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Literature / Radiance

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A tale may have exactly three beginnings: one for the audience, one for the artist, and one for the poor bastard who has to live in it.

Endings are lush and lascivious, Vince; they call to me. All spread out on satin inevitabilities, waiting, beckoning, promising impossibly, obscenely elegant solutions-if you've been a good lad and dressed the house just so, for its comfort, for its arousal. All the rest of the nonsense a story requires is must a long seduction of the ending.

Radiance is a decopunk science fiction alt-history novel by Catherynne M. Valente.

Taking place in an Alternate Universe where space travel and colonization on other planets are an everyday part of life by 1986, the story tells about Severin Unck, the adopted daughter of a famous Gothic filmmaker. Severin herself made a name for herself filming documentaries until she vanished without a trace while doing a film about a lost colony on Venus. What follows is a series of documents, transcripts, letters, diary entries, and newspaper columns, all detailing Severin's life from her childhood to her disappearance as well as the lives of those closest to her.

Radiance provides examples of:

  • Affectionate Nickname: Severin is called "Rinny" (or occasionally "Rin") by her father and her boyfriend.
  • All Planets Are Earthlike: All of the planets in the solar system are relatively hospitable to humans, have their own biological life, and are reachable by late 19th-early 20th century technology, in an homage to classical pulp fiction.
  • Alternate History:
    • Black-and-white silent films are still made in this day and age because Thomas Edison hoarded all the patents to film-making and his son continues the trade.
    • In addition to a pulp-fiction-esque solar system and spaceflight, the nations of earth look somewhat different—America is implied to be much smaller, for example, since Cythera Brass is from a country formed by a coalition of Native American tribes that apparently takes up most of the Midwest. The Romanovs of Russia are still alive - Czar Nicholas II is seen briefly as an old man. The implication is that the colonisation of space prevented both the genocide of Native Americans in the Midwest and West, and World War I, by reducing scarcity of land and raw materials on Earth, but that this has simply postponed such large-scale mechanised warfare and something in the future will happen that will be even worse.
  • Amazing Technicolor Population: People who live on the Moon long enough turn blue - it's silver compounds in the water. It's harmless, but for a long time Lunar actors and actresses painted their skin so that they wouldn't alarm the rest of the solar system when they showed up on film.
  • Ambiguous Situation: The scene in the hotel, when Anchises somehow holds a summation gathering that includes people who were already dead, in order to find out what happened to Severin. While the whole thing is done as a scene from Percy's movie, the end of the book suggests that the conclusions reached about Severin's fate and the role callowhales play in the universe were all correct, despite there being no way for that to be known.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Nobody ever does find out what happens to Severin, but Percy does find some consolation in making a movie about it to give himself closure. The readers learn that Severin was vaporized by a callowhale, which means she can never return to her old life, but now can explore the countless dimensions open to her.
  • Bizarre Human Biology: The ending strongly implies that long-term human consumption of callowmilk will cause humans to mutate into human-callowhale hybrids in the medium-term future, with the filmshow framing narrative revealing that an awful lot of the audience are wearing gloves.
  • Break the Cutie: Poor Anchises starts off as a child who wants nothing more than to see a callowhale and innocently wishes for his family's happiness. By the time Severin finds him, he's the only person left in Adonis, walking in circles, blinking in and out of existence, and so incoherent that he screams when Severin hugs him. Things don't get much better from there, as he's beat up by one of the film crew members when he tries to prevent the only footage of Severin's last document from being destroyed. He spends a lot of his life running around the galaxy after leaving his adopted father and, by the time he reaches his thirties, is severely withdrawn and tired. And worse, this was ultimately his fault for touching a callowhale frond when he wasn't supposed to.
  • Call a Smeerp a "Rabbit": A common naming convention used by the settlers of other planets, in order to maintain a degree of familiarity. Mary Pelham says in her journal that the monkfish soup on the moon is made of something that has no resemblance to actual monk fish, but "the Savoy does not serve moon-monster soup". Come the latter third of the novel, young Anchises' narrative of life on Venus is peppered with native Venusian animals that are named after Earth fauna — at least the narrative is upfront in pointing out the differences.
