Valente, Catherynne M. (2021), The Past Is Red, Tor
I have complained on this blog about the disrespect shown to genre writers who are regarded a notch below mainstream fiction writers, despite often being just as good – or better- stylists. M. John Harrison is often a standard example, as he is clearly one of the best living British novelists, maybe the single best male one, and yet his work does not receive the plaudits that the boring mealy assemblages of platitudes by Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes often do. There’s a curious justice to the fact that he is currently on the jury giving out the Booker Prize, when almost every book of his had deserved at minimum shortlist consideration in previous years. But despite Harrison being the go-to answer (there’s a famous Miéville note on the subject), the same complaint should apply to his fellow “genre” writers Gwyneth Jones and Catherynne Valente. I have reviewed Gwyneth Jones here (a better writer than Harrison), and I am a great admirer of Catherynne M. Valente – she has been consistently producing imaginative fiction that’s complex, well written and unusual. Her most famous book is The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, the first in a series of YA novels about a young girl named September who gets drawn into the faery world. My favorite Valente novel is Palimpsest, a novel in the style of M. John Harrison’s Viriconium, and the best recommendation to give out to anyone who has read early Gaiman and who would like something similar but better. I feel like Valente has recently been given more of a spotlight and she has made the absolute most of it, with 2021 seeing the publication of two short novels and 2022 another, heftier YA novel in the style of the Girl series of books, all three of them excellent.
The first of the two 2021 books is The Past Is Red, and it is a combination of two related novellettes, one of which had already been published in 2017. It is also an absolute masterpiece. The first half, “The Future is Blue”, won a Theodore Sturgeon award in 2017, and in 2021, Valente added the second half and published the whole thing as a novel(la?). Despite being the best book on the shortlist, the book was merely shortlisted for the best novella Hugo. It is easy to see why Becky Chambers’ book won the award though. Chambers’ work, as a signature book in the solarpunk genre, is a much more open and positive view of the post apocalypse. In fact, it is one of three novellas on the 2021 Hugo shortlist that share the theme of technological collapse in a way. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Elder Race, which inverts the usual narratives of both fantasy and first-contact science fiction, draws on similar ideas. Where Becky Chambers has her protagonist, who lives in a post-technology world, encounter and befriend a robot, Tchaikovsky’s protagonist is a scientist who is watching over a post-technological human colony, giving a new gloss on the old magic/sufficiently advanced technology chestnut. Both books draw from a contrast between technology and an Edenic technology- free world, where the contrast is used for color and fun, but there is no urgency, no threat, no real problem here. Surely, I’m not the only one thinking about books like Canticle – where technology has been wedded to a certain permanent menace.
This is why Valente’s novella is such a gift to contemporary science fiction. The Past Is Red sits in an interesting spot in this technology vs fantasy divide. The question for post-technology science fiction is always – what do you do with the existing technology? What happens to the existing things? We have all learned, when urged to recycle, how long it takes for things to go away. The usual way texts deal with this is what Tchaikovsky’s book does: the hub, the spaceship, observatory station etc., is now seen as a tower. The main character’s life, by constantly going into stasis, exceeds the lifespan of the colony humans, and technology turns into myth. A house is a house is a house, I suppose. But in order for there to be an Edenic green post-apocalypse, with overgrown electrical equipment, a lot of things have to go right – these are not real dystopias. Valente understands this and updates the fear permeating books like Canticle for our modern age. The apocalypse in her book comes from a surfeit of events that have destroyed earth. Climate change, certainly, but the destruction is so complete that a series of other problems have been added to the list. It is hard to describe this without spoiling a central revelation of the second half of the novel, but before things went to shit, humanity was more advanced than we are now, but even ideas of off-world colonies end up beset by threats and problems. This information is given to us here and there, in drips and drops. “The Future is Blue,” the book’s first half, is particularly impressive at avoiding info dumps. The two halves are tonally different, there is a sad, elegiac sense to the second half of the book, which accommodates the occasional offer of complete pieces of information more smoothly.
