Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

“We suppose she is dead, though none of us can be sure. She is not here, though she is not there, either, so far as anyone can tell. What transpired that awful autumn on those far Venusian shores? What happened to her? Did she share the horrid fate of the ruined village, the very one she sought to uncover and explain? We cannot know. We know only that we will see her no more, and that, my loyal readers, must break every heart in two.”

Severin is the adored only daughter of the famous movie director Percival Unck, who has inherited his love film. It’s the early 20th Century Jazz Age, the golden age of moviemaking, but whereas her father’s style is to tell stories with artifice and melodrama, Severin prefers a pared-back, literal style of documentary. But this story is set in an alternate solar system where all the planets are inhabited and full of strange fauna, Hollywood is based on the moon, and diving colony on Venus has just disappeared in a cataclysmic event. Severin sets out with her crew to make a documentary about it, and never returns.

We only see snippets of Severin: home movies from her childhood, articles from gossip columnists, interviews with those who knew her, and her own films. At the same time, her distraught father tries to process her disappearance in the only way he knows: making gothic films, which get more overblown every time he tries. These scripts and other artefacts alternate through the novel, slowly allowing the reader to piece together the very strange truth about what happened to her.

Although the desire to know Severin’s fate drives the novel forward, there’s so much more to this book than that. The art-deco space setting is extraordinary and beautifully realised, at once a fun fantasy landscape and a love letter to early cinema (most obviously A Trip to the Moon (1902)). There are such enjoyable touches: I loved how Uranus is a seedy city underworld with a film noir vibe; how living on Neptune means no radio contact with Earth for 72 years at a time; how Venus is entirely water and gas and the engineering feats required to live there are worth it because of the economic riches available; how even after 40+ years of cinema movies are still black and white, and silent, because of the crippling patents on sound and colour.

This is not a book that gives up its secrets easily, and the found-artefact style lets the reader explore the blurry lines between what’s fact, what’s opinion, and what’s truth disguised as story. Because, in the end, it doesn’t matter what happened to Severin – she’s gone, and those left behind can only celebrate her memory, and tell her story, in the ways they know how. And the reader prepared to do the work to piece it all together is rewarded with a whole universe of stories.

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