Catherynne M. Valente’s latest novel, Radiance, is a fascinating combination of mystery, sci-fi, and alternate history. Inspired by early works of science fiction, it presents a world where humanity has colonized every planet in the solar system, as well as most moons and the asteroid belt. The central character, Severin Unck, is a famous documentary filmmaker, whose latest project seeks to investigate the mysterious destruction of a settlement on Venus. When Severin herself disappears and several members of her crew die, various parties become drawn into the mystery.
One interesting thing this book does is to put the reader into the role of an investigative journalist. Rather than straightforward narration, most of the chapters are in the form of film scripts, transcripts of interviews, book excerpts, and so on. While reading Radiance, you feel as if you’re sifting through different types of documentation, trying to fit them together like puzzle pieces to figure out what happened to Severin and the vanished town.
Another theme of the novel is the way stories are told and retold, being altered with each telling. At one point, a character says: “You look at her pretty little face on the screen emoting and stuttering and blushing and contemplating her rich girl’s life, and you think there wasn’t a script out of frame at her feet, rewritten to an inch of its life, every rewrite thatched in on colored pages to keep it straight…It was a rainbow by the end, every movie she ever made.” In keeping with this statement, Radiance is divided into four sections, with each one being named for these colored pages (“The Green Pages,” for example). This serves as a reminder to the reader that we’re seeing the story through the lens of other characters’ reported experiences: none of them have all the relevant information, and some may have agendas to uphold.
Valente does a masterful job of slowly revealing clues about what’s going on, often in an oblique way that prompts the reader to pause and think. I also appreciated how she made the various inhabited planets seem very different from each other, giving each one a unique culture. The relationships between the characters are compelling as well, and add an extra dimension to the mystery.