- Genre: Science fiction / science fantasy / alternate history
- Pages: 429
- My Rating: 9/10
I don’t even know where to start! Let me start by saying that I loved this book! But it is one of those books that you’ll either love or hate. It’s about a thousand things, but mostly about loss, creativity, family and storytelling. It’s a story full of comedy and tragedy; full of milk and blood.
The story revolves around the daughter of a famous movie director, and her mysterious disappearance. The girl, Severin Unck, is a young documentary maker who travelled to Venus to investigate a local mystery, something that has to do with milk that is harvested from Venusian space-whales (yes). After her disappearance, the whole solar system is enthralled by the mystery of what happened to her. The story is told through the people who remain behind and try to make sense of it. It’s also told through fragments of movies, interviews, home recordings, advertisements and documentary scenes.
Catherynne Valente is playing with genres here. First we have the Golden Age science fiction, the Princess-of-Mars variety in which the planets of our solar system, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, are exotic worlds and inhabited. Yet, the story is set in the late 19th and early 20th century. Humans spread to all these beautiful planets in the 1800s, and by the time Severin Unck is born, its 1914. She disappears in 1944. So, it’s an alternate history too that deals with the rise of film and Hollywood, the first days of spoken films and the glamour of these times. But it’s set in a sort of space fantasy setting in which people fly around in rockets covered in flower motifs (Catherynne calls it decopunk). The Moon has become the new Hollywood.
It’s also a mystery tale with film-noir elements. Moreover, the whole story is told through fragments, non-linear, through snippets of film and documentaries, advertisements, interviews. With every snippet and fragment of story, the plot thickens. I think it will appeal to fans of Gene Wolfe as well. It becomes clear that Venus is an important place, with important industry. Like a mystery novel, we figure out step by step what caused Severin Unck’s disappearance. We ourselves are the investigators. So, we have a mash-up of a handful of genres, and around all of this there is a layer of meta-fiction as wrapping paper. By now we have so many layers of artifice in this story that a straightforward tale is off the table. It’s very playfully done; unrealistic and not serious, but more focused on the telling of the tale than on realism. So, no hard science fiction. I hesitate to call it science fiction at all.
It’s a book for advanced readers who’d like to read a story about storytelling. Who’d appreciate a story told in fragments, in which what is real is not as important as the telling of the story itself. I will mention a couple of themes, and the more of these appeal to you, the more you’ll probably appreciate this book. It would help if you are enthusiastic about movies, about movie-stars and eccentric directors. About the roaring Twenties and deco, about Golden Age science fiction in which people are launched in rockets from giant cannons and in which planets like Mars and Venus are lush, beautiful worlds. Also, if you appreciate a mystery and film-noir and gothic literature. And witty, flowery language.
We don’t even figure out what is real about this story and what is cooked up. Severin’s father, the director Percival Unck, makes a movie about her disappearance and attempts to wrap it up with a conclusion. We follow the scenes that he wrote, but is it real, or is it written by Percival for his own desire for closure, or is the ending dictated by the rules of storytelling themselves? We don’t know, and that’s the point. I think Valente wants to draw attention to the different ways in which a story can be told and the different styles that are available to you. All the genres that Valente uses in this book are exaggerated. The noir is extremely noir, the golden age SF is extremely retro. The book turns into a grand commentary or an ode to storytelling itself.
The only reason this book doesn’t break down under its own ambition is Cat Valente’s stunning prose. She talks about people having dozens of faces, but she has dozens of writing styles. She’s witty, thoughtful, enthralling, self-aware, comedic… This is one classy book. Deeply ambitious, complex and imaginative.
But you do have to work for it.