I'll be absolutely honest from the get-go. Radiance, the new book by Catherynne M. Valente, is not going to be for everyone. It's an odd duck. Part science fiction, part fantasy, part mystery, part noir, part film study - that's a lot of parts, and I'm not even coming close to describing this book. The author herself describes it as "a decopunk alt-history Hollywood space opera mystery thriller with space whales” if that gives you any ideas.
Severin Unck is the daughter of the most famous film director on the moon – yes, I said the moon. All the best films are made on the moon, didn’t you know? But it isn’t really our moon, not the hunk of dead rock upon which Armstrong took his one small step – it’s an alternate moon, in a Jules Verne-esque universe where all the planets are habitable, and space travel was discovered in the 19th century. Severin’s father specializes in Gothic films, but Severin, who follows her father into the trade, is more interested in reality. She’s making a documentary on Venus about a settlement that vanished, when she herself vanishes.
The mystery of what happened to Severin is the focus of the story, which is told through letters, diary entries, interview transcripts, film scripts, and even advertisements, but it is not the only mystery. Why was the settlement on Venus, and others around the solar system, destroyed? What are the strange callowhales of Venus, whose milk allows human beings’ bones to survive life in space?
Valente’s description of the planets and the extravagance of life on them is lush and beautiful, and creates a sense of both dread and wonder. Her command of the language is impressive – she pulls out just the right words for every occasion, and varies her style according to the type of writing she’s producing. Noir film scripts are completely different from interrogation transcripts, etc.
If your reading tastes tend towards rapid-read page turners with simple, direct plot, relatively easy language, and unambiguous characters, this is probably not the book for you. But if you want complexity, ambiguity, wonder, horror, and a touch of lost-world adventure, you might just love Radiance as much as I did.