Radiance: A Novel

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Radiance A Novel

Current Affairs. Historical Fiction. True Crime. Profession: Author. 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 to , 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. 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.

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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?

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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.


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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.

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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. 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.

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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.


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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.