Do you remember when you started reading Jules Verne, marvelled at the places he described, the ruins of Atlantis, the rivers of Africa, the caves at the centre of the Earth? Do you remember when you realised his world was not actually our world, but one made of myths, of hearsay, of wonder and imagination – maybe not real, but definitely more romantic*?
Valente’s solar system in Radiance is just like that. It’s not the one we’re used to from science books, but it’s one familiar from myths and old science fiction and C. S. Lewis and bullet-shaped spaceships landing in the eye of the moon. Venus is a green land where giant callowhales live placidly as enormous islands, the Moon is a film set, Pluto is the land of the lotus flowers, and so on, and so forth.
All of this is filtered through the eye of film, of the camera, the real main characters of this story despite the extensive dramatis personae.
The book is a patch up story, filtered through different times and mediums, alternating movie reels and letters, facts and fiction, past and future, fragments of memories and audio recordings. It’s a murder mystery with no murder and no body and as long as two lifetimes, and where it takes as much time to catch up on what happened as it does to figure out the why, and the who, and the how.
I must admit I had some issues with this book that come mostly from having read beforehand The radiant car thy sparrows drew, the original short story that spurred this novel. Because of the several time jumps, it takes about half the volume to get a full account of what Radiant car says in 4000 words. And where Radiant car is a silent film, Radiance is ultimately about film, turning Severin Unck from the main character into a McGuffin – even though everything revolves around her, she is out of the scene from page one, and everything we know and see of her is through the eyes of others (including herself as a filmmaker).
If you haven’t read Radiant car, I would suggest to do it after you read Radiance, not before. But it is beyond a shadow of a doubt that you must read both.
* and occasionally racist but that’s beyond the scope of this review