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Catherynne M. Valente is well-known for her ambitious works of fantastical fiction and her latest novel Radiance may be her most ambitious yet. It is a hard book to review and even harder to describe, thanks to its multifaceted plot that keeps on turning in on itself in ever-intriguing twists and turns. Part noir mystery, part retrofuturism, and part movie-making fable, the story takes place between 1914 and 1962 in a parallel dimension where humankind has colonized and terraformed the entirety of our solar system – all the nine planets and most of their respective moons provide the wonderfully disturbing, colorful and glittering stage on which Radiance is set.
The worldbuilding of Radiance is incredible. There are many, many things about this novel that I love, but the worldbuilding is probably its absolute best part. Reminiscent of the Golden Age of science fiction, it joyfully renders a solar system where the Moon is an empire of film-making, Venus a paradise water-world and Pluto a deranged, otherworldly outlier on the edge of known space. It is the kind of science fictional worldbuilding that is based primarily on optimism, delight and awe, which is very rare these days, when the fields of speculative literature rather deals in pessimism and dystopia. That is not to say that there are no dark spots in Valente’s alternative universe, though, because they are certainly there – just because humanity has spread out among the stars doesn’t mean it has changed.
The story of Radiance centers on Severin Unck and her father Percival. They are both film-makers, but while Percival makes fantastical, whimsical pictures about things likes vampires and ice-dragons, Severin, as she grows up and into her own, instead chooses to make documentaries. As the final product of growing up with Percival and a long series of eccentric stepmothers, Severin is a fascinating character – even more so because she is largely absent for most of the book, existing only as a memory and a shadow hanging over its plot.
When on Venus filming what she thought would be her masterpiece, The Radiant Cars Thy Sparrows Drew, Severin disappears and several of her crew turns up dead. What actually happened is anyone’s guess – and guess people do. Radiance is a non-linear, motley narrative made up of logs from Severin’s many film projects, home videos from her childhood, interviews and editorials about her disappearance and whatever else goes on in the movie biz, debriefing sessions with her surviving crew, and excerpts from the movie her father is making about his daughter’s probable demise – And If She’s Not Gone, She Lives There Still.
Ultimately, I would say, Radiance is a story about endings. There is no definite ending to Severin’s story, but a definite ending is what her father is trying to create for her. “All the rest of the nonsense a story requires is just a long seduction of the ending,” as he himself puts it – endings is his own specialty. Radiance is a book full of stories lacking definite endings, because outside of fiction neat endings do not exist. And even within fiction the idea of a definite conclusion is often out of reach – fiction is by its very nature unbound by reality and therefore always open to trickery: slanting the artificial light just so is all needed to create, change or shatter the illusion of absolute truth.
As I said in the beginning of this review, Radiance is a hard novel to describe and write about, but – not unlike most of Valente’s other books – it’s also hard to do justice in a review, so I’ll just finish up by saying this: if you’ve read and liked Valente’s previous works, read Radiance. If you have never read Valente and is looking for a place to start, read Radiance. If you want a gorgeously written space opera noir mystery in a setting that hearkens back to the Golden Age of SF, read Radiance. So, in conclusion: read Radiance.