  • Cloudcuckoolander's Minder: Melancholia knows full well that Anchises, a Defective Detective still messed up from a decade-long jaunt in another dimension isn't going to focus on finding what happened to Severin like she wants, so her employee, Cythera Brass, is assigned to follow him and make sure he actually does his job. Melacholia even tells Anchises that she knows he needs a nanny to keep him in line. Cythera's not very happy about it.
  • Corporate Warfare: There are allusions to conflicts between the big movie studios on the Moon occasionally leading to full-scale pitched battles with multiple fatalities.
  • Cosmic Horror: Shades of it develop as the novel goes on, particularly the story of what the crew encounters on Venus, among the ruins of Adonis.
  • Crapsaccharine World: The planets are described as marvels to behold, but there are also riots, starvation, unfair laws, and more than one colonies which have been destroyed or vanished mysteriously.
  • Daddy's Girl: As a child, Severin was devoted to her father. This changed when he told her he killed a man.
  • Domestic Abuse: Penelope Edison is suppressed and denied the right to work by her husband, Fred.
  • Don't Touch It, You Idiot!:
    • The end of the book reveals that one of Anchises's childhood friends actually told him not to touch the callow whale frond. Percy left that part out of his movie because he thought it was too on-the-nose.
    • Severin's desire to swim with a callow whale was so opposed by the rest of the crew that one of the members punched her to try to convince her otherwise. She did so anyway, and it ended up vaporizing her.
  • Doorstop Baby: Percy found Severin left on his doorstop. True to form, he filmed his finding and bringing her inside, requiring several takes before he was satisfied it went perfectly. The last chapter has Severin see film footage of Penelope Edison - her birth mother - leaving her on the doorstep.
  • Driven to Suicide: Fredrich Edison was said to have killed himself near the end of the novel.
  • Fantastic Drug: Af-yun, whose use is widely acceptable, and the much more dangerous and scandalous baleen. Both contain callowmilk, and are ingested in solid form.
  • Femme Fatale: Cythera Brass, as she appears in Anchises' Film Noir storyline. Played with - in her first scene she's dangerous and sexy as hell, but later comes off as more like a Punch-Clock Villain who doesn't like holding Anchises' leash. And Percy remarks, as he puts this film together, that the real Cythera Brass, head of Oxblood Films security, probably won't be amused.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The story makes it clear from the start that Severin is never found.
  • Foreshadowing: In Anchises' first appearance, he mentions that he always, always wears gloves. Later on, we learn there's something weird about his hand...
    • Also conversed in Percival's first conversation with Vincenza, fittingly, as they are talking about a movie he wants to make:
    "And of course in stories there is always fate. It goes by the name of foreshadowing and is the emperor of everybody."
  • For Want Of A Nail: The destruction of Anchises' hometown came from him touching the frond of a detached callowhale. It mutated his hand and the callowhales themselves mistook it as one of their own trapped within the city and thus it became decimiated in order to "save" him. Even worse, one of Anchises' friends warned him not to do so. He should've listened.
  • Friend to All Living Things: One of Severin's stepmothers kept a large number of exotic pets that were all hurt or defective in some way.
  • Genre Roulette: Let's see. The whole thing is decopunk science fiction with a fair helping of Alternate History. You have magazine articles ranging from film reviews to a report on a funeral. Interviews with various intentions, in different styles. For the first third you have Film Noir-esque shenanigans on Uranus, for the second third there's Gothic horror, for the third it's a fairytale.
  • Homage: The novel is a joint homage to The Golden Age of Hollywood and to inter-war genre SF of the same era, with its hospitable solar system in which all the planets have complex life and have at least moderately tolerable conditions for humans.
  • In-Series Nickname: Anchises had the nickname "Doctor Callow" growing up.
