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Radiance
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Radiance

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Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Publisher: Tor, 2015
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction / Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Alternate History (SF)
Space Exploration
Space Opera
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Synopsis

Radiance is a decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery set in a Hollywood - and solar system - very different from our own.

Severin Unck's father is a famous director of Gothic romances in an alternate 1986 in which talking movies are still a daring innovation due to the patent-hoarding Edison family. Rebelling against her father's films of passion, intrigue, and spirits from beyond, Severin starts making documentaries, traveling through space and investigating the levitator cults of Neptune and the lawless saloons of Mars. For this is not our solar system, but one drawn from classic science fiction in which all the planets are inhabited and we travel through space on beautiful rockets. Severin is a realist in a fantastic universe.

But her latest film, which investigates the disappearance of a diving colony on a watery Venus populated by island-sized alien creatures, will be her last. Though her crew limps home to earth and her story is preserved by the colony's last survivor, Severin will never return.

Radiance is a solar system-spanning story of love, exploration, family, loss, quantum physics, and silent film.


Excerpt

The Ingénue's Handbook

Begun 20 August, 1908, Quarter to Three in the Afternoon by Mary Alexandra Pellam (Age 17)
Grasshopper City, Luna

I have come to the Moon to make my fortune!

Good Lord, isn't that what all the girls say? And the boys and the richies and the paupers and the grifters and the real damn artistes and the homesteaders and the silver panners and the writers and the vaudeville has-beens and the bank men and the gangsters and the patrons--oh the patrons! You be sure to call them patrons, missy, while they're patting your knee and sweating through your skirt--the old perverts and the young ones, too. A chickie hates to be cliché, but the minute you set foot up here, on this rock that's nothing but one big studio set, you figure out right quick that clichés sign your checks and tuck you in at night. Come on up to wardrobe, honey, we've got a belt-sander to take care of any originality you might not have checked at customs. No problem.

I didn't need much work, truth be told. I could've come off a showroom floor. The Latest and Greatest Model, Shined and Sheared and Shipped First Class, Perfectly Engineered and Industrially Lathed to Factory Specs! Get One Now, Before the 1909s Come In!

That's me. I'm not ashamed of it. It gives me a good giggle. I am the Girl. I barely need a name. Every audition is a room full of rose-faced cupid fodder, and they all look just like me, talk just like me. They've suffered just the way I have: enough to give the eyes a knowing slant, but not enough to ruin the complexion. And they all came to the Moon as freight, just like me.

Check my credentials if you have a care: Born Oxford, England, Earth, eighteen and ninety-one. Mama was a mama but she did something artistic-like so you can be sure I come by my ambitions honestly. Mine painted. She covered canvases with portraits of the prize roses in her garden, large and small, red and pink and coral and puce like shades of lipstick. Wild and tea and heirloom. Desperate, weeping things, they were. I'll tell you something: when you see a Pellam rose blossom in close-up, three metres by three metres, it looks like a mauve monster. It looks like a mouth set to gulp you whole. Papa was a professor of linguistics. Helped to write the dictionary, did Pellam Senior. Gaze upon my childhood, O ye curious: I was built out of roses and etymologies.

Obviously I ran away to Camden Town just as soon as my nicely turned calves could carry me. No more dinners with those lurid leviathan gullets staring at my peas and potatoes with pointedly erect stamens. No more Greek origins of simple household words and I say, we've started in on the J's this year and you know what that means: Jackals and Juggernauts and Jungles! Deriving respectively, of course, from the Sanskrit roots srgalah, "the howler," jagat-natha, "the lord of the world," and jangala, which, oddly enough, signifies "aridity." Couldn't you just scream?

I could. Because when you draw a really rotten lot in life, you stick it out, make your best, tighten your belt. But when your draw is just a touch irritating, just a squidge confining, well, you hightail it and right quick. I'd have been good and goddamned if I was going to end up painting roses like my life depended on it in some snivelling doctoral candidate's hut. Oh, but you didn't stay in Camden! Not if you could help it. Not if you were a Girl Like Me.

