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, traveling through space and investigating the levitator cults of Neptune and the lawless saloons of Mars. For this is not our solar system, but one drawn from classic science fiction in which all the planets are inhabited and we travel through space on beautiful rockets. 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.
Tell Me More: Think of the first movie you ever loved. Remember, if you can, how it felt to watch the story unfold, frame by frame and scene by scene, coalescing into a single beloved experience. Now think of the dozens, maybe hundreds, of people whose hands touched that experience, shaped it into something beloved. Finally, think of the person who first considered that story, let it form in their mind’s eye. To understand Radiance, you do all those things, in that order, then not, all before the first excerpt. Then you do them again. And again, and maybe, by the end of 432 pages, Catherynne Valente’s story has shaped you too.
Radiance is an ambitious novel, which Valente happily admits. It’s categorized as “decopunk-pulp-science-fiction-alt-history-space-opera mystery,” which is really to say that it’s a story of genres learning from each other to create a memorable story. The cover copy parallels Radiance with House of Leaves, a similarly challenging and complicated novel. Both stories drop their readers into the narrative without breadcrumbs to follow, and if you don’t stay alert, it’s easy to miss the references and allusions that Valente weaves into her prose. There’s no shame in having to pause to look up names and places, and I did quite a bit of that myself, which then led me down several rabbit-holes of information and Wikipedia pages. It’s part of the adventure of Radiance, and parallels the way Severin’s relationship with film takes her across the universe, though not quite back again.
Severin’s connection to film comes first through her father, legendary director Percival Unck, who is never seen without a camera (trusty Clara, “who could hold just under 150 rolls of film”) in his hands. Even the first moment that tiny baby Severin enters Percival’s life is shot and re-shot, with Percival setting the scene just so and making it a production to remember. This is Severin’s childhood: a constant stream of reels that Valente plays and pauses throughout the story. Read it carefully, and you see a inquisitive woman emerging from the cynicism of knowing what happens behind the scenes, and trying to cast her own magic in the work she does.
If nothing else, Radiance is a tribute to the power of observation. Severin notices everything, claims everything, and the things she sees in her father’s work are reflected in ways even she doesn’t see. As a child, she understands the way womanhood is a varied lot that is not always fair. As an adult, her films provide her ample opportunity to watch and observe, and later refine that vision to highlight her own unique perspective.
Readers are asked from the first page to observe, presented as we are with a wide library of recorded accounts, film reviews, conversations, diary entries, et cetera to come to our own conclusions. We see new angle after angle, judgments and revisions of Severin and her father and their incomparable work. Valente maneuvers this complex group of revelations into a powerful single narrative, much like I imagine Severin would.
This is not an easy novel to read, nor will it settle into your life without taking something from you too, an experience we readers share with Severin. It asks hard questions, and presents complicated truths to its characters and its readers. But every line is a crucial bit of a tremendous story, and as Severin herself says:
They are all telling the story to me.
Catherynne M. Valente is an author, poet, and sometime critic who has been known to write as many as six impossible things before breakfast. She is to blame for over a dozen works of fiction and poetry, including The Orphan’s Tales, Palimpsest, Deathless, and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. She has won the Tiptree Award, the Andre Norton Award, the Mythopoeic Award, the Lambda Award, the Rhysling Award, and the Million Writers Award for best web fiction. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine with her partner, two dogs, an enormous cat, and a slightly less enormous accordion.