  • Inspired by…: The subplot of Thaddeus's murder is loosely inspired by the real world death of Thomas Harper Ince and the scandalous stories surrounding it.
  • Meaningful Name: All over the place with the names of the colonies and locations on the different planets, and many of the characters. Keep a mythology dictionary handy. At one point Mary Lampshades this by pointing out that every blessed location on the Moon has to be named after some moon deity from some Earth culture or another, and most are named after someone associated with the Classical lunar deities. (Except for Tithonus, named after a lover of Eos, goddess of Dawn.)
    • To give just three examples, "Adonis" is the most famous of Venus' mortal lovers, a man divided between her and Proserpine (goddess of the Underworld); "Anchises" was another lover of Venus, most famous as the father of Aeneas; and "Cythera" is an epithet for the goddess of - you guessed it - Venus.
  • Metaphorically True: The lighting master, Maximo, killed her. Physically it was the callowhales but he destroyed most of the filming for what would've been her final work, and thus he killed what was left of her dream.
  • Minor Major Character: Penelope Edison is mostly a background character who is also Severin's birth mother.
  • Missing Mom: While Severin had plenty of stepmothers to raise her, the identity of her birth mother was always a mystery. It was Penelope Edison.
  • Monster Whale: The callowhales of Venus are big enough to be very dangerous, but... all they do is lie in the sea, apparently asleep. The capitalists, eager to sell callowmilk and colonize planets, say callowmilk is the salubrious result of an innocuous procedure. But Amandine, who grew up among the divers of Venus, thinks there's more to the whales than meets the eye...
  • Never a Self-Made Woman: Invoked. Severin is aware that as the daughter of a famous filmmaker, she's already guaranteed money and fame. She doesn't want that though, and in one interview states a desire to make documentaries so great that she could say she made a name on her own merit.
  • Not Blood Siblings: Severin and Erasmo, who are in a deep enough relationship that he considers himself to be her husband all but on paper, were once stepsiblings through his mother and Severin's father. Neither are terribly bothered by it, since Percy had gone through so many wives and had divorced Erasmo's mother by the time they hooked up.
  • Parental Abandonment: Percy feels he did this to Severin, after he distanced himself from her following his (false) confessing to shooting Thaddeus.
    I abandoned her. It's the one capital crime of fatherhood. Mothers can fail a thousand different ways. A father's only job is: do not abandon this child.
  • Parental Neglect: While Percy tried to be a good father to Severin, he admits that he wasn't always there for her. Part of this is due to his being so absorbed in film making that he insists on treating even real life as a movie, having him tend to treat Severin more like an actor in one of his films than his child. Mary writes at one point that it's rather unsettling to see Severin do several takes of opening her Christmas presents and treat it as perfectly normal.
  • Parental Substitute: Mary was a significant mother figure in Severin's life and continued to watch out for her even after divorcing Percy.
  • Private Detective:
    • Anchises was one for awhile, in both Percy's movie and real life. In the movie, Melancholia hires him to find out what happened to Severin, and his chapters are written as a homage to old fashioned detective films.
    • Mary Pellam is a fictional one as her most famous character, Madame Mortimer. While Anchises is based on the Hardboiled Detective trope, she seemed to be more of an armchair detective in the vein of a younger Miss Marple.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Anchies inadvertedly caused the destruction of his hometown by touching a callow whale frond (even though a friend of his told him not to). The callowhales assumed he was one of their kin trapped and confused and thus, in an attempt to save him, destroyed the city and left him as its sole survivor.
  • Red Filter of Doom: Not literally, but in description: Venus is described as being swathed in a perpetual twilight, and its oceans reflect scarlet.
  • Rule of Three: Adonis is the third colony destroyed in mysterious circumstances, along with one on Mars and one on Pluto. These events are not unrelated.
  • Scrapbook Story: Most of the novel consists of a number of separate in-universe narratives:
    • Transcripts of Percy's home movies of Severin's childhood.
