I’m a little bit scared to try and review today’s book, partly because I read it a long time ago, and partly because I know I can’t write about its complexity in a way that makes sense at all. But I also feel that I need to include it on this list, so I shall do my best.
Severin Unck’s father is a famous director of Gothic romances in an alternate 1986 in which talking movies are still a daring innovation due to the patent-hoarding Edison family. Rebelling against her father’s films of passion, intrigue, and spirits from beyond, Severin starts making documentaries, traveling through space and investigating the levitator cults of Neptune and the lawless saloons of Mars. For this is not our solar system, but one drawn from classic science fiction in which all the planets are inhabited and we travel through space on beautiful rockets. Severin is a realist in a fantastic universe.
But her latest film, which investigates the disappearance of a diving colony on a watery Venus populated by island-sized alien creatures, will be her last. Though her crew limps home to earth and her story is preserved by the colony’s last survivor, Severin will never return.
Aesthetically recalling A Trip to the Moon and House of Leaves, and told using techniques from reality TV, classic film, gossip magazines, and meta-fictional narrative, Radiance is a solar system-spanning story of love, exploration, family, loss, quantum physics, and silent film.
My main memory of Radiance, by Catherynne M Valente, is the beautiful way it’s written. I was transported to the planets and moons that the story was set on, and it was a jolt to come back down to earth when I finished the book. I still haven’t forgotten how reading it felt, and I think all good books should make you feel that way, to at least some extent.
I loved everything about the setting, and the characters, and the slow reveal of the central mystery. I suspect the majority of people reading this have never experienced a Punchdrunk performance, but reading Radiance gave me the exact same feeling as experiencing Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man (I keep saying experienced, because you don’t watch a Punchdrunk production, you are part of it). It was slightly magical, and it kept me guessing, and it’s definitely a book you should read if you’re interested in Hollywood’s Golden Age, steampunk or Sci-Fi.