It's hard to know where exactly to begin talking about Radiance. It manages to be about a mind-boggling amount of things, and to think and talk about them in innumerable ways. You could start, if you wanted to, with its genre play, because genre makes up such a large a part of how Radiance speaks. It mashes up genres so that you know what you're looking at ("Oh," you might think, "that's a little bit of noir, and that's some space opera, and that's probably art deco"); but that knowledge only serves to bring you to a point where you have to start paying way more attention to how the genres interact than how they work on their own. Another way in might be through talking about its language, which is sometimes drenched in wit, sometimes full of pain, but always beautiful. (This is a book that includes the line, "'I am a nexus point connecting all possible realities and unrealities,' Severin purrs seductively," and pulls it off with aplomb [p. 412].) There's also its structure, which at first brush feels overwhelming, but, like a good mystery should, falls into place at the end—not perfectly, not so that everything is answered, but so that everything, at least, has meaning. And it's that idea of endings, and the meaning they can convey, that seems to really be the best place to start.
Radiance is a book that's particularly concerned with endings. By "endings," I don't just mean the solutions to mysteries, although that is a large part of what Radiance is doing—it's concerned with whether or not endings to any sort of story can be meaningful, or whether they're possible when the story being told is about real life. At the same time, and inseparably so, it's also deeply interested in the difficulty of understanding people and the need to do it anyway. It's also obviously about one other thing: movies, which are only finished when they have endings.
At the book's core are Severin Unck and her father, Percival, two filmmakers with utterly different philosophies about what makes a good movie. Severin is a beloved documentary filmmaker who disappears while making a film about a Venusian colony that also vanished under mysterious circumstances. There are only a few survivors of this trip, including her lover, Erasmo St. John, and the boy he and Severin found abandoned on Venus, Anchises St. John.
Even though Severin wants to film what is true, her films always have some sort of ending. Because she disappears, and because no one knows what happened, Severin's own "truth," on the other hand, is left incomplete, as is the film she was trying to make. Percival Unck, Severin's father and a director and writer of fantasy movies, spends his sections of the book trying to create a movie that provides an ending where there isn't one. He does this not through trying to accurately reconstruct what happened, but by creating various different movies, all fantasies in their own way, in order to get at some sort of truth of things. His version of truth is different from Severin's. In the words of Ursula K. Le Guin, in her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, "I am not predicting, or prescribing. I am describing. I am describing certain aspects of psychological reality in the novelist's way, which is by inventing elaborately circumstantial lies" (Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness, p. xviii). Percival knows no other way to come to know his daughter, even though it's against everything she stood for.
In one of the book's recurring threads, we get transcripts of conversations between Percival and his screenwriting partner, Vincenza Mako, in which they try to come up with a movie that will somehow do justice to Severin. After the movie has gone through three different iterations—a noir, a gothic romance, and a children's tale, all of which are magnificent (I really hope Valente writes a novel-length noir one day)—Vince suggests that leaving the movie undone wouldn't be so terrible, since, after all, Severin "left her movie unfinished, too." But Percival can't do this. "If I leave it like this . . . if I leave it, it looks just like her. A poor abandoned creature without an end. If I do that . . . she'll think I didn't love her. I can't let her think that. I let her think many wicked things about me, but not that. This is how I loved her. She knows it, recognizes it. And I promise you, if she's anywhere, she hates herself for leaving Radiant Car undone" (p. 365).
What exactly does Percival want Severin to recognize (even though, of course, she can no longer recognize anything at all?) It isn't the real Severin, the Severin who disappeared, because a finished movie wouldn't be accurate. Is it Percival's image of Severin? His love for her? And if this image isn't exactly true to Severin, is it real?
Earlier in this conversation, Percival laments that he doesn't have any answers to give. Vince reminds Percival that "'elegant is more important than 'real.' That's always been our motto, really,'" and so they go ahead with the ending they have (p. 363). Their movie becomes a locked-room mystery, leading to an ending (of the novel and the movie both) that's juicy and more than satisfactory. But Radiance, as a whole, doesn't really need that ending. It would have done just fine just being an assemblage of collected, intertwining documents and stories that give us conflicting answers to some questions and none for others.
