I can fall in love with a book many different ways. My love for Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente is what the fanfic writers would call a “slow burn.” I cannot pin point exactly when I became enthralled with this book. Somewhere in the middle of this book, I found myself unable to put it down.
So, what’s this book about? I’m sure you’re all burning at the question. I believe Radiance, at its core, is about a woman and the stories she tells. That woman is famed documentarian Severin Unck. Severin travels the solar system with her camera, documenting everything from the cults of Neptune to the food riots on Phobos, one of the moons of Mars. Yes, my friends, in this book every planet and moon in the solar system supports life. It should also be noted that the majority of the book takes place in the 1930’s and 40’s. The technology for talking and color movies exist but the Edisons keep it locked away unless you can pay the right price. Hollywood has claimed the Moon instead of southern California. Most of humanity has only heard about Earth from their grandparents’ stories. But back to the plot.
Despite the fact that this book revolves around Severin she is missing from most of the book. She and some of her film crew inexplicably disappear while investigating a vanishing village on Venus (my apologies for the unintentional alliteration). Radiance follows those that were left behind as they learn to cope with Severin’s absence while also trying to get answers. You learn about Severin and the world she grew up in through many different mediums. There are interviews with her lover, letters and diary entries from one of her stepmothers, scenes from her fathers films (both his Hollywood productions and his home videos), scenes from Severin’s documentaries, and the transcripts of radio dramas, among other story telling devices. The mystery of Severin’s disappearance and art-deco space travel drew me into the story, and I ended up lost (in a good way) amongst the stars.
One of my favorite aspects of Valente’s story is the world building. It is probably more accurate to call it universe building, in all honestly. Each planet and moon has its own culture built on their own unique terrain. From Venus’s diving villages to the film studio-controlled Moon to the infanta fields of Pluto, each civilization contributes to the community of the entire solar system while maintaining their individuality. Infanta is a white flower that had almost all the nutrients a human could need, by the way. The amount of imagination and creativity it must have taken is beyond me.
So. My final verdict. This is a great read. I highly recommend this Radiance, especially if any of the following sounds like you:
- The thought of the Golden Age of Hollywood taking place in space sounds like a dream come true.
- You’ve been waiting for story that examines how to convey universal truths through different story-telling methods.
- You like digging into mysteries that often lead to more questions than answers.
And just to be fair, some reasons this story might turn you off:
- A wacky time line (The timeline provided before the story is helpful, but there is still a lot to keep track of. I recommend paying close attention to the chapter headers.)
- Indefinite answers. I don’t want to be too spoiler-y, but just like in real life, some questions just don’t have answers.
There you are! Go forth into the solar system and see what stories await! Happy reading!