This book was provided by the publisher at no cost.
My big problem in writing this review will be making sure it makes sense and isn’t just full of incoherent hand-waving. Here area a few initial points that will establish my position:
a) I’m really glad I got to read this before finalising (coughstartingcough) my Hugo nominations.
b) Because I got old, this is the first book in ages that I’ve stayed up past midnight to finish (18yo me is shaking her head in disappointment). Letting me finish it in a day (although not a sitting).
c) When I read Illuminae, I was immensely pleased with the found-footage style, but thought I wouldn’t want it to become TOO common. And then I read this. And now: I’m happy for Catherynne Valente* to use any damn style she likes.
So. This book.
This book is wonderful.
The New York Times describes it as “a sleek rocket ship of a novel swaddled in ArtDeco decadence.” That’s pretty apt.
The overview: set in an alternate universe where the solar system’s planets are all inhabitable, and where interplanetary travel kicked off even before the Wright brothers were doing their thing in our universe, the twentieth century has developed rather differently from ours. The focus is on the film industry, but there are tantalising glimpses into politics as well (like a reference to the Tsar in the 1940s). Anyway, the film industry has mostly developed on the Moon, and it’s a mostly silent industry, because of issues over paying for the rights to sound technology. One of the focal characters, Severin, has grown up with a director-father and eventually goes into the industry herself… and something happened when she’s shooting on location.
That really doesn’t do the novel justice, of course. The story doesn’t develop in a linear manner; it starts at the end and jumps all over the place, gradually filling in gaps. Some of the ‘footage’ comes from Severin’s childhood, when her father filmed her; some from the films of Severin herself, or her father. Some of the documents are in the form of diaries, or gossip columns. There are even ads. And all of it comes together, ultimately, to describe a rich and intriguing solar system, full of the sorts of people in ours – good and bad, selfish and selfless, looking for glory or love. They’re just further apart, being on different planets. And there’s a mystery that just keeps getting deeper and deeper and draws you further in and it’s just, well, radiant.
The story is excellent. But Valente is doing more than telling a luscious story. She’s interrogating ideas of reality and of memory and truth. After all, are you sure that those memories of your third birthday are your memories, or are they a patchwork made from photos and maybe footage and family stories? And if the latter is true, does it matter? What is reality, when it’s mediated through a lens? But then, what is story-telling but putting words to fragmented memories and trying to make sense of the world – as Valente, of course, is doing here.
I love the worlds that Valente has created, with the names of towns and features on the different planets relating to different godly versions of the planet’s namesake. I love that each has a different personality, reflecting in part which nation has settled there but also developing separately – and that despite this being a largely human-friendly system, there are still issues of colonial attitudes and how to feed everyone.
I love the prose.
I half-want a huge sprawling set of stories set in this universe, but at the same time I want this one beautiful object to exist in pristine serenity all by itself.
Other books this reminded me of: Christopher Priest’s The Islanders because of the way the plot is gradually unveiled. Every story ever set on a tropical Venus. Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 because of the grand tour of the solar system.
Do not go into this book expecting ‘hard science’; this is not Greg Egan (although there are certainly some similarities in vibe). Don’t read it if you want a linear narrative. Do read it if you want to be swept up on a joyous sometimes confusing but breathtaking ride.
*Wordpress thinks her name is Catherine Valence, which is interesting enough but just no. Seriously.
I’m still in the middle of this and I’m enjoying it, but I think I might have needed to finish it before classes started or wait until after to read it. Now that I have more of a sense of the style and what it’s doing (partly via other reviews like yours) I’m relaxing into and enjoying it more, but it’s taken a bit.
I found the opening top sections very weird but then it sucked me right in. I can understand finding it disconcerting.