No, in those days--and by those days I mean these days, and by these days I mean all the days to come--it was the heavens or nothing at all. If you had a brain to rub against a lust for something better than shabby old Earth and her crabby old empires, you were saving up for a rocket or already long gone. It was fifty years on from the great train robbery perpetrated by Master Conrad Xavier Wernyhora and his big sister Miss Carlotta Xanthea, a couple of Australian-born Polish kittens run off from the Hobsons Bay rail yards with spare parts, lunch, and a working knowledge of engineering to set off their little cherry bomb in Hawaii, where the equator loves us and wants us to be happy. I used to draw pictures of that first fabulous ship in my schoolbooks. The Tree of Knowledge, shot out of a bloody circus cannon, a snug capsule with their handprints on it in gold paint. It carried Conrad and Carlotta all the way up here to the Moon, crashlanding through a genteel sort of gravity into... well, just about where I sit, where the Savoy in Tithonus now stands, with the silver-choked shores of Mare Nubium in sight.

It's a fair bit nicer now, with pistachio meringues, a nice pot of white-tips, and a waiter with a rear that I daresay won't quit. Although I've not developed a taste for creaming my tea with callowmilk yet, I'm sad to report. It's just not right. Milk shouldn't taste like much of anything but vague thickness and sweetness. Callowmilk has a spice to it. A tang. I expect I shall learn to savour it soon enough. I need it, after all. We all do. Slaves of Venus where the callowhales lie silent offshore and ooze. Without callowmilk we couldn't stay. It's a matter of density, see. Skip the cream in our tea and our bones would go as light as hat-straw within a year or two and we'd keel over with a sad Irish slide whistle. So I stir and stir and stir and it still tastes positively beastly.

Once upon a time I played Conrad and Carlotta with the neighbour boy, the son of a lowly junior lecturer in astronomy and therefore utterly delicious with the frisson of slumming it. I do not imagine Conrad and Carlotta did half the things in their capsule that I did in the peach trees with... oh, what was his name? Lucius. Or Lawrence. Lawrence! From the Latin Laurentius, meaning from the city of Laurentum, near Rome.

Well, I missed the first big rush. One always does. The good bit is forever one generation back. But I'm not such a latecomer that I escaped the sense of being historical. Here I sit, writing in my little green book while I gnaw over whether or not I can afford a bowl of the monkfish soup to insulate my belly against the fact that I've (finally!) gotten a part in the new Stern flick but not been paid yet. I know, I just know, that my little diary will be read by somebody someday, and not just to divine how to get me in the sack. It'll be read because I'm an actress in the early days of cinema and the somewhat later days of interplanetary immigration. I don't have to do a thing to be interesting! Did she or did she not have the monkfish soup? Did the thyme taste like the thyme she knew back home? (Or the scrubbly stuff we call thyme even though it's lunar native and in no sense of the word thyme. Though, for that matter, it wouldn't be monkfish either, but we call our local long scaly bastards with their razor snouts and six vestigial legs monkfish because the Savoy, good sir, does not serve moon-monster soup!) Did the flavour make her think of innocent days in the manger of man?

Not especially, no.

But we all keep diaries. We all scribble and babble. Because we know the future is watching everything and taking its own notes. So I shall tell you, Mister Future, all about Conrad and Carlotta, just in case you get careless and misplace them along the way.

I was saying I missed the first big rush, wasn't I, Mister Future? By the time I made my entrance, all the planets had their bustling baby shantytowns, each and every one with a flag slapped on it. You weren't anybody at the imperial picnic if you didn't have a planet. Moons, though lovely, just lovely, are consolation prizes. Sino-Russian Mars. Saturn split between Germany and Austria-Hungary. French Neptune. American Pluto. Spanish Mercury. Ottoman Jupiter. All present and accounted for--except Venus. Nobody owns that Bessie because everyone needs her. The path to the stars is paved with treaties. If I wanted to stay English, I had my pick of the Moon or Uranus or a sea of satellites. But I didn't see it as a choice. Only the Moon for the likes of me! Who wants to freeze on Uranus where there's no paparazzi at all?

