The Big Idea: Catherynne Valente

Today begins a very busy week of Big Ideas here at Whatever — I’ll be dropping in a new Big Idea every day between now and Friday, because, you know what, I don’t think you’re reading quite enough these days, do you? Yeah, see, that’s what I thought. And to start us off, here’s one of my favorite young writers, Catherynne Valente, to talk about her latest lush novel of fantasy, Palimpsest. Valente has always brought something different and special to the fantasy game (which may be why she was graced with a Tiptree Award for the first volume of The Orphan’s Tales), and so it stands to reason that Palimpsest has something special as well. And as Valente explains, what is special about it — with its Big Idea is — is not a thing, but a place. How do you get there? Well. Time to find out.


Palimpsest is a sexually-transmitted city.

It is a virus, an addiction, a heaven and a hell. It is a city that lives within the body: those who visit it find their flesh marked with black lines like a streetmap, a tattoo that cannot be removed. The virus is spread through sexual contact–sleep with the bearer of the mark and wake with one of your own, and a lifetime of dreams of a sentient city ruled by a robber-baroness with an army of clockwork insects at her command, a city that has just survived a terrible war that no one wants to remember, a city full of terrible wonders, that creates itself over and over to answer every possible desire. The novel follows four people, each damaged and lost in their own ways, as they become infected with Palimpsest, and then addicted to it, and then push further than addiction, into an obsession with the power to punch a hole between worlds.

A couple of years ago, Ekaterina Sedia was putting together this anthology called Paper Cities. It was an anthology of urban fantasy, not the vampire boyfriend kind, but the decadent alternate-world cities kind. She asked me to make her a city. At the time I had just finished writing In the Cities of Coin and Spice and as that title might suggest, I was a bit burned out on making up fantasy cities–I’d spent a year knocking out a couple of new fairy tale citadels a week. I just felt like I was done. But I love Ekaterina and wanted to be a part of her project. Turns out I wasn’t done. Instead of creating cities as settings, however, I created one as a protagonist. Palimpsest is as living and breathing a character as and I’ve ever written. It progresses through its own narrative arc, coming to a kind of closure with its complex history and personal issues. It is, possibly, my favorite of my characters. In the early days of editing it, there was talk of marketing it as a vampire boyfriend-style urban fantasy; an early cover even featured a woman with her back turned to the camera, a tattoo on her lower back, a cityscape before her. Palimpsest is urban fantasy in the purest sense- is a sneaky kind of urban fantasy.

The idea of a viral city isn’t really fantastic; cities have always been memes and meme-carriers. Living in New York fundamentally changes who you are as a human and your orientation towards the world–and so does living in Sacramento, or Bangor, or Fargo. All cities are Sapier-Wolff viruses. Palimpsest is just a little more literal about the whole business. And for a child of the 1980s, the era of AIDS, the minute you say the word virus and start thinking about transmission vectors, the spectre of STDs rises pretty quickly. And because I am that child, because I grew up so afraid of sex and what it could create–namely death or a child–I wanted something else, something beautiful to be passed between sexual partners, something that wouldn’t kill you or maim you or make you sterile or make you a mother at 14. Yet still, something you couldn’t hide, something that would leave you marked, branded, even. And once that was decided, that little story of sex and the city formed itself nicely in my head.

The second birth came when I was about halfway through writing the book. Because sexually-transmitted cities are all well and good, but fantasy has to say something about our world or it just sort of slips by, a pretty but shallow thing. It’s something science fiction has always had on us, that ability to shine a light on the real world, and why science fiction gets taken marginally more seriously in the Houses of Real Literature. With The Orphan’s Tales, that was easy; fairy tales are always and forever about the real world at their core. But suddenly I wasn’t writing fairy tales anymore, I was cutting whole cloth, and the story stayed unanchored, pretty and shallow, as long as I didn’t know what I was really writing about.

I was, at the time, going through a pretty bad break-up, and had been divorced for less than a year. There were pieces of me all over the place, torn up by all the consequences of sexuality and long-term relationships and short-term relationships and being in my late twenties trying to navigate it, really navigate a mapless, fraught world for which I had almost no tools. I didn’t speak the language; I didn’t know not to drink the water. And there I was, writing about this clockpunk, sex-fueled city where everyone was a tourist, everyone was an immigrant, a stranger.

There’s a line from Neruda, something to the effect of the world being nothing but a metaphor for something else entirely. Palimpsest is also a metaphor–maybe all fantasy worlds are. But the grounding metaphor of Palimpsest is this: when humans come together, they create worlds. When sexual partners couple, they begin to learn how to live, one in the other. The local lingua franca of the art student, the programmer, the compulsive knitter. You pass through customs, the arcane rituals of mating, of proving yourself worthy to enter, and then ensconce yourself in the local culture, the food, the laws, the boundless dangers and pitfalls you could never have seen coming. You get your wallet stolen; you get lost on your way to the biblioteca. Every human is a country unto themselves, and when humans mate, their countries renegotiate borders and annex territory, even if only for a little while.

