Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente (book review).

It’s an intriguing set up for a story being set in a solar system as imagined back in the vary earliest days of Science Fiction, with every planet inhabitable and colonised by the great powers of the Victorian era. Spaceships are launched by cannon and filmmakers travel between planets to produce the latest silent blockbuster in black and white. All of this in the 1960s. Or most of it. The book, unusually enough, opens with a chronology of all the major events, which you would think rather gives the story away. As it happens, it’s rather handy as events between 1914 and 1962 happen in no particular order.


On the face of it, ‘Radiance’ looks like just my kind of book, with numerous sections written in various formats: screenplays, diaries, transcripts, newspaper reports, ship’s manifests, first person accounts, mixing actual happenings with films of those same events, interviews with those involved, home movies from different periods of the life of Severin Unck, the supposedly central character, and none of this in chronological order. It’s the kind of story I’d like to write myself and it’s full of wonderful description and flights of fancy, marvellous settings and brooding, noirish scenery.

The problem I found with it, though, is that there are so many sections and scenes that serve as background information, set-dressing and mystique-building that, one hundred pages into the book, I still felt as though I was reading the introduction and I was waiting for something to actually happen and the story to get going.

There are two central mysteries that the book revolves around. The first is the destruction of the Venusian fishing town Adonis, leaving the boy Anchises St John as the sole survivor. He has been changed somehow, perhaps by the Venusian Callowhales that live in the oceans of Venus and that are vital to the existence of interplanetary civilisation. Severin Unck travels to Venus to film a documentary about this mystery and hopefully solve it but, instead, most of her film crew are killed and she vanishes. Years later, Anchises St John sets out to solve that mystery or maybe Severin’s father sets out to write a screenplay about Anchises solving the mystery.

The book goes to great lengths to point out that life is not like a film or a book, that there are no neat beginnings and endings and this is the philosophy that the plot revolves around. The problem with this approach, I found, is that the stories of these two characters, the connections between them and the relationship to numerous other characters and settings takes such a long time to come together that I was over half-way through the book before I had any clear idea where it was going. Many of the chapters are entertaining and enjoyable in their own right but I began to get frustrated that each time I started making progress into any of the main plotlines, I was whisked away again to another time or place.

For sheer inventiveness and the fabulous naiveté of an old-fashioned scientific romance, this is truly a wonderful piece of work. If you’re after a logical plot and satisfying answers, this is probably not the book for you. In terms of construction and comparison, it certainly stands alone in my experience.

Gareth D. Jones

Janury 2015

(pub: TOR/Forge, 2015. 429 page small hardback. Price: $24.99 (US), $28.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-3529-6)

pub: Corsair/Constable Robinson, 2015. 429 page hardback. Price: £16.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-4721-11514-0)

check out websites: www.tor-forge.com and www.constablerobinson.com

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