Even though Radiance doesn't strictly need its ending, I'm glad we get it anyway—since, by the time it came, I wanted it. I wanted it because it does matter what happened to Severin; knowing that is a part of knowing who she really is, both in terms of the stories we're told about her and in terms of who she was outside of them, the parts of her that could never be captured by a camera. This is what Percival struggles with; it's also what her lover, Erasmo St. John (who may be my favorite character in the whole story), has to deal with. Throughout the book, we get transcriptions of an interview/interrogation he's forced into by Oxblood Films, the owner of the remains of Severin's documentary. The aspects of Severin he remembers are his, and private. Remembering what he doesn't know, and what he can never know, is extraordinarily painful, both for him to experience and for us to read about. Oxblood is trying to coerce an ending out of Erasmo when he doesn't have one to give. They want him to produce a packaged version of Severin that doesn't exist, and they want Erasmo to become complicit in creating it.
This doesn't mean that Erasmo, or Percival, or the other characters who knew and love Severin, aren't looking for endings, too. Although the book is made up of inconclusive fragments, some of which have direct sources and others of which seem to come from some kind of external narrator rather than from the world of the story itself, all of the fragments seem to be looking for their wider stories, for their endings. Endings, here, mean closure—they mean understanding what happened, solving the mystery, gaining peace. They also mean something for the person who the story belongs to, because it provides a certain meaning that something scattered and unclear might not. If your story has an ending, it's a license to start sorting out all of its other parts.
The world of Radiance, too, is a mystery that demands solving. Radiance is set in a universe close enough to ours that the ways in which it's different become particularly noticeable. But not all of them come out right away. In the book's ending moments, where parts of the mystery are solved and almost all is revealed, we learn more of the details of how, exactly, this world is different from our own. I won't spoil them—most of them are related to questions you might have asked yourself and then forgotten about, because of the beauty of the places you see and the language that describes them. But Radiance doesn't forget these questions. Unlike Percival Unck's movies, it isn't just built on a soundstage. You can't walk off its set and bump into plywood. We aren't in a movie, no matter what the book's characters might think. We're in a world.
For most of Radiance, though, we aren't actually sure one way or the other if we're looking at a movie (something that only exists within a frame) or a whole world. Here is what we do know: the events in the book range roughly from 1900 to 1965, during which the film industry develops and flourishes. The films in Radiance are almost all silent, due to the malicious money-grabbing business practices of one Freddy Edison, who is based on the real, and truly scummy, Thomas Edison and his Motion Pictures Patent Company. Most movies are in black and white, for similar reasons. The center of the film industry is on the moon—all nine planets have been colonized by the beginning of Radiance, as have many moons, and each has its own distinct flavor. As fascinating as this is, and as beautifully as it's described, I often found myself wishing for more information about it. Earth is the planet that we know the least about. We only get the barest hints of what the political situation is there, even though it's clearly essential to the political structures that now exist throughout the solar system, because most of the book's characters have only the barest of connections to it. Sometimes, the planet's flavors seem almost too homogenous—a one-society-per-planet problem. But this flatness isn't really due to a failing on the book's part, but to the nature of the information we get about the planets.
We learn about this world through its movies and the people who make and love them, and, with a few exceptions (like transcripts from a popular radio show), that's it. The fragments that make up the book largely come from the detritus those people leave behind. Sometimes these are direct transcriptions of Severin's documentaries, pieces from diaries or news columns, Percival's scripts, or recordings from production meetings. Much of what we learn about the solar system comes directly from a soundstage on the moon, and another large part has been arranged by Severin—even if it's real, strictly speaking, it has been organized and made film-ready. That is, learning about the planets of Radiance doesn't matter quite as much as learning about the filters we see them through.
One of the beautiful—and occasionally aggravating—things about Radiance is how in this way we learn far more about how its characters want to view their world than about how their world actually works. On the other hand, this construction of a particular kind of understanding limits what we can actually know about the characters. They're filtering themselves, too, and are filtered through others. So what exactly is it that we know? And when Radiance's characters are trying to find a way properly to tell Severin's story and do right by her, how can they possibly do it without making her something she isn't? This is the problem with Percival's movie project. Even in its final iteration, where we get many of our answers, it isn't clear that those answers are right, or that the characters there are comfortable with them.