    • Transcripts of Severin's own films.
    • Mary Pellam's private memoirs, written as a letter to Severin after her death.
    • Cythera questioning Erasmo about the events of the catastrophic shoot on the site of Adonis.
    • Percy's incomplete film about a fictionalised version of Anchises investigating Severin's disappearance, along with him and his scriptwriting partner arguing about how it should go. In the process it mutates from private-eye noir to gothic romance to a children's story (very similar in style to Valente's Fairyland series) to a Golden Age detective story finale.
    • Fragments of How Many Miles to Babylon?, an in-universe pulp-adventure radio serial.
    • A few other brief documents, including advertisements and a single letter by Erasmo.
  • Shout-Out: The decadent society on Pluto, in which everyone wears masks to protect their nasal passages from the freezing air, is a shout-out to Granbretan in Michael Moorcock's The History of the Runestaff series.
    • On Venus, Amandine refers to callowhales as "the cattle of the sun." She must know her Homer— in The Odyssey, Odysseus' crew members slaughtered the cattle of the sun, and the sun-god took their lives in revenge.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: A sole callowhale got sick and his death spread out into different areas: destroyed a village in Pluto, the death wails were in Mars, and a single frond was touched by Anchises, leading to his hometown destroyed.
  • Standard Sci-Fi History: Combined with Alternate History, this story is at Point One—- Exploration and Colonization of the Solar System—- with the planets of our system all occupied, and a few asteroids as well. Though interplanetary travel takes months, communication usually is swifter. The end of the book hints that the first interplanetary war is gathering on the horizon.
  • The Storyteller: Severin Unck, though in a twist on the trope, her preferred way of telling stories was documentary filmmaking. We get rather more insight into her father's process, as he tells a story about his daughter to process his grief.
  • Take That!: During the massive expansion into space, and out of all the planets in the galaxy, America managed to colonise...Pluto. Which is very nearly as inhospitable in this universe as it is in our own, and the only thing it has going for it is the flowers. The advertisement calling for pioneers still makes it sound like a world of opportunity.
  • The Ingenue: Parodied by Mary, who writes an entire handbook based around her starting her career playing this character. Her dry wit about getting into showbusiness that way takes all the charm and romance out of the character type.
  • The Summation: A rather unusual one takes place when Anchises deduces Severin's fate, bringing together all the relevant characters including some that were dead and several that are animated.
  • Unobtanium: Callowmilk, which can be gotten only from the callowhales of Venus. It has a huge variety of uses, including use as an industrial lubricant, coal substitute, fertilizer, and building material, but its most common use is being ingested (either in liquid form or as an ingredient in something else). Without callowmilk, no human could survive out of Earth's atmosphere very long - it repels radiation and builds up bone density that would otherwise be lost.
  • Used to Be a Sweet Kid: While Severin isn't a bad person, she lost much of her childhood warmth and sweetness, along with her close relationship to her father, after he told her he shot and killed someone (in order to protect someone else). As an adult, she only is affectionate towards her boyfriend (and later Anchises) and is still angry towards her father.
  • Venus Is Wet: Venus consists mostly of seas, lakes and marshes, as in this stereotype, but it's Neptune that is the full-blown waterworld with no land at all.
  • Wicked Stepmother: Referenced by Mary in her last letter to Severin, but subverted - she was a good stepmother and even, after divorcing Percy, continues to worry about Severin's well-being. Severin's other stepmothers were also shown as being decent, if not the most attentive of parents.
  • Would Hit a Girl: One of Severin's crew members, Maximo, attacked her on Adonis. It was to try to stop her from swimming with a callow whale.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Mary tries to treat Thaddeus's murder like it was taking place in one of her Madame Mortimer movies, locking the doors and trying to suss out clues and motives. It ends abruptly when Percy simply confesses and orders everyone to cover the crime up to avoid a scandal. Even though Mary's certain Percy didn't do it, there's nothing she can do.