When I don’t read science fiction for a while, I forget how much I love it. How quirky it can be. How creative. I forget that science fiction doesn’t always have to be about space but can also be about time. That being said, a lot of the “interplanetary” novels I’ve read this year have found their main plot-line on Earth.
Radiance, though, is an entirely other beast. First of all, if I had all the power in the world, I would nominate it for all the Nebulas and awards out there. I haven’t read a book so simultaneously innovative and nostalgic since Ancillary Justice, the first review I wrote on Luna Station Quarterly. And the only reason I purchased it was because the back cover reminded me of Station Eleven.
It’s nothing like Station Eleven. And I still loved it.
Radiance is a splintered narrative of spliced film. It’s made up of bits of script, bits of first-person narrations, bits of notebooks, bits of screen, bits of interviews, and bits of audio transcript. It offers a world that is a reflection of the real world, a better or worse version: it’s up to the readers to decide which. The novel itself is a movie about making movies. Set in the 1960s, Radiance is based on the assumption that interplanetary travel was made possible sometime in the 20s or 30s. The main characters are all heavily involved in filmmaking and the universe is ruled by major movie studios who travel across the planets to shoot their silents and talkies.
The main conflict of the film involves the femme fatale and film darling herself, Severin Unck, daughter of eccentric filmmaker Percy Unck. Her entire life is recorded, reshot and staged via film since her mysterious appearance on Percy’s doorstop. Her mothers are a revolving door of actresses, dancers, and setmasters, each providing Severin with a different role in her life. While her father emphasizes films shot about fantasy: noirs and vampire flicks, thrillers and mysteries, all more outrageous than the next, Severin rejects these for documentaries and makes a name for herself exposing the worst truths about the galaxy. And during her last film, she disappears. As such, the entire novel is spent trying to figure out where she has gone and who she really was. And many seem to argue that, if she wasn’t in front of a camera, she wasn’t real.
The austere is emphasized throughout the novel as filmmakers indulge in silent movies and an awe for the insane natural power of planets. The people involved in her disappearance and those who surround themselves with the mystery of who Severin was, devolve into dramatic characters cut from Greek tragedies and classical texts, tearing themselves a part to try and understand her. As a reader, you find yourself chasing after this slippery film of a girl, who traipses between the pages in black and white. You can smell burnt film and you question whether or not reality exists based on if it was filmed or not. And what exactly was Severin’s reality made from?
Catherynne Valente does a fantastic job world-building not just one, but at least five other worlds. She builds an entire civilization and then razes it to the ground using myth and superstition. No matter how advanced mankind becomes, we constantly succumb to what we do not know.
The characters are brilliantly developed, multi-faceted and mysterious. Some of the voices in the novel seem ownerless, like narrators of nature documentaries. Always operating behind the camera but never on scene. The novel is about the creation and destruction of art and also, the terribly selfish reasons behind why, sometimes, we create art.
This is a novel that forces you to turn the camera upon yourself and stand center stage to justify your existence.