Bright banner on the wall, neon letters on a billboard, cloud writing in the sky! Catherynne Valente is one of the great writers of the 21st century you’re not reading!! Go get some! But seriously. With eighteen novels, seven collections, and more than one-hundred short stories, why her writing is not spoken more widely I guess is due to the fact she writes outside the mainstream (and between the lines as much as in them, and thus often requires thought—god forbid), can make erudite in-references only people as well-read as she will understand, has a wit so sharp most people are unware they’ve been cut, and displays a range of prose only a handful of her contemporaries, if any, can match. No, Valente is much, much more than the average, modern writer of fantastika, as her 2018 collection The Future is Blue, proves.
One of the first things one must come to terms with and accept if they are to have a considered view of Valente’s world is her joy—her reveling—in language. “Two and Two Is Seven”, “Down and Out in R'lyeh”, “A Fall Counts Anywhere”—these are examples of stories gonzo with words. Dripping lexical gusto, if the reader cannot appreciate wordplay, wordsmithing, and word#$%^ (e.g. alliteration, inventiveness, and the indescribable), then they should stick to their work-a-day, golly gee whiz John Scalzis or Seanan McGuires. Valente practically assaults the reader with etymological agility, and if they are not ready or willing to take up the gauntlet and wade in, they should just move on. (But never, never say that it’s ‘bad’ or ‘poor’ writing.) Sometimes leaving the reader wondering whether Valente has a thesaurus no one else in the world possesses, stories like “A Fall Counts Anywhere” display how truly clever and diverse the English language can be used in its WWE battle royale between the baddest of the bad robots and the most fearsome fairies. Such a premise perhaps cheesy executed by any other writer, Valente makes the most of it with lingual play and manga imagery, the resulting riot literal and figurative.
For other stories, particularly “Two and Two Is Seven”, it is equally important to know a lot of Valente’s fiction is reactive—responsive to other fiction, young and old. Whether it be Lem’s machine that could only produce things which begin with the letter ‘n’ (as mentioned), everybody’s favorite whipping boy Lovecraft, or fairy tales in general, Valente is often riffing off some element of genre, or fiction at large. “Down and Out in R'lyeh” is a brilliant piss take on Cthulu. Utilizing A Clockwork Orange tone with her own lingo, Valente dismantles the foolishness of Old Gods in the course of one tentacle-ichor-oozing night on the town. And “The Flame and the Candle” takes a real world girl, puts her in an Alice in Wonderland scenario, and juxtaposes it against a ‘real world’ scenario featuring Alice and Peter Pan.
Something which Valente herself laughs at in the term mythpunk, several of the stories in Future indeed punk the fuck out of the likes of Grimm and Andersen by instituting very contemporary ideas in fairy tales. Another example, in “The Beasts Who Fought for Fairyland Until the Very End and Further Still” three fantastical beasts (undoubtedly with some allegorical meaning I am unaware of) rest on a battlefield, contemplating the state of things. Part fairy tale and part parable, the three learn a valuable lesson on the meaning of defiance. In “Badgirl, the Deadman, and the Wheel of Fortune”, a young girl deals with her father’s heroin addiction. “The Limitless Perspective of Master Peek, or, the Luminescence of Debauchery” is about a daughter left with the shittiest bit of her father’s inheritance: an iron punty. While her brothers go off with their inheritances, Master Peek (as she eventually comes to call herself) is left to tend the father’s glassblowing business. That the story proliferates into a kind of socio-politico anarchy is perhaps its biggest surprise. In what could be considered the most straight forward setting of the collection, “The Lily and the Horn” is located in a classic Medieval fantasy kingdom and tells of a poisoner and her domestic role in maintaining social stability. And fully taking advantage of fantasy’s potential, “No One Dies in Nowhere” juxtaposes mortality and immortality in a purgatory-esque setting wherein bird-like gods oversee the lives of waiting humans. One of the more straight-forward tales in the collection, it is a small piece of detective fiction that digs a little deeper into the meaning of being alive/mortal in mythopoeic fashion.
Despite the fantastical elements, there is likewise a science fictional artery pumping in the collection’s heart. Dedicated to a relative, “Major Tom” is about a drifting consciousness trying to understand its state of being. Possessing layers many sf stories do not, it is one of the more somber pieces in the collection. A classic sf premise, “Planet Lion” oscillates between a planetary exploration crew and the lion-like (emphasis on ‘like’) creatures which inhabit it. Tribal psychedelics abound, the difference in viewpoints is where the story finds its substance. A spot of satire, the title story opens on the line: “My name is Tetley Abednego and I am the most hated girl in Garbagetown.” Tetley a have-not among haves, she spends her days in subservience to a collapsed civilization (due to rising ocean waters) still ruled by the misguided. For the over-the-top dystopian mood, the story is reminiscent of Valente’s earlier short “Fade to White,” but lacks its relative complexity.
Publisher’s Weekly states that The Future is Blue is “for completists and devoted fans of Valente’s short works”, but I would argue. Not only is it a window into the imagination and wit of one of the 21st century’s best writers, it is a reminder how fabulously frivolous and forthrightly fluid the English language can be when frothing on the fount of fertile fancy (the alliteration is for you, Ms. Valente). Confronted by the rank mediocrity of writing-workshop prose appearing on the market these days, Valente’s lush, vibrant visions are proof writing is an art. One of, if not the best single-author collection of 2018, The Future Is Blue comes highly recommended. Tell your friends.
The following are the fifteen stories brought together for The Future Is Blue:
The Future Is Blue
No One Dies in Nowhere
Two and Two Is Seven
Down and Out in R'lyeh
The Limitless Perspective of Master Peek, or, the Luminescence of Debauchery
Flame, Pearl, Mother, Autumn, Virgin, Sword, Kiss, Blood, Heart, and Grave
The Lily and the Horn
The Flame After the Candle
Badgirl, the Deadman, and the Wheel of Fortune
A Fall Counts Anywhere
The Long Goodnight of Violet Wild
The Beasts Who Fought for Fairyland Until the Very End and Further Still