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.
Told using techniques from reality TV, classic film, gossip magazines, and meta-fictional narrative, Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance is a solar system-spanning story of love, exploration, family, loss, quantum physics, and silent film—available October 20th from Tor Books.
Come forward. Come in from the summer heat and the flies. Come in from that assault on all senses, that pummelling of rod and cone and drum and cilia. Come in from the great spotlight of the sun, sweeping across the white sands, making everyone, and therefore no one, a star.
Come inside and meet the prologue.
It is dark inside the prologue. Dark and cool and welcoming. Whatever is to come, the prologue welcomes you absolutely, accepts you unconditionally, receives you graciously, providing all that is necessary to endure the rest. The prologue is patient. She has been told often that she is wholly unnecessary, a growth upon the story that the wise doctor must cut off. She has time and again found the doors to more fashionable establishments closed to her, while tables are set with candles and crystal for a top-hatted in medias res, a pedigreed murder at midnight, a well-heeled musical number. This does not trouble the prologue. She was fashionable when plays still began with sacrifices—and if you catch her in her cups, she will tell you that any show that jumps into the action without a brace of heifers burning centre front still strikes her as a rather tawdry affair. The prologue is the mother of the tale and the governess of the audience. She knows you have to bring them in slow, teach them how to behave. All it takes is a little music; a soft play of lights; a flash of skin; a good, beefy monologue to bring everyone up to speed before you expect them to give a witch’s third tit who’s king of Scotland.
The prologue is where you take your coats off. Relax. Leave your shoes at the door. Invoke the muse, call down whatever royal flush of gods you want pulling the action between them. O Muse, O Goddess. Sing, Speak, Weep. Give unto me the song of rage. Hand over the arms and the man on the double-quick. Hit that horn and play me the voice of the many-minded traveller who could not get home. Keep a front-row seat for that masked demiurge, a plum spot for that jazzy old Word in the Void, or let it be on your head.
So come in. Let your eyes adjust. We need your eyes. Let the chartreuse pop of the sun’s afterimage fade into the blackness we have thoughtfully provided. The floor creaks underfoot: slick, yielding wood, green as an olive in a martini, fresh from the forests of Ganymede. You can smell it lightly, under the lime polish. Ashes and copper. Let the dark scoop your ears clean, scrub out the bubbling champagne-cacophony of the world you have only just left behind. We need your ears. And we want your hands as well. We are all primates, after all. We love to touch; we love to interfere with objects. Nothing is real until you can touch it. Your sight will sharpen in time; the shadows will lift and separate like curtains. You will find pages under your eager fingers: pages, phonographs, objects great and small but mostly small, resting on pillars of Uranian saltrock carved into cresting, foam-gnarled waves, trusting their flotsam to your keeping.
Come in, come in, there is so much to see.
No sitting down, though. We need you standing. There’s a projector here, just there—have a care, sir—to your right. Another— mind your hems, madam—to your left. But you will find no screen. You’re it. If you’ll gather in… yes, just so, all in a row like good little daisies. Tall folk to the rear, small folk up front. Now, if you are comfortable, we can begin.
This is a story about seeing. This is a story about being seen. All else is subservient. The ears assist; the hands comfort. The only verbs that matter are verbs of vision: look, see, watch, observe. Gaze. Behold. Witness. The eye is our master, and the eye worships light. That which makes light is good, that which takes it is to be feared. We have taken it from you, but we will give it back again. Make of that what you will.
God—if you will forgive such sweeping pronouncements so early in our acquaintance—is an eye.
It would be better if you would consent to disrobe. Skin is the most intimate and perfect of screens. But having come from so many ports and climes, we do not expect your taboos concerning modesty to match up perfectly with ours—why, thank you, miss, you are most kind. And sir, we are greatly obliged. The matron seems to be having some trouble with her costume; if you could assist her, young lady? Thank you. You have all proven yourselves wonderfully gracious and liberal-minded. You are an audience we do not deserve. Perhaps it is a relief after the heat to shed silk and leathers? Nevertheless, we are thoroughly impressed. We shall endeavour to make ourselves equally naked, equally bare, equally vulnerable to iris and pupil, whose bites are ever so much fiercer than teeth.
The clatter and whirr of the projectors pick up like wind across a long desert. Look down. You can see a woman with dark hair and unhappy eyes moving silently on your bellies, your breasts, your thighs, your feet. Upside down, shorn of colour, flickering. Bent and cut up by the curves of your bodies and the age of the film. You see her as you see anyone in this world: distorted, warped, reflected, refracted, contorted, mutilated by time.
