Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Review of Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

In 2015, editors George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois released the anthology Old Venus. Populated with shorts in tribute of Golden Age pulp on the green planet, the moments it achieves something more ambitious are few and very far between. Also released in 2015 was Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance. Likewise a retro work set (largely) on Venus, Valente imbues her material with a sparkling depth and transience that far exceeds the standard Martin and Dozois were chasing, however. The title apt, it’s a subtler light than the neon of pulp.

Working with the art of filmmaking, the relationship between the fictional and the real, and Hollywood of old, Radiance is a novel that possesses every ounce of Valente’s literary awareness and fervor for language. Paul Di Filippo calls it “uncategorizable fantastika,” which is, in fact, a shortcut from Valente’s own more complex but accurate description: “a decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery.” Dynamic to say the least, the milieu is never allowed to desiccate into simple retro-pulp homage, going further to tell a rich, multi-faceted tale of one woman’s life and legacy in Hollywood’s Golden Age—or what it would have been were the solar system alive with humanity.

The narrative chopped up and spliced back together (like a film, get it?), Radiance wears its subject material on its sleeve down to its bones. A carousel of characters flittering on and off the screen, adventuring on Mars, the moon, Venus, and beyond, and the scene shifting ahead and forward in time, Radiance centers around the story of Severin Unck but is anything but linear. Strong-willed daughter to one of Hollywood’s most prestigious directors, Severin devotes her time, among other things, to creating part-fictional, part-documentary films addressing issues she feels pertinent in her own, idiosyncratic style. Disappearing mysteriously while shooting on location at the lost city of Adonis on Venus, the main storyline tracks the pre- and post-happenings to Severin’s disappearance, and its meaning.

Surrounding and informing Severin’s story, as well as having independent stories of their own, a handful of side-characters add color and pertinence to Radiance. Percival Unck, Hollywood magnate and father to Severin, has major philosophical differences about the purpose of celluloid with his daughter, and the interplay of their perspectives forms a strong portion of the novel’s sub-text. Erasmo St. John, Severin’s lover who survives her disappearance, likewise plays into the development of Severin’s personal story, all the while his own thoughts and reactions to the situation help build the story at large. Mary Pellam is likewise a key component to Radiance. A thematic mediator of sorts, Pellam shifts between the real and fictional worlds as mentor to Severin and actress, all the while fostering Valente’s addressing of metaphysical concerns in film. Terry Pratchett does a brilliant job paying homage to the glory of Hollywood’s Golden Age in his novel Moving Pictures. But philosophically and individually, Valente takes the subject matter to the next level: radiant.

In the end, Radiance is a gene-splice of Orson Well’s Citizen Kane, Leigh Brackett’s Sea Kings of Mars stories, and Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris—with a pinch of Thomas Pynchon to spice structure. Strange, dreamy, distinct, rich, intoxicating, expansive, nostalgic, inimitable—a rush of adjectives flow through the mind while reading, making the novel a dynamic experience of story as much as it provokes thought regarding the history and importance of film and photography. One of the best releases of 2015, it’s a long sight better than the excursions of Old Venus on the green planet.

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