Catherynne M. Valente’s cinema-themed space opera fantasy Radiance is decidedly non-linear, jumping around an alternate continuity that runs from the middle of the nineteenth century through the middle of the twentieth. Fragmentary shooting scripts, press clippings, recording transcripts, promotional materials, business records, and other documents are assembled to gradually immerse the reader in a solar system where humans live on all the planets, and Earth’s moon is the center of an interplanetary movie industry.
The book’s jacket copy characterizes it as “decopunk,” a feasible nanogenre, and not inapt. But in fact it progresses through a set of different genre moments–like movements of a musical work–established through the framing device of a movie in pre-production, going through major revisions. What starts out as film noir (The Deep Blue Devil) gets re-tooled as gothic horror (The Man in the Malachite Mask), then a fairy tale (Doctor Callow’s Dream), then a musical revue (And If She’s Not Gone, She Lives There Still), with a vein of mystery throughout that is more spited than satisfied by the brief final cut (Radiance).
I did find it a little slow going at first, but I did eventually take to it. It’s definitely it’s own thing, both in the story it tells and how it tells it. The cinematic dimension is integral, thus setting it apart. But the organization around the vanished girl Severin Unck seems to place it in or near the catena of elegiac mysticism that runs from the Middle English Pearl through Schwob’s Monelle. In contrast to the authorial motives understood for those books though, Valente confesses herself to be (at some remove) the basis for Severin, since the germ of the book was her own experience as the daughter of a filmmaker father.
The book is wonderfully weird throughout, with its recurring refrain of “X which is not really an X” to describe all manner of otherworldly creatures that have been quasi-terrestrialized through language. The descriptions of what X “really is” become crazier and crazier. (Patsy replies, “It’s only a model.”) For all that Radiance is a book about movies, it is intensely literary, and the reading of it is nothing like the rhetorical ductus of popular Hollywood. It’s an art film of a science fantasy, full of classical allusions, narrative ruptures, and character enigmas. Yum.