Not that long ago, in a universe very similar to ours, the people of Earth invented space travel. It was the latter half of the 19th Century. The great powers of Europe had pretty much carved the globe up between them and were greedily eyeing their neighbors’ territory. The newly rich United States of America wanted a share. Sabres were being rattled. It could all have turned out very nasty.
Fortunately for our species, these political rivalries were fought out, not on the fields of Flanders and the beaches of Gallipoli, but in a race to the planets. Soon the entire solar system was colonized. And what a solar system it turned out to be: the red deserts of Mars, now populated with happily re-settled mobs of kangaroos; the snow-drenched mean streets of Uranus; the vast oceans of Neptune; the sunless caves of Pluto. Each planet was duly settled and exploited. There was little challenge beyond distance. None of these fabulous new worlds were home to barbarous natives. There was no need to bring civilization and enlightenment to the unwashed. There were plants and animals, of course, but the closest thing mankind found to intelligent life was whales.
Well, they were not really whales, any more than Venusian cider was really cider, as it was brewed from large pink berries the locals only called apples. Or, for that matter, any more than the blue, lizard-like creatures of Pluto were really buffalo. Pluto had been colonized by Americans; there had to be buffalo. No, they were not whales, they were Callowhales, and they lived on Venus.
Ah, Venus, Queen of the Solar System. Venus with its lush forests. Venus with its red seas. Venus with its essential supplies of Callowhale Milk; the one substance that our brave, newly space-faring civilization cannot do without; the substance on which the whole interplanetary edifice depends.
But I am getting ahead of myself, because our story is not exactly about Callowhales. It is, because at heart we are a narcissistic species, about humans. It is about one particular and very special human. And, because there are few things that story tellers like more than getting meta over their narratives, it is about stories. To be precise, it is about the movies.
There is a man in the Moon. He is watching us. But he is watching, not with a spaceship stuck in one eye as in the famous Georges Méliès film, but in another one-eyed fashion: with a camera. His name is Percival Unck, and he is the King of Hollywood. Except of course it is not really Hollywood, because California is not the final frontier. Not Quite Hollywood is on the Moon. Percival Unck makes movies. His work is loved and legendary throughout the solar system. Mankind has made it to the stars, so to speak, but Percival Unck makes stars.
Radiance is the story of Percival Unck’s greatest creation. She was never one of his leading ladies, and yet she was the most important woman in his life. She was a star right from the moment that she was abandoned, mewling in a basket, on the doorstep of the great director. The fact that he took her in told everyone that she must be his daughter, but which of his many lovers had left her there was a mystery. She had a succession of mothers, as leading ladies rotated in and out of Percival’s life from one movie to the next. When he wasn’t busy making films, Percival Unck filmed his daughter.
It was no surprise that Severin Unck grew up to be a director. It was in her blood, and she had benefited from the best education any prospective movie maker could have. It was perhaps a surprise that she took to making documentaries, but a girl has to rebel against her father in some way. Severin Unck grew up wanting to explore the mysteries of the solar system, and it was doing so that killed her.
Meanwhile, back on Venus, we need to meet the final character in our tale. His name is Adonis, of course, though he is not actually a man. Adonis is a town, a colony of divers, people who harvest milk from Callowhales. Or at least it was. Adonis is no more. There is nothing left of Adonis save some deserted buildings and a young boy who walks round and round in circles, talking to himself. Adonis is a mystery waiting to be solved. Adonis is a death trap.
This, then, is the plot of Radiance. Severin Unck and her film crew travel to Venus to solve the mystery of Adonis. Before they can do so, many of them die or go missing. One of them goes mad. Our task is to solve the mystery of what happened. Along the way we must also solve the mystery of who Severin Unck is. Radiance is a mystery story of the sort usually solved by the solar system’s greatest film detective, Madame Mortimer, so expertly played by Mary Pellam who loved Severin better than most. But it is so much more than that.
Radiance is a breathtaking feat of science fantasy creation, a solar system of the type imagined back in the 19th Century.
Radiance is a rock-hard science-fictional concept buried so deep beneath layers of decoration and allusion that some readers might never spot it.
Radiance is a story about the dangers of unthinking exploitation of natural resources.
Radiance is an encounter with unknowable terror.
Radiance is a love letter to the era of the silent movies, and a meditation on the role of the camera as observer and creator of life.
Radiance is littered with erudite evocations of mythology and Shakespeare.
Radiance is a thing of beauty.
What else would you expect from a novel by Catherynne M Valente.
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