There is naught on Pluto but magicians, Americans, and the mad.
It seems that most of my favorite authors are the ones with whom I have an uneven track record of book enjoyment. I think it’s a sign that they try something different each time they write a book, and sometimes different works for me and sometimes it doesn’t. I love China Miéville, but I don’t love all his stuff. Same for Murakami. Same for Guy Gavriel Kay.
Same for Catherynne Valente. My favorite of hers is still The Habitation of the Blessed. I did not like her Deathless as much as I had hoped to. For some reason, I could not get through her Orphan’s Tales books (even though it seems that for most people, these are the books that got them into Valente’s work). Her novella, The Bread We Eat In Dreams, blew me away. And now there’s Radiance.
Read the first sentence on the flap of its dust jacket: ‘Radiance is a decopunk pulp SF alt-history space-opera mystery set in a Hollywood – and solar system – very different from our own.’ It’s the type of novel that in book reviews earns descriptors like ‘experimental’ or ‘audacious’, which is code language for ‘too hard to read and sell to customers’.
I like those ‘audacious’ books that are many genres at once, mostly because if you want to write a mystery set in an alternate Solar system, then what does it really matter whether it’s mystery, or sci-fi, or alternate history? I like when people write in ‘whatever the fuck’ genre.*
I also really like stories that are non-linear or stories that try unusual formats, and in that sense Radiance is rather perfect. There are film scripts, interviews, transcripts, newspaper clippings. To use this method of storytelling for what appears to be a murder mystery is actually not that unusual or far-fetched (Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun is told largely in interviews, to use one example), but it is a neat way to avoid omniscience when unraveling a puzzle and deliver emotional punches using seemingly unemotional narration.
And there’s also the setting. I never doubt that Catherynne Valente can work magic with the setting. Her words build amazing worlds, and this one is no exception. The planets are habitable (and Pluto is back on the roster), and Hollywood has moved entirely to the Moon to make their silent movies with starlets whose skin is turning blue because of silver in the water. How is it that we are suddenly living on Mercury? Does it matter? This is not the time to complain about handwavium, suspend your disbelief and be immersed.
And yet how is it that I cannot gush about this book? Maybe there were too many things going on at the same time, or maybe the format got a little too audacious. At one point I had this eerie feeling that I was endlessly watching the Tevye’s dream scene from Fiddler On the Roof that I so dislike. I could not tell what was going on. I think that perhaps for me, Valente’s style of writing occasionally gets in the way of the story. It seemed perfect in The Habitation Of The Blessed, but here it was not on my brainwave length. Perhaps this multitude of formats and time jumps required a tighter grip on the pacing of the story, and Valente’s own genius and not being afraid to play with her own creation did the story itself a disservice.
But in the end, you should try it. Who knows, maybe alt-history space decopunk mystery is exactly your jam.
*What is even genre? Wait, let’s not. Rhetorical question. Moving on.