“The Future is Blue” on the other hand moves quickly – there is a quirkiness to the narration of events which are objectively less than ideal. Much of Humanity lives on a floating enormous garbage patch called Garbagetown. Garbagetown consists of – well, garbage, and generations of living in these conditions have led to the restructuring of the garbage. People are just as unaware of technology from before the apocalypse as in Chambers’ and Tchaikovsky’s books, but they are not untouched by it. Valente does not reject technology to build a world – instead she recognizes just how much of our world consists of varying levels of technology. People living in Garbagetown can barely use some of the technology they have, they can certainly not understand it. The use of technology has devolved into rituals and magic, and those parts of Garbagetown that run on technology that is still working (there are some functioning machines and there is electricity) are naturally the richest. “The Future is Blue” is one long flashback, narrated by Tetley, the most hated girl in Garbagetown. From her we learn that naming, one of the most common mechanisms in fantasy fiction, is not automatic – parents don’t name you; you go out into the world and the world names you, often through the interaction with objects in the world. And as all objects in that world are our garbage, there’s complex relationship between the traditions and narratives of the world of Garbagetown and our own world and narratives. This is a clever spin on the way traditions work in many indigenous cultures, where maturity is connected to an epiphany, encounter, or act in your teenage-age life. Insults have become a central element of discourse on Garbagetown, and many names derive from insults received on that fateful outing.
Names from our world – brand names, descriptive names, things, in other words that are carried by objects permanently in the form of trash with labels and text and messages – become words in the world of Garbagetown. The original meaning is completely lost and all we are left with are new sources for words in a world with rapidly diminishing stimuli. There is a connection to Waterworld, as the inhabitants of Garbagetown are permanently living in hope of finding terra firma somewhere. People have noted this with regards to Costner’s box office bomb, but the combination of in-narrative utopian ideas within a dystopian setting really underlines and contextualizes the way prophecies and utopias rely on a trace of meaning, an unrecoverable place that suggests a meaningful path but can never entirely be reached. Tetley in the end removes a real-world connection to this permanent hope, which makes her the most hated girl in the world. There are so many more ideas Valente uses – for example: Tetley becomes, as punishment, a homo sacer, a person outside of the law who can be beaten or killed without consequences. That said, there is no such thing as law in the post code civil sense of the word in Garbagetown. It is all ritual and violence. Gifts, threats and other primal elements rule the world of Garbagetown. Fittingly, the writing is sometimes downright rhythmic, dense, some of the most concise prose published in all of 2021.
In the “The Past Is Red”, Tetley flees Garbagetown on a boat – and encounters a piece of technology that still works, but unlike the simple electricity in Garbagetown requires knowledge in order to get it to work. It is an artificial intelligence which has to be activated. During the course of the book, this AI will connect Tetley to a girl named Olivia who lives off-world, but at no point does Tetley entirely understand what is happening on a technological level. This second half of the book is much less dense, softer and more emotional. It exists primarily to close the story of “The Future is Blue,” which gives very little context and information. Olivia and the AI are talking equal parts to Tetley and to us, as ambassadors of this world to us, who share more with us than Tetley does. There is no additional reasons for hope in that new narrative, Valente does not soften the brutality of this post-apocalyptic world, but she does give us something: hope as a function of our humanity, and community as a fundamental element of how we as humans work and survive. I cannot tell you how tired I am of the “lone man on the moon” science fiction stories, written by men, who have wives and mothers cleaning after them. In The Past Is Red, even on the boat in the middle of the ocean, far away from Garbagetown and with no destination, Tetley looks for – and finds – connection. To the AI, to the mysterious girl Olivia, her partner Goodnight Moon, and, ultimately, in the flawed, cruel, brutal humans in Garbagetown. Sometimes that is all we have – and much of the best contemporary fiction is recognizing this. There is no escapism in this book, but it is still not “bleak” – hopelessness, apathy and self-isolation are ultimately luxuries, often requiring the care-work of others who are relegated to the background of the texts.