The hybrid nation you create with any one person is never quite the same as the one you create with any other–eventually the two (or three, or four) of you will have a dialect all your own, quaint ways and means, allocations of resources, small wars and large ones, such that outsiders cannot ever fully penetrate your communal interior. This is what we do: we constantly combine and recombine until our networks of alliances become so nested and tangled that we cannot extricate ourselves without at least one dead Duke.

Palimpsest is the secret space between lovers made manifest, made real–and like many secret things between lovers, it is both monstrous and beautiful.


Palimpsest: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt of Palimpsest here. See a trailer for the book here. Visit Catherynne Valente’s blog here.

29 Comments on “The Big Idea: Catherynne Valente”

  1. I’ve been looking for a story that’ll give me a serious kick in the head. Palimpset sounds like I’d be on the receiving end of an army of beautiful people all wearing very, very thick boots. Sign me the heck up.

  2. Sounds interesting. I told amazon to send the sample chapters to my new kindle, so when it arrives tomorrow, I’ll check it out.

  3. While I’ve liked the inclusion of the more mass market type books in Big Idea land, this book seems to be rather different – not paranormal romance, swords and sorcery, scifi saga, etc…

    This book feels like Brian Froud meets Terry Gilliam, meets Neil Gaiman, with some prose oriented sex that I think is rather different than the sex included in the mass market spectrum.

    If you liked Christopher Barzak’s “The Love We Share Without Knowing”, you’ll probably like this. Or if you like this, you’ll probably like “The Love We Share Without Knowing”.

  4. I thought the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis was mainly disproved. I also remember a line from one of Feynman’s books, “So when you are doing that complex math, you have to talk to yourself? What are you saying?” or something along those lines.

  5. Synchronicity at its finest. I just got “Paper Cities” at the library.

    Now I’m going to have to keep an eye out for Palimpset.

  6. As I read the summary of the experiment mentioned, it seems you can tell a person does not have a word for a particular “type” of color by reading the electrical reactions of their brains. That is pretty interesting, and far more direct to the point than simply finding they can’t name the difference.

    It doesn’t say that you can’t tell the difference just because you don’t have a name for the two colors being compared.

    There are some passages in The Giver by Lois Lowry that seem to suggest that the main character cannot see the color red and then he can ( lucky the communities are small, intersections with traffic lights would be hell ). That’s just goofy, but then we are talking about a book where one person is able to transfer memories to another directly.

    I don’t know, because I never got an answer back from my letter ( no surprise, people are busy ), but I suspected Lois Lowry had written this bit with the Sapir–Whorf business in mind.

  7. I loved The Cities of Coin and Spice, and the excerpt of this book sucked me in in about a paragraph. Will definitely buy it.

  8. Neat. Plus, that’s one of my favorite words. Mmm. Palimpsest. And I get to toss it around cause I’ve read some. Palimpsest.

  9. Excellent. Ordered.

    I love the fact that you’re playing with ideas as much as the romance and lushness that modern urban fantasy seems to demand.

    I love me some urban fantasy but I’d like my mind and intellect to be flirted with as well. They’d like to be invited to the party and would add a nice spice to the mix.

  10. Looks lovely, and the excerpt has whet my wallet to order this.

    I am amused, though, that the excerpt links to a tattoo removal specialist’s blog on the bottom of the page.. :P

  11. I have to admit … reading that transcript, I got to “The answers to our problems don’t lie beyond our reach. They exist in our laboratories and our universities, in our fields and our factories, in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest-working people on Earth.”

    And then I *immediately* thought “What, Indonesian sweatshop labourers?”.

    But then I am a dirty foreigner, and need not salute the Freedom Eagle (the Fair Go Kiwi is too short to salute to).

  12. … and I am an idiot who does not check which open tab he’s writing into. O Illustrious Scalzi, feel free to shift and/or delete that post (and this one) as necessary.

  13. Well, I ordered the book from Amazon and it has arrived and I’ve read a bit of it, so here’s a potted mini-review.

    The prose is very, very tasty. It is rich and sweet and delicious – but too much of it is bad for you, because (like Neil Gaiman’s works) this is the sort of book that makes me all existentialist and thoughtful and then I inevitably get depressed. Hopefully I will be able to bring myself to open it again in a day or two.

  14. Fletcher, I gave up 100 pages in. Took a break with another book then came back to it. Then I couldn’t put it down. I gave up right when the pieces were falling into place. I can’t tell if that was her intention or not yet. I agree with the over-the-top prose. But that dwindles as the book goes on. Thank goodness. Now that I have finished it, I love it. I will read it again. I don’t do that very often. But I think that now that everything is understood, I can go back and the prose won’t be quite so intense. Maybe it was the combination of too much prose and also not having a clue what was going on? That I think was my problem. Now that I know all it’s secrets, I can go back and appreciate it more without having to also figure it out.

    I loved it. Page 292 was my favorite part. I think that’s my favorite passage ever.

    Don’t give up on this book. It’s worth it.

  15. I read this Big Idea when it was first posted, followed the idea of the Girl who Navigated Fairyland (although I haven’t actually read the story yet), and finally bought the book last week.

    I think it’s one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. Ever.

  16. Okay, that last has to be an other-language comment spam; do we want that city intruding into these comments?