Perhaps you recognize the scene. It was once a famous film, after all. She was once a famous woman. I hear you say her name, sir—but this is our show, pray allow us to reveal things in our own time.
Observe: It is daytime in the movie on your chest. The crew is setting up the morning’s shoot. The director of photography, a great, broad-chested fellow with a smart moustache, shaves in a mirror nailed to a cacao-tree. The looking glass hangs at a rakish angle, half-sunk into furry black bark. You will know by the tree that he stands upon the surface of Venus, not far from the sea. It is late summer. A spot of rain glimmers on the lens.
Yes, my dear fellow, you know his name, too. You are just awfully clever.
The DP uses a straight razor inlaid with a scrimshaw of fossilized kelp. You will find it along the east wall. Do not be afraid; it has not dreamed of sharpness since its profligate youth. The blade belonged to his grandfather, a merchant sailor who played the bassoon—a most impractical instrument for a seaman, but how the old man loved his pipe! The scrimshaw shows a sea serpent, each scale lovingly etched, as round as fingernails. The director of photography is shirtless, his skin as dark as unshot film, his face angular and broad. He catches a glimpse of the woman in his mirror and whirls round to catch her up. He kisses her with a resounding smack you cannot hear, smearing shaving cream on her face. She laughs noiselessly and punches his arm; he recoils in mock agony. It is a pleasant scene. Some phantom discontentment pops like a flashbulb in her eyes and obliterates itself into love.
Observe: It is evening in the movie on your legs. A small boy, head bent, dressed in the uniform of a callowhale diver, walks in small, tight circles in what was once the centre of a village called Adonis. The houses and outbuildings look as though they have been gored with great horns: lacerated, burst open. Long, squalid lashings of what appears to be white paint spatter the ruins. But it is not paint. Adonis, the lost city, destroyed, obliterated, without reason, without warning. A mystery that pulled a woman across the stars and down into its scarlet seas. The boy does not look up as the camera watches him. He does not see himself being seen by the film crew, by the audiences to come, by us. He does not see his echo; he does not hear his projection. He simply turns and turns and turns, over and over. The corrupted film skips and jumps; the boy seems to leap through his circuit, flashing in and out of sight. Clouds drift down in long, indistinct spirals. Celluloid transforms the brutal orange of the Venusian sun into a blinding white nova. Beyond him, pearlescent islands hump up out of the foamy sea of Qadesh: callowhales, a whole pod, silent, unmoving, pale.
Now. Gaze, behold, witness: A third projector judders on, seeing but unseen, hidden in the curtains. It fires its beam at the laughing couple, the shaving cream, the razor that once belonged to a bassoonloving grandfather. Image over image over flesh. The woman seems to step out of her lover’s arms and into a ballroom, becoming suddenly a pouting, sour-faced little girl practically drowning in the stiff lace and crinoline of one of those old Gothics we love so well— would you care to name it, sir? You know so much; I will not believe for a moment you do not recognize The Spectre of Mare Nubium, the marvellously morbid masterwork that earned its director, Percival Unck, his first Academy Award. Your fine chest sports the classic ballroom sequence, wherein the blood-soaked villain receives her much-deserved comeuppance. The little girl can be seen crouching miserably near the rice-wine fountain, chewing her fingers and spitting the nails at the whirling dancers. The grand dresses of the waltzing ghosts pass over her face like veils.
Please, ladies and gentlemen! Your protestations destroy the dark quiet of our little universe. I can see you leap quite out of your skin. You must be prepared for these interruptions, invasions, intersections. They are necessary. They are the exhalations of the dead. Humans do not proceed in an orderly fashion from one scene to the next. Memory lies underneath happenstance; hope and dread sprawl on top. Our days and nights are their endless orgies.
Now, listen: Our phonograph scratches up a man’s voice and a small girl’s, the very girl who at this moment is flickering silver and black on your thighs, sinking her face into balled fists under the murderous Clarena Schirm’s banquet table.
“How many beginnings can a story have, Daddy?”
The man chuckles. It is a nice chuckle, tobacco-velvet, a chuckle that says: Oh, the questions my kid asks!
“As many as you can eat, my lamb. But only one ending. Or maybe it’s the other way around: one beginning but a whole Easter basket of endings.”
“Papa, don’t be silly,” the child admonishes in a voice accustomed to getting its way. “A story has to start somewhere. And then it has to end somewhere. That’s the whole point. That’s how it is in real life.”
