I first read Radiance back in 2017, and it ended up being one of my favorite books of the year; despite that, I didn’t understand it.
It’s not a case that the other list I remember putting this book on was the “books that will cause problems on purpose” one. As I’ll try to explain soon, Radiance is many things, but most importantly, Radiance is weird even for a Cat Valente book. Of course, as usual, “only understood half of it” is not even remotely part of my favorites’ lists exclusion criteria, but it’s a very good reason to reread the book. This time around, I think I got it.
The synopsis describes this book as a “decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery“. If you’re thinking, are you sure, isn’t that a little too many genres?, I’m going to say: the description is wrong, but only by omission; Radiance is that and more. I think I lost count of the genres, they kept spilling from this book’s pockets like pictures in that old tumblr meme. Noir? Horror? Fairytale? Gothic? New weird? This book has all of them, all the while making fun of the idea of a linear narrative. A more accurate description would be “meta genre soup“, but I doubt that would make it to the back cover.
This whole book is built on wonder. (Or, at least, that’s how it feels at the beginning, so we’ll go with that; this is spoiler-free.) It draws you in with its beautiful writing – this book has my favorite prologue, which is of course meta material about prologues and somehow still works – and worldbuilding, then starts weaving the mystery of a woman.
Before moving to the next point – the woman, our Severin – I want to dedicate a paragraph to the setting and atmosphere, because they deserve it. This decopunk alt-history novel is set in a solar system in which every planet is more or less inhabitable by humans and already has its (very weird) life forms. We read about filmmaking culture in the moon cities, kangaroos on Mars, vanished towns from Venus, the bridge of flowers between Pluto and Charon, the salt winds and encrusting corals of Neptune. It’s beautiful, it makes no sense, I wouldn’t change anything about it.
Then there’s the reason I love this book as much as I do, the substance: Severin Unck. An androgynous, bisexual character in a decopunk universe that is in many ways still backwards; a child-actress-turned-documentarist who is seeking reality in a world of nice-looking lies; a character who hates fiction stuck under layers and layers of genre. And, as this book says, dead. Nearly conclusively dead. She is, at the very least, not answering her telephone.
Severin might be dead, but she comes alive in a way most fictional characters will never; there’s an energy to the way she is written, even though we only see her in pieces: transcripts of interviews, of documentaries, of the movies her father made, diaries from other people’s points of view, and even the movie her own father is making to come to terms with her mysterious disappearance – to give himself closure, to give himself an answer, to do her justice. Can he? In a book that is often far too weird to make sense of, its portrayal of the father-daughter relationship and grief is nothing but human. These are things we know, and Percival Unck’s search for the perfect movie about Severin might be an unusual coping mechanism, but it’s understandable.
However, that’s also where things get truly weird: as Radiance itself says, the lens does not discriminate between the real and the unreal. Well, neither does the book: the boundaries between its reality and the fictional narrative built inside of it get more and more blurred as the story goes on. Understating what actually happened to Severin is a challenge, but this time I think I have a solid theory. After all, a nonfiction girl stuck in genre soup stands out as a thorn would, or a pin, or something so sharp reality might cut itself on it.
Something to keep in mind: Radiance is a book about seeing and being seen. Severin, with her neverending series of stepmothers, a Gothic filmmaker for a father, and a life spent around cameras, is constantly watched and looking for answers, for the truth (her death is far from the only mystery). The answer is in the eye, but what answer are you going to get when your truth has been put together like a movie?
Another thing I didn’t get the first time I read this book, at least not fully, is just how queer it is. Severin isn’t the only bi character, and the happy ending of a very specific subplot is one of my favorite details in an otherwise bittersweet book.
It’s over-the-top, of course. It’s too much, and it makes for a very slow read – I wouldn’t try to get through Radiance quickly, even though once I got into the story it singlehandedly resurrected me from my reading slump. The only thing I didn’t like about it is the one thing I don’t like about Cat Valente’s books: it borrows details from various cultures in a way that sometimes makes for some of the most interesting symbolism I’ve ever seen… and sometimes feels thoughtless, as it often happens in American SFF. When that happens, the book ends up feeling like a parody of itself. It’s nothing compared to the epically-failing situation in Palimpsest, however, and I wouldn’t have thought much about it had I not known that it’s a pattern for this author.
My rating: ★★★★★