rehearsed. Even Percy’s home movies are suspect, as we are told of how he would have his family re-enact events until things were just right. There was a point, around two thirds of the way through the book, where I became very aware of the unreliability of everything I was being told, and I assumed the book would ride this ambiguity all the way to the end, providing no solid answers and leaving the explanations a matter of interpretation.
I was a teensy bit disappointed, then, when the final sections of the book not only offered up an explanation, but seemed to confirm that this explanation was the correct one. It was a very neat and tidy conclusion. This is not to say it wasn’t satisfying, however; the ending takes all of the pieces, all the clues layered throughout the text, and brings them together to show you how they all fit, and the solution to the mysteries is a weird and wonderful bit of worldbuilding in itself.
In all, I found Radiance a fascinating and entertaining read, even if it didn’t quite end up where I would have expected. It’s a fun book, one that rewards close reading, and quite unlike any other I’ve read. If the idea of a book that mixes pulpy planetary sci fi, cinema, mystery, and unconventional storytelling appeals to you, definately check this out.

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One response to “Radiance by Catherynne M Valente

  1. Pingback: What I’ve Been Reading – Winter Edition | Inspiration Struck

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