I recently (or at least at the time of writing this review, some months back) listened to a podcast in which Catherynne Valente was a guest speaker. While I agreed with many of her opinions about books we each have read, I was not impressed by her attitude, and when looking into some of her review work, found it often unbalanced and reactionary—moment based, rather than thought out opinion. Knowing her titles by sight only, I decided to delve into Valente’s work thinking to find the posture translated into fiction. I could not have been more wrong. Most importantly, I discovered a writer in whom I am now seeking more work by. What grabbed me? 2012’s novella Silently and Very Fast.
Indefinable from a taxonomically, Silently and Very Fast is mytho-biblio-fairy tale of science fiction—and that only begins to blur matters, further details a pure kaleidoscope. Multi-layered, multi-textured and featuring three sections in dialogue with themselves, the story is digested with pleasure: meaning and substance appear and reappear at a variety of depths and levels. One of characters in the novella has the following to say, and I think it sums up the direction and structure of the narrative:
“I will explain it in language, and then I will explain it in symbols, and then you will make a symbol showing me what you think I mean, and we will understand each other better than anyone ever has.”
That the prose is poetically lyrical only enhances the experience. Words and sentences rolling off the mind’s tongue, the novella is a Faberge egg floating in a wine sea of electrodes at sunset—a truly beautiful read. See the following sample for the presentation of it all:
“A woman who was with child once sat at her window embroidering in winter. Her stitches tugged fine and even, but as she finished the edge of a spray of threaded delphinium, she pricked her finger with her silver needle. She looked out onto the snow and said: I wish for my child to have a mind as stark and wild as the winter, a spirit as clear and fine as my window, and a heart as red and open as my wounded hand.”
Given the jeweled façade of Silently and Very Fast, describing the story is a mercurial task—the light refracting in many directions. At heart the birth of an AI, it is so much more: life, death, beauty, family, and a variety of other subjects. Shifting temporally, the allegorical, symbolic, and direct reference formats present the coming to life of a young girl’s technical creation, and the life it gives her in return. Developing in the real world, a virtual world, and in a land of myth, how the characters flow and shift through the scenes and settings is breathtaking—a truly magical ride.
In the end, Silently and Very Fast is a superb novella that stands a most excellent chance of being remembered through time. In part for the timelessness the story itself exudes, but perhaps more likely for the gorgeous imagery Valente conjures. Exquisitely written in beautiful, fluid prose, that the heart of the story likewise has value and meaning sets it at the top of what speculative fiction in the 21st century can be. (For reasons I can’t fully explain, the futuristic salience of the story reminded me of James Tiptree Jr.’s The Girl Who Was Plugged in.) I still disagree with how Valente handles her estimation of others’ works, but I cannot doubt her output as a writer of fiction. Fantastic stuff—literally and figuratively.