The man laughs again. You like his laugh. I like his laugh. We cannot help but feel well disposed toward a man with a laugh like that, even though it is not really his, but a laugh he learned at university, copied meticulously from his favourite screenwriting professor as you and I might copy from our neighbour during an exam.
“But that’s not how it is in real life, Rinny. Real life is all beginnings. Days, weeks, children, journeys, marriages, inventions. Even a murder is the beginning of a criminal. Perhaps even a spree. Everything is prologue. Every story has a stutter. It just keeps starting and starting until you decide to shut the camera off. Half the time you don’t even realise that what you’re choosing for breakfast is the beginning of a story that won’t pan out till you’re sixty and staring at the pastry that made you a widower. No, love, in real life you can get all the way to death and never have finished one single story. Or never even get one so much as half-begun.”
“Papa, you’re babbling. Ada says you have to stop that. She says you’re full of hot air.”
“I’m full of many things, I’m sure. Very well, you do so love rules! I shall make some up for you on the spot, so that my little moppet is not forced to wander the world in a soup of stories without laws. A tale may have exactly three beginnings: one for the audience, one for the artist, and one for the poor bastard who has to live in it.”
A bright cascade of giggles splashes out over the crackle of the phonograph. The child lowers her voice to a whisper: “I like it when you swear.”
And at that moment the child leaps out of the phantasmal throng of dancing ghosts, out of the frame, out of The Spectres of Mare Nubium, and shimmers into the shape of the Venusian boy, his serious expression so like hers, turning in endless circles on a grey lawn.
Her name is Severin Unck. She is ten years old. She is talking to her father, Percy.
She is dead. Almost certainly dead. Nearly conclusively dead. She is, at the very least, not answering her telephone.
Welcome. This beginning is your beginning. We have saved it specially for you. Shall we?
Oh, Those Scandalous Stars!
Places, Everyone!, 3rd July 1919
My darlings, if only I could have brought you all with me! Just gathered you up in my arms out of your parlours and kitchens, still in your aprons and overcoats, and spirited you to the glittering premiere of Percival Unck’s latest thrilling picture, Hope Has No Master! How I would have loved to play Father Christmas and appear on the cobalt carpet with a sackful of my readers—nay, my friends—so that you could see the brilliant and the beautiful for yourselves, spilling out of their long cream-coloured limousines, cars clean and bright and glittering as though they’d just passed through a storm of diamonds instead of our lowly lunar raindrops.
Well, if I am not Father Christmas, who is? Gather round! The beard is quite real, I assure you. Here is an orange for each of you girls and a plum for each of you boys! Watch me string up the stars for you like lights on a tree, each one prettier than the last.
* * *
Limelight, 12th October 1947
My hungry gossip-hounds, today there can be no happy games of fetch between us. I come to you hat in hand to report the doings of the day, but I take no pleasure in it. My hat is black, and I know that yours is, too.
I personally attended the strange funeral of Severin Lamartine Unck, born 1914, aged but thirty-one (if the sublight transits are all rounded down, as one ought to do for a lady) and passed out of our hard, bright sphere too soon. Whatever the truth, her gravestone will forever read thirtyone, and thirty-one she will, in all likelihood, remain. Her filmography stands tragically firm at a scant five: Self-Portrait with Saturn; The Famine Queen of Phobos; And the Sea Remembered, Suddenly; The Sleeping Peacock; and her final, deeply upsetting work, The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew.
A sea of black greeted your humble whisper-collector as the empty coffin was interred in the marble halls of the newest edifice in Tsukuyomi Cemetery, the hastily built Unck family mausoleum. Poor Percy must have thought he would have more time to see to such affairs, or that his daughter herself would attend to them for his own eternal rest.
We assembled as if for a shoot… which of course it was, in a manner of speaking. Extras, dramatic faces, chosen professional mourners to round out the big crowd scene. Black, black everywhere. We did not know whether or not to cry—what was to be our cue, our script? What sort of Unck flick had hired us on: the father’s, or the daughter’s?
