Review: The Past is Red

This review contains spoilers.

Catherynne M. Valente’s star has been rising slowly but surely over the last few years. Even after the nomination of 2009’s Palimpsest for the Hugo Best Novel and the breakout success of middle-grade fairytale The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making in 2011, she remained somewhat of a niche author. In 2019, though, she crashed squarely into the genre limelight with her Eurovision/Douglas Adams homage Space Opera, also nominated for a Hugo as well as apparently being read by literally everyone with a passing interest in SF, and there she’s stayed. This year, she’s up for Hugo awards in three categories: Best Short Story (for “The Sin of America”, published in Uncanny); Best Novelette (for “L’Esprit de L’Escalier” in; and Best Novella, for The Past is Red, subject of today’s post.

The Past is Red contains, and expands upon, Valente’s 2015 short story “The Future is Blue”, which follows a girl named Tetley Abednego, “the most hated girl in Garbagetown”. Tetley lives on a floating patch of rubbish in what used to be the Pacific Ocean, on an Earth whose landmasses have been swallowed by rising sea levels. The story examines something of what it is like for Tetley and the other Garbagetowners to live in the aftermath of capitalism; to live off the refuse of a society short-sighted enough to squander the greatest gift humanity has ever been given, this great blue Earth. Its climax, which earns Tetley the epithet with which she introduces herself, sees her destroying a great engine the Garbagetowners have built in order to turn the rubbish patch into a boat and go motoring off in search of green dry land: her reasoning being that it’s better for the Garbagetowners to use their remaining supply of power frugally, giving them all access to small comforts for decades to come, rather than burn it all up on a wild goose chase.

The unedited text of “The Future is Blue” thus makes up the first 30-odd pages of The Past is Red. The subsequent narrative picks up 12 years later: Tetley is 29 and living in exile, vilified by her peers, thanks to the events of “The Future is Blue”. She’s tireder and more experienced than she was then, but her optimism, her conviction that Garbagetown is the best place left on the Earth and that its people are the luckiest people alive, remains intact. Alone on her boat, with the occasional company of a person called Big Red whose identity will become important later, she reminisces about an episode seven years before, when she was rescued/kidnapped by a representative of a person calling himself the King of Garbagetown. This person turns out to be her childhood sweetheart, who has spent four years struggling with Tetley’s actions in the earlier story and now wants to marry her and convert her to his point of view. The pair embark on a sea voyage, during the course of which they make the world-changing discovery that, shortly before the flooding of Earth, a community of the planet’s wealthiest people escaped to Mars, and live there still, not having much fun by the sounds of it. Faced with the classist insularity of the people of Mars, Tetley is forced to make a similar decision to the one she made at the end of “The Future is Blue” on behalf of the Garbagetowners who hate her so deeply: a future of relative comfort and ignorance in the garbage patch, or one of knowledge and possibly destructive dissatisfaction.

As a text about climate change, human greed and the selfishness of the uber-rich, it is, shall we say, a little on the nose. The picaresque and somewhat psychedelic nature of Tetley’s journey through Garbagetown and beyond makes the appearance of various plot elements related to these themes – particularly the discovery of the Mars society – feel more random than they otherwise might in a work that was more tightly and conventionally plotted. But this undoubted didacticism is, for me, outweighed by the lyricism and passion of Valente’s rhetoric. This is a deeply angry work, a cynical one that, despite Tetley’s optimism, sees little hope of lasting structural change. In fact, what hope it does hold out is located precisely in that inability to change: humanity will go on being humanity, building worlds and telling stories, even as we live through the apocalypse. Valente’s lush and descriptive prose, laden with the timeless rhythms of fairytale, makes even that sliver of comfort feel almost sufficient.

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