The Big Idea: Catherynne M. Valente
Space whales, people!
CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE:
Radiance doesn’t have a big idea at its heart.
It has about six. It’s a decopunk alt-history Hollywood space opera mystery thriller. With space whales.
Over-egging the pudding, you say? Too many cooks going at the soup? Gilding that lily like it’s going to the prom? I say: grab your eggs and hold onto your lilies because I am cannonballing into that soup FULL SPEED AHEAD. It is the souping hour up in here and I’ve got a rocket-powered ladle ready to go.
The year is 1944. But not our 1944. No Blitz, no rationing, no Russian front—not yet, anyway. In fact, most of Earth is looking a little empty. The Solar System, however, is bustling, buzzing, bursting with human life. Each and every one of our familiar planets is inhabitable and inhabited, from the red swamps of Venus to the frozen neon streets of Uranus to the opium fields of Pluto. New industries and intrigues are everywhere—and the Moon is where they make movies. Silent movies, mostly, for the scions of the Edison family keep an iron grip on their sound and color patents. In the world of Radiance, Space exploration began around 1870, but film still streams along in black and white silence.
By the early 20th century, the solar neighborhood has become one big boomtown. But here and there, quietly, horribly, on these faraway worlds, colonies are vanishing, leaving little behind but a few shredded houses and shattered souls.
When Severin Unck, a documentary filmmaker, travels to Venus to uncover the truth behind the destroyed settlements, she loses half her crew to death and madness and disappears off the face of the planet. Radiance is the search for Severin. Her father, her lover, her stepmother, and her studio bossestravel the length and breadth of nine worlds to find her, but the only one with any hope is the the lone survivor of the lost Venusian village, a lost little boy grown to a bitter, angry man.
And that’s not even getting into the giant space whales who lactate a substance that everyone drinks and no one understands, the Plutonian buffalo, the Uranian porn theaters, the movie studios fighting IP wars with guns and tanks, or the murders, riots, money, gossip, sex, and celluloid secrets that are part and parcel of a frontier Solar System on the brink of colossal change.
Plus, there’s a musical number.
I’m not going to lie. This book is crazypants. I threw everything I had into it. Heart and soul and probably some cartilage and eyeball fluid, too. I wanted to write a melodrama about a wild, living and breathing and squabbling Solar System. I wanted to write a horror-romance about huge, elemental aliens. I wanted to write a non-linear postmodern SF novel that was also a page-turning thriller because I secretly always wanted to write a hardboiled noir murder mystery. I wanted to write a badass adventure about film patents. I wanted to write a book about movies. About seeing and being seen. About what the camera does to us when it never leaves our side. About who has the right to speak, and who has to buy it. About the meaning of science fiction in a science fictional universe. And through it all I wanted to write about a lost girl who didn’t come home. It all hangs together, I promise! I think. I hope. Because everything really is like that. Everything really is about a thousand things at once, all the time. All the lilies, and eggs, and soups, pouring into an ocean of story the size of Neptune.
Radiance is easily the most ambitious novel I’ve ever written. And I’m a pretty ambitious girl. It’s also my first adult novel in four years—which means I got to swear again! And make people shoot each other and hop into bed together! Oh, I’m just screamingly proud of it, my bouncing baby abomination. It’s a world that came into my head fully formed—cross a story about silent filmmakers with Golden Age SF pulp-style planets with huge Lovecraftian monsters and it just appeared, all squirmy with art deco tentacles and gin and black eyeliner. I wrote a short story called The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew in 2008. It took seven more years to become a good enough writer to get the rest of that world into a book. I just wasn’t good enough in 2008. I didn’t know how. It was too big for me. Here’s hoping I got big enough to do it right.
Full speed ahead.