I hoarded my little walnuts like a good squirrel, sitting for advertisements and doing the occasional shimmy on some appalling stage. I'll have you know I was the face of Dr Goddard's Premium Disinfectant and Little Diamond Brand Refined Sugar in the same fortnight. And that very fortnight I did my evening shifts at the Blue Elephant Theatre, playing Ariel in an all-female, mostly nude production of The Tempest. The glitter stuck to my nipples something vicious. Stained them green for a month after the coppers shut us down on indecency charges. Fair enough, I said then, and I say now. I drank too much and ate too little, got in a spell of trouble with a stage manager and had it taken care of; put something up my nose and something in a pipe, but that's what was done. Preparations for a better role. I tried to get plum work. I did try. Turned out for Mr Wilde and Mr Ibsen's affairs, lined up round the block to be seen for the opportunity to cough offstage in Chekhov. But the bold truth is that nothing on your person earns as well as tits earn, and only after I did a spell as a cheesecake bacchante (I got to carry Pentheus's head three nights out of five--four if Susanna had a boyfriend that month) did I have my egg.

I lined up in Kensington Gardens with the crowds. Passed by the statue of Peter Pan and reached up my hand to pat him as thousands have done. Millions now, I suppose. Built but the year before and already his foot is near worn away. Second star to the right, my lad. Right-o. Carpetbags and cold-weather rags and the afternoon sun like a sickly porridge glooping over the lindens. The cannon towered over me. I went terribly quiet inside, as you do when you're little and your father looms over you and you don't know yet whether he means to praise or scold. I went up on a boat called the Topless Towers of Ilium, which made me smirk. I looked round and saw a sea of flappers--flappers!--heaps of girls with bleached hair and dance shoes and carmine lips. All of us piling in for a day's flight in cramped quarters with a lot of men who will be happy to tell you they're directors, kid, you just sit right here by me. It was like an audition. An audition for a whole world, to see if the Moon would accept us and let us in or turn us out after a spin as an extra in a crowd scene and a starring role on a hotel bed with a producer in a top hat testing your range with his prick.

Oh, the wide universe needs us all, great and small, to fill her up and make her good, make her ripe, make her full and teeming. There are no small stories, only short ones. But the Moon... the Moon is where they make movies. And the Moon is a heartless bitch. She only needs a few. She wants fewer than that. She sits up there, high and mighty as you please, on her starry director's chair and she ticks off the weak on a clipboard stained with ingénues' tears. The Moon cares nothing for our cute little troubles. She ate a thousand girls for lunch yesterday, and she was hungry again in an hour. She barely even looks at us.

But I only have eyes for her.

So here I am. I've a room--not at the Savoy, goodness, perish the thought! I've the room they assigned me at Princess Alice's Landing, at the top of a three-floor boarding house on Endymion Road, back end of Grasshopper City. Five girls to a room. And our wardrobes count as a sixth tenant, for not a one of us earns her keep anywhere but before the lens and on the boards. Callista's Virgin Queen getup takes the whole rear corner, and all our cats live under the skirt. But I save my little shillings for luncheons at the Savoy so that I can feel grand. So that I can feel like I'm somebody going somewhere. So I can read Algernon B dishing gossip and maybe spy with my little eye old Wadsy Shevchenko canoodling with a prop boy. So Søren Blom can find me if he's scouring the cafes for an Ionian duchess who might just look like me, or if that dashing darling Percival Unck comes looking for a new heroine to drop into a bucket of ghosts. So I can watch the summer Earth at half-wax going down over the froth of Mare Nubium and the candy-coloured streetlights come on in a long bright wave over my city.

My city! Tithonus, jewel of the Moon, Queen Slattern of the Alleyways, Grasshopper City, my home! I stepped off the Topless Towers of Ilium and took in her round blueglass spires and filthfat holes and opium gardens and botanical dens and the wickercoral palaces barely keeping the moss at bay like I was taking the first breath of my whole life. I was in love. I was a new bride. If I'd had a penny left over I'd have grabbed the first whore I saw and had her right there against the side of the Actaeon, just to have the city inside me and my hands on its heat. Nickelodeons every four steps, but those four steps also hoisted up grand theatres like castles, studio gates like St. Peter's, peep shows and brothels and dance halls coming up like posies in every which spot between. They even built a Globe, so achingly, throbbingly familiar out there on this new West End, looking like an ice queen's personal gladiatorial arena, blueglass and silver and scrimshaw.