Some of these answers come from Mary Pellam, the third primary character we follow throughout the novel, who is forced to think about the problem of finding answers even before Severin disappears. She is Severin's mentor and erstwhile stepmother; many of her segments show how she makes her way through the film industry and tries to find advice that's in any way true enough or useful enough to pass on to Severin. But Mary is also famous for portraying Madame Maxine Mortimer, detective extraordinaire, able to solve any crime and get to the bottom of any muddle. She is forced to become a hybrid of herself and Madame Mortimer even before Severin's disappearance—during an after-party for one of Mary's movies, the movie's director is found mysteriously murdered. The question of how Pellam tries to find out the truth of the situation (and how she should deal with the information she discovers) becomes hard to separate from the question of how much of Mary mixes with Madame Mortimer. Both of them are present in Percival's locked-room mystery.
Inevitably, the answers we get aren't necessarily the right ones. But they're as close as anyone can get, because Percival, Mary, and Erasmo don't know what really happened. This is another reason why Percival finally decides that finishing the movie, and giving it an end that tries to get at some truth is better than not trying to find anything, and leaving it unfinished. This does different work from Severin's unfinished movie, which ostensibly shows pieces of a factual account but doesn't synthesize those facts into a coherent narrative. (Whether or not Severin's films show actual truth—it isn't necessarily scripted, but it isn't necessarily candid, either—is another question that Radiance spends a lot of time grappling with.) To return to the Le Guin introduction, "The only truth I can understand or express is, logically defined, a lie. Psychologically defined, a symbol. Aesthetically defined, a metaphor" (Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness, p. xvii). Severin hates lies, or anything that gets to a deeper truth via a surface untruth; for her there isn't a distinction between the two. But what happens when that's all that can be done with the pieces you have?
We can't get Severin's thoughts or reactions to this, of course. But there's another complication to Percival's moviemaking project, which leads to the question of whether or not Severin's hypothetical thoughts and reactions are even the point. The movies aren't just about her, and they aren't ever from her point of view. All of them are from the point of view of that boy she found on Venus, Anchises, who is still alive, and who gets to see a movie (or, as he says, "pieces of one") filled with versions of himself. We only get to see the non-movie version of Anchises at the very end, and the way Anchises is portrayed in the movies changes a fair bit depending on each movie's particular genre. It's hard to parse the relationship between the "real" Anchises and the different versions we get in the movies. But we get to know Anchises—some Anchiseses—intimately through these movies. The first two are first-person narratives, told not through a transcript but as a prose narrative. The third is a third-person narrative, but we still get to see Anchises (as a young child on Venus, before ever meeting Severin) in particularly intimate moments, as he learns to navigate his own misgivings and questions about his world.
Why is it that Percival decides to make his movies from Anchises' point of view, when Anchises can always come back and correct him? Why not make up some false Severin? Why is it that we come to know Anchises as well as (and, I think, maybe even better than) we get to know Severin? I don't know if Percival knows the answer to that; I certainly don't. Maybe it's partially because Anchises, the real Anchises, has the ability to show up and see his own movie. He can correct it. It may partially be that Anchises still has time to search for an ending of his own, but Severin had her own ending. We, us lucky readers, get to find out more about it than anyone in Radiance does. So it isn't that Anchises hasn't had his ending yet—it's that Severin can't tell us what her ending is. Percival, Erasmo, Mary, and even Anchises can't know it. If you say it the wrong way—if your facts aren't in order—she can't come and correct you. It could be that there's less danger for Percival in creating a character out of someone who still has the freedom to access the secret parts of himself and see if Percival's perceptions are "true."
Radiance never winks at you from behind the scenes, or tries guiding you towards a right or wrong answer. It puts together deep and authentic characters while making sure we know that we aren't seeing all of any of them, and that we'll never quite be able to. When I was reading it, I spent a lot of time getting jazzed up about noir and curious about the history of film and radio and blown away by these bizarre creatures called callowhales, which are what allow humans to survive across the solar system, but, most of all, I wanted to get to know these people better as I watched them trying to get to know each other. I don't know how much of what I feel is "accurate," or whether or not Anchises would want to correct my own impressions of him, if he were real. But Radiance is very, very good at asking these questions and not giving answers when there really aren't any, which I appreciate more than I can really say.
- For more information about this, a useful article can be found here: http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2010/09/thomas-edisons-plot-to-destroy-the-movies/. Valente talks about it in her interview with Clarkesworld, which can be found here: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/valente_interview_2015/ [return]
Phoebe Salzman-Cohen is a PhD student studying fantasy and science fiction, along with Homeric Greek. She enjoys writing stories about sentient fog and magical fireworks, and plays as many RPGs, tabletop and virtual, as she has time for. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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