Radiance, by Catherynne M. Valente (Tor 978-0-7653-3529-6, $24.99, 432pp, hardcover) October 2015
Only with the passage of time can certain literary trends, personalities, influences, movements and scenes be evaluated. While we are in the midst of such happenings, objectivity is clouded and patterns are often indiscernible. Perhaps it is merely a case that not enough evidentiary points have yet been established for any connect-the-dots linkages to be manifested. History has its own critical mass and retrospective optimal coigns of vantage.
I think we are now safely at the juncture of confidently saying that Sean Wallace’s Prime Books has, since its inception fifteen years ago, been instrumental in launching several high-profile careers. Wallace’s keen eye for burgeoning undiscovered or barely discovered talent is remarkable. He’s featured early work by many who have gone on to other, larger publishers, and/or achieved critical acclaim. Jeff VanderMeer, Rhys Hughes, Tim Lebbon, Tim Pratt, Gemma Files, Jay Lake, Nick Mamatas, Michael Cisco, Holly Phillips, Ekaterina Sedia—that’s an incomplete list of Prime’s publishing coups.
In 2004, Prime published Catherynne M. Valente’s The Labyrinth, which I take to be her first novel, according to ISFDB. He then did three more of her books the following year. And in the subsequent thirteen years since The Labyrinth, Valente has proven herself a powerhouse of ambition and accomplishment, moving on to the Big Five houses and a wider readership. But it all began with Prime.
Valente’s latest novel shows her trying out a different mode than any of her previous works, a mark of her relentlessly questing creativity. In a blog post, she describes Radiance as “a decopunk alt-history Hollywood space opera mystery thriller. With space whales.” Right off the blurbist’s bat, it sounds unprecedented, and the reality is that it pretty much is. Although I can think of, and will name, a few resonant antecedents.
The Jonbar Hinge underlying her thickly detailed, sharp-edged world seems to have happened circa the early Victorian period, as practical space travel becomes a reality. Of course, since the space travelers find habitable planets in place of our actual harsh otherworld environments, this universe must have deviated from ours, in a cosmological sense, millions of years ago. But what counts is a certain satisfying continuity between Valente’s culture and ours, that makes all the parallels and divergences (RKO studio, the Edison family) fun to chart. The other significant factor is that advanced film technology was established earlier as well, leading to a Golden Age of moviemaking, infusing the culture with celebrities and cinematic touchstones in a way that recalls our own heyday of the 1930s and 1940s. Plainly, Valente is in love with that glamorous era.
The central figures, among a vivid, boldly delineated cast, are Percival Unck, master film director, and his daughter Severin, or Rinny. Additionally, we have Severin’s lover, Erasmo St. John, and their strange, pivotal “adopted” son, Anchises St. John, not to mention the elder Unck’s many wives and a host of gossip columnists, cinematographers, actors, actresses and techies.
Raised in the limelight, a somewhat egotistical and spoiled Severin grows up to become a young film director herself, making movies that are a fresh hybrid of realism and fiction. She has journeyed in the year 1944 with her crew to the lost city of Adonis on Venus to film her latest, The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew. (All of Valente’s titles and synopses and partial scripts of her imaginary films are cleverly done, making you convinced of their reality and attractiveness.) And that’s when things go kerflooey. Severin disappears, as do many of the crew, presumed dead, and Erasmo and Anchises are left to carry on, scarred for life. When Anchises is a dysfunctional adult in the 1960s, he is peremptorily hired by a mysterious woman from Saturn code-named Melancholia. She wants him to find out the truth of Severin’s long-ago vanishing—and Severin’s possible continued existence. Reluctant, Anchises signs on, and is given a minder in the form of the awesomely hard-nosed Cythera Brass. The torturous path of his investigations and the enigmatic ending to them form the bulk of the book.
Valente’s prose is incantatory and poetic, yet with demotic dialogue when necessary. Like all great films, her never-faltering, never-boring, always-surprising novel alternates between artificiality and naturalism. The book slyly comments on its own construction, never letting the reader forget that all lives are essentially a mix of design and fate. And while her main thrust is creating the atmosphere and realities of her interplanetary Hollywood milieu, there is also a rock-hard science-fictional, existential conceit as the secret, gradually revealed engine of the book. All in all, the two modes complement each other wonderfully, and the whole feels utterly organic.
In its fragmentary, hallucinatory ambiguity and its bricolage effects, Radiance recalls some of Thomas Pynchon’s more small-scale works, like The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland and Inherent Vice. Its quirky kind of alternate history makes me think of Ysabeau Wilce’s Califa books. And its pulpish revival of the Inhabited Nine Planets consensus solar system calls up originals like Henry’s Kuttner’s “Hollywood on the Moon” series of stories, as well as instances more recent, like Zelazny’s early Mars and Venus tales; Al Sarrantonio’s Masters of Mars cycle; and the Dozois-Martin anthologies Old Mars and Old Venus. Finally, Valente’s counterfactual world of film-making seems allied to a major riff in Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock, although RCW’s book was imagining a post-apocalyptic film industry rather than a laterally displaced one.
But as I said earlier, despite these glancingly simpatico predecessors, Radiance stands forth as a truly unique and pioneering landmark of uncategorizable fantastika.
Ultimately, Radiance the novel might very well amount to the paper version of some gloriously unborn film penned by the team of Ben Hecht, Leigh Brackett, Nathanael West, and Orson Welles, and directed by a co-op of John Ford, Val Lewton, Douglas Sirk, and Federico Fellini.