I am going to play them all.

Oh, I thought I'd be sensible about it. Don't pan for gold, says the wise man. Sell pans. I'd learn cameras, I thought. Inside and out. I could do it. Find work as an assistant to an assistant to an assistant. As long as I could be near the movies, I'd've won. Maybe someone would catch a glimpse of me taking light readings, notice the way the Earthlight caught my profile. Maybe not. Manage your expectations, Mary! But oh, I took one look at Grasshopper City, at the Globe and the Actaeon and the Savoy, and I knew it would never do. I don't give a fig how a camera works, just as long as it works on me.

No, I am going to play them all. I intend to step on-stage as Ariel with my dress on. I shall pose just so at the Actaeon's emerald double door at my own premiere, name above the title, all in lights, all in red, like a rose, like a mouth, all in. I shall absolutely murder Wilde and Ibsen and Chekhov; I shall eat Claudius's heart in the marketplace, I shall pine for the love of Robin Hood. All of them, all of them. Men's parts, too. Hamlet in high heels, and don't you dare forget my name! I will hunch my back as Dickie III until I am quite literally blue in the face. I will make the Moon love me if I have to spike her drink and knock her on the head to do it.

And I am turning blue. It thrills me to my toes! I would say I'm a shade between powder and sky so far. I shall be quite sapphire by Christmas, I expect.

Granted, it's not going so well on the working front. I ran around like a perfect fool during the slaughter of the suitors in Dorian Blister's Odyssey last year. My bathwater ran pink with fake blood. Even after I seemed squeakingly clean, the bubbles said I still had a bit of Telemachus on me somewhere. But the camera lingered on me for a half second longer than the other handmaids, and I had a particularly good expression of horror on. Then, I was a dead body in The Mercury Equation. Strangled in a short dress. Big black finger marks on my neck. (Pssst: The prodigal son did it). And a fairy in The Fair Folk Abroad, which if you ask my opinion was an absolute coke-addled mess. Just a great wad of big paper flowers and suspension wires and pukingly sweet orchestral nonsense, along with half a circus's worth of animals that'd had rum poured in their water bowls the morning before their scenes so they'd stagger docilely across the soundstage instead of ripping Titania's face off. You can see a panther passed out cold on the horn of plenty in the second scene.

I've learned it's important to have a name. Fairy #3 is a losing game. At least let me be Mustardseed in the credits, Mister! It won't cost you anything. I do so long to graduate from being a number to being a name. Dead Girl #2. Handmaid #6. I celebrated with one of my four flatmates (Regina Farago--you'll see her in that big splashy Napoleonic flick next year: built like a giraffe, tall and brown and possessing that clumsiness that looks like grace when you've got legs like hers) and a bucketful of gin when I was cast as Faun #1 in The Thrice-Haunted Forests of Triton. Moving up in the world! Yesterday #6, today #1!

But now I've a character with a proper name! Signed the contract Mary Pellam with a big flourish. Maybe something will come of it. Probably not. But I've got years to make my go.

Today I'm Clementine Salt.

More important, Miss Clem is my ticket to a studio contract. Oh, the Grail, the chalice, the font of prosperity! Locked away in the castle perilous and just sloshing with fine print! I do so dream of selling myself to a studio. For a tidy sum, of course--Dr Pellam didn't raise a fool. I positively wriggle with the thought of some big meaty boss closing his clobbering hand over mine and guiding a gold pen across glossy pages. Sign here and we'll make you immortal, little missy. And they'll own you for just as long. A pretty unicorn in a pretty zoo. What to eat; who to breed with; shows at seven, nine, and eleven.

Look at me, I'm growing a proper lunar coat of cynicism.

The fact is, a unicorn cage is the safest place to be. And I want to be safe. I have to be safe. And to be safe I need protection. These studios prowl the Moon like little emperors bouncing on great stupid beasts. They've carved up the place between them like England and France and Austria-Hungary and Russia.

