Radiance is, I think, my new favourite book of the year.
Its premise is fairly complex, although not in a way that manages to bog the book down. It’s set in an alternative version of the early twentieth century, say 1920-1960 (the novel’s timelines are fairly difficult to figure out, for reasons that should become clear later on). In this timeline, we left the Earth for space in 1858. In this timeline, the outer planets aren’t barren and lifeless but lush, strange places: Pluto and its moon-twin Charon are covered in flowers that induce hallucinations; the Moon is occupied by green-skinned things which humans call kangaroos but aren’t; and Venus, where the winter is as long as a year and vast and gentle seas caress mysterious shores, plays host to the most mysterious beings in this mysterious solar system: the callowhales, whose milk is strictly necessary for humans to live in non-Earth gravity but who no-one really knows anything about. Their touch is deadly but they are not actively hostile; are they animal or vegetable? Nobody knows.
Against this dreamy backdrop, the plot. Severin Unck is a documentary maker, the daughter of legendary director Percival Unck, who specialises in Gothic melodrama. She disappears while investigating the destruction of a colony on Venus for one of her films; and thus Radiance is an attempt to reconstruct a story of her ending, from the few bits of film left of the unfinished documentary, from the recollections of the film crew around her, from films that her father starts and cannot finish to try and tell a story of her. It’s a collection of documents, a kind of found-footage tale; a novel about storytelling, and endings, and the fact that every story, every biography, is only ever interpretation: the undefeatable gap between the signifier and the signified. Hence the alternative-universe setting: an interpretation of the world which isn’t factually true but can access an emotional truth. Hence the House of Leaves-y choice to tell a story which is essentially filmic in prose: we can’t ever access the film, the original text; we are separated from Severin Unck’s story by at least two degrees; but perhaps we can access emotional truths about her and those she had relationships with. And hence another gap: Valente’s prose pays a lot of attention to colour, but patents held by an alternative Edison mean that almost all the filmic evidence presented to us is ostensibly in black-and-white; we’re experiencing an interpretation, not the original, of the brilliant strangeness of Radiance‘s world.
It’s gimmicky, of course; albeit the kind of gimmick for which I’m an absolute sucker. But what elevates it for me above thought-experiment-hood is Valente’s gorgeous prose, the hypnotism with which she evokes a universe that is rich and strange and yet utterly familiar, and the fierceness with which she writes about the downtrodden and the exploited of this world. I’ve seen the aesthetic of Radiance called decopunk, which seems an excellent description to me: luxurious and fabulous and glamorous, with a core of steel and rebellion and revenge lurking at its core.
At this point, I’m fairly sure I’d be happy to read Valente’s shopping lists.