Radiance - Catherynne M. Valente

Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Alt History/Space Opera
Synopsis:  Severin Unck’s father is a famous director of Gothic romances in an alternate 1986 in which talking movies are still a daring innovation due to the patent-hoarding Edison family. Rebelling against her father’s films of passion, intrigue, and spirits from beyond, Severin starts making documentaries, travelling through space and investigating the levitator cults of Neptune and the lawless saloons of Mars.  Severin is a realist in a fantastic universe. But her latest film, which investigates the disappearance of a diving colony on a watery Venus populated by island-sized alien creatures, will be her last. Though her crew limps home to earth and her story is preserved by the colony’s last survivor, Severin will never return. Radiance is a solar system-spanning story of love, exploration, family, loss, quantum physics, and silent film.


Review: Every now and then, a book comes along, which poses great demands on your attention and maybe even your patience. You wade in slowly at first, correctly anticipating something dense and drawn out, but you become so compelled by the need for answers that you start to tear through the story, at the risk of missing some vital detail. In the end it turns out that this approach - having all the seemingly incongruent pieces freshly fluttering around your mind -  is the most perfect way to achieve that moment of coherence, when all the pieces suddenly click into a broad frame. You have your structure, and all that's left is the delight of focusing the shot to reveal the final picture.  That has been, for me, the experience of reading Radiance.

It took me a few hours to process this book, and I'll freely admit that it took me a while to figure out whether I genuinely loved it, or if I was simply dazzled by the complex construction of - what seems to me to be - a largely simple plot. I think it is safe to say that there are layers to this novel I have missed out on - Shakespearean and mythological references which mean nothing to me. I also have zero familiarity with pulp sci-fi, space operas, alt history novels... you get the picture. But despite the convoluted, multi-faceted structure, and possibly layers I've missed, the plot is as simple as the synopsis suggests. The beauty - and only potential challenge - of this novel is in perceiving how the elaborate and achronological trappings layer upon each other to, ultimately, exemplify the very ideas the novel conveys.

Told in the form of interviews, adverts, radio shows, home movies, audio transcripts, film scripts/ revisions, critics' reviews, and spanning several decades as well as several planets, the novel explores a real life mystery - the destruction of Adonis on Venus, and the subsequent disappearance of Severin Unck - through the lens of a camera, through the revelry of Hollywood, through the human inclination to answer unanswerable questions by creating stories to fill the gaps. Broadly speaking, there are two threads - firstly, what actually happened to Severin, the few facts of which are documented in interviews and the few remaining segments of her final documentary. Secondly, what might have happened to Severin; endless possibilities written and rewritten by her father in an attempt to deal with her loss, do her existence justice, derive comfort from some kind of explanation for the simply unknowable truth of her disappearance.

I adored the character of Severin. In a lot of ways, I adored her father too. He, a revered film-maker of dramatic, gothic romances, and she, seeking only to illustrate fact and truth. I admired Severin more as I am normally the kind of person who wants a clean cut purpose and ending - a clear truth that can be pinned down and illuminated and pointed to - like Severin does. Venus, Adonis, the Callowhales. The mystery of these called to me in the exact same way it called to Severin, and honestly that is the core of the novel for me. I drove through all the excess and speculation to get to a truth that neither I nor Severin nor anyone will ever actually be privy to, and somewhere along the way I learned to be okay with that. I like to think Severin did too. All the same, I like to think the proposed resolution was true. It's beautiful and satisfying. What use would our stories be if we could not believe them?

This is a gorgeous, accomplished work of art. Intricate writing, vast and detailed world-building which could only be born of immense imagination. I'm not going to say this book was flawless - it was somewhat self-indulgent, overwrought and occasionally redundant (a bit like this review!) for a plot and a concept that is ultimately relatively simple. There is so much more that I could say, that I could attempt to break down and convey (in a non-spoilery manner). But I've chosen the angles and shots that I feel best capture the story as I read it, and I've edited them into this final cut. Catherynne Valente, I am in awe.

Rating: 5/5

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