They've put on actual wars!

You won't hear a breath of it back home, no sir. But it's happened. They've all the costumes and props and explosives for any battle in history, after all. Why let it go to waste just because no one is making a war flick this week? Tithonus is divided into territories: the north belongs to Capricorn, the south to Tranquillity, the east to Plantagenet Pictures, the west to Oxblood Films. The rest of Luna is carved up the same way, minus a few independent strongholds here and there. Virago, Wainscot, Artemisia. Woe betide the soul who crosses lines! Little wee emperors with ivory crowns jousting on rhinoceroses. Only, what actually happens is that Oxblood swipes Maud Locksley from Plantagenet and Simon Laszlo storms their backlot--which is more or less the whole west end up to Coriander Street--with a hundred actors who think they are re-enacting the betrayals of the Duke of Burgundy until their bullets actually blow the heads off the "loyal French peasants" and Miss Locksley gets a shellshocked escort home and a month locked up in Laszlo's house with her head stuck in a bushel of af-yun before she can pull herself together enough to stand on her mark.

Oh, the money on the Moon is English--you can see Vickie's sour old kisser on the bills. But no one is under one single illusion as to who runs this joint. You take sides if you're smart. Offer up your loyalty, 'cause it's all you've got to trade.

Trouble is, most times, when you go looking to sell your soul, nobody's buying.

I picked up this little notebook at the shop round the corner from the Huntress, which is a whorehouse, but quite a good one. If I'm ever in a bad way, I'll hope to get hired on there. You get breakfast brought on a tray and don't have to start work 'til four. I mean to record in it Things I Know. There is such an awful lot to know up here. I suppose I thought the Moon would be like London, only bigger and less expensive. I'm quite certain that was the idea. But just like everywhere else, it only took about five seconds for folk to notice that Earth is very, very far away.

The first supper rush is coming on. My tea's gone cold. There is already a foxtrot tinkling away in Imperatrix Square: garlands of pale green callowlanterns swinging in the sea wind, heels clapping on the cobblestones like an audience, girls with short hair laughing at boys with feathers in their lapels. Perhaps I shall join them later. I am a fair dancer. Not superb, but fair. I am always honest about my capabilities. I am very pretty, though my prettiness lacks depth and therefore misses beauty by a hair. I have an extremely expressive face that I can contort at will. I am short, but I have a serviceable chest and practically perfect calves. For stage work I have a rich voice which carries well, though it is somewhat deeper than the fashion. I can alter it somewhat. I can pass for an American or a Frenchwoman, and I am working on a Muscovite lilt. Perhaps at twenty I shall be a superb dancer. Perhaps at thirty I shall be beautiful. Anything is possible.

My waiter has taken pity upon me and brought me a plate of walnuts and cheese and thus won my heart entire. Yes, my lad, I shall marry you. I shall.

Very well, Mary, very well! Get to it!

As of today, the Twentieth of August in the Year of Our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Eight, I believe the following to be Immutable Lunar Laws:

1. A woman has but eight roles open to her: ingénue, mother, witch, detective, nun, whore, queen, and corpse.

2. Sooner or later, someone's gonna own you, kid. Call yourself Queen of the May if you get a say in whom.

3. You have no pride. If you have it, misplace it. Under your mattress, in someone else's cupboard. It'll do you no favours.

4. That person you are when the camera's having its way? That's not you. That's a Looking Glass Girl. She lives on the other side of the lens. She's better than you are--prettier, more graceful, walks more properly, sparkles when she ought to, blushes when she ought to, fades to black before anyone gets bored. And better things happen to her than the sad little teas and flophouse fleas that happen to you. Love that Looking Glass Girl. Love her hard and love her true. Make obeisance; say your Aves. She is your personal god, and you'll chase her for the rest of your life.

Copyright © 2015 by Catherynne M. Valente


Reviews

Radiance

- Linguana
  (12/5/2015)
Radiance

- Alexa
  (2/24/2016)
Interesting Literary Experiment But...

- ScoLgo
  (1/20/2017)

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