Radiance by Catherynne M Valente book review

There are many shades of grey in Catherynne M Valente’s Radiance

Radiance

How many sub-genres can you divide science fiction into? Radiance is an insane mix. It’s a space opera, an alternate history, a mystery, a decopunk literary endeavour… after all, author Valante herself has acknowledged that Radiance is pure “crazypants”.

Set in an alternate reality in which our Solar System is inhabitable, Radiance follows the disappearance of Severin Unck, a documentary director whose art leads her and her team to the ruins of a diving colony on Venus. It’s this fateful journey sees her crew shattered, driven to madness, while Severin herself inexplicably disappears. 

Like Marmite, Radiance is the kind of book that you’ll either love or hate; there’s no grey area between the two. The writing style is unique – almost Beckett-esque in its absurdity at times – and jumps constantly from one character’s narrative to another. This post-modern approach is quite polarising, and comes across as overbearing and pretentious at times.

In fact, it’s this writing style that really seems to make up the substance of Radiance; it’s like an exercise in writing techniques rather than a novel. If you’re looking for a book to lose yourself in, this isn’t for you. Each change of narrative is jarring, leaving you conscious of your own surroundings. There’s no opportunity to become absorbed by the plot; it’s constantly twisting back on itself, from planet to moon and planet again.

It’s a shame, really. The idea in itself is fascinating and its execution is ambitious; from such an acclaimed author, it seems wrong to feel so disappointed with the final product. And yet, that’s exactly what it is: unique and ambitious, but ultimately a disappointment.