* * *
Now look there, children—Maud Locksley and her dashing companion, Wadsworth Shevchenko, fresh from the set of his sure-to-enthral historical epic, Cross of Stone. Maud ravishes as always in a sleek strapless number that rustles silver in the popping lights. When she turns, flashes of the palest pink feathers flutter beneath the hem. A slim triangle of dyed crocodile scales soars up to a daring rosette of amethyst and devilish croc teeth at the point of the gown’s plunging, bare back. How she smirks over her rounded shoulder! The smirk that cost a thousand contracts, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. Wadsworth’s charcoal arm never leaves her waist, his trim, severe Eichendorff suit revealing its own surprise as the power couple pose: The tails of his tuxedo descend into a weave of raven feathers, stiffly, glossily pointing earthward. Our coaltressed leading man finishes it all off with an onyx lapel pin in the shape of a lunar peony. I’m certain we can all envy Maud Locksley her journey home—save that a little bird informs your humble Father Christmas that Master Shevchenko’s burning gaze strays ever so occasionally from her charms to those of his co-star, Dante de Vere. But we know better than to listen to little birds, don’t we?
* * *
We suppose she is dead, though none of us can be sure. She is not here, though she is not there, either, so far as anyone can tell. What transpired that awful autumn on those far Venusian shores? What happened to her? Did she share the horrid fate of the ruined village, the very one she sought to uncover and explain? We cannot know. We know only that we will see her no more, and that, my loyal readers, must break every heart in two.
We all came together Saturday last to pretend we know what happened and can feel certain about burying her. The seven ex-Unckwives and erstwhile stepmothers of the young Severin stood at his side, their beautiful faces drawn in the refined sort of grief only those who have trained since birth to live upon the screen can produce, reflecting our feeling back to us like lunar emotions, softer and more silver, colder and more delicate.
And would I shock anyone if I nodded my head toward an eighth statuesque figure who had been standing a fair way off, a black veil shielding her face from any eyes like mine that might guess at some maternal similarity to the vanished documentarian in the angle of her nose or the heft of her hair? To that very filmmaker whose fairy-tale coffin, all empty crystal and plush red pillow (with no head pressing the velvet, no feet beneath the shroud), decorated with ivory sparrow wings and onyx myrtle boughs, lay before us, prayed over by all the radiant men Severin ever loved.
I do believe she would have loathed that coffin.
* * *
But tear your eyes from the twin comets of Locksley and Shevchenko and look upon the real stars of the evening! Percival Unck and his devastatingly adorable daughter, Severin. Not quite five years old, she runs boldly onto the carpet, laughing, her black curls bouncing, the tiny bustle of her red velvet Barbauld dress stitched with rough garnet chips that do not glitter so much as burn against her childish waist. She’ll be a beauty one day if her father has a thing to do with it. She reaches back and beckons for him. He is, as always, shy and bemused, wearing a positively scrumptious red suit to match his girl. Notice the ivory-plated Venusian myrtle flower tucked into his lapel—perhaps hinting to us as to the setting of his next masterpiece! Unck adjusts his scarlet-tinted glasses and follows his daughter, the long tails of his own late-season Eichendorff fluttering with sparrow feathers dyed a spectacular orange. (I, for one, am positively enchanted with the new avian direction in men’s fashion this season. I expect I’ll be putting in for my own double-breasted parrot suit soon enough!) Little Severin dances up the aisle, reaching into her silk purse to throw real Venusian tamarind blossoms before her, a little goddess managing handily her own worship. Her giggles and her smile track into a dozen microphones and cameras, certain to be pored over by yours truly and yours truly’s competition for evidence of the child’s mysterious mother—which starlet, which studio head’s wife, which socialite’s untoward Saturday night gave us this disarmingly impish companion to Tinseltown’s greatest director?
* * *
Severin’s long-time lover, the cinematographer Erasmo St. John, was present and accounted for, shockingly thinned down from his once-prizefighter physique. His winnowed hand clutched the fingers of that boy we have all begged to interview, even for a minute or two—that child brought back from Adonis in Severin’s place, the creature we here in Tinseltown must face instead of our old friend. As of the writing of this column the child has not yet shown any ability to speak whatever. What frustration for our little community, for whom speaking is a necessity of life. We could sooner stop breathing than stop telling our life stories— and yet he says nothing, and St. John will not compel him.
Having reported a lifetime ago upon the premiere of The Red Beast of Saturn, when old Percy first appeared with a little bundle wrapped in graphite-coloured silk swaddling designed by Foscolo, I hold the decidedly odd position of having documented most of the famous documenter’s life. But I am afraid that this old woman must draw her account of that wretched soul to a close early, being overcome by the whole business. Would that it had unfolded in some other way, some way which did not conclude in a rainy Saturday and a hollow glass box.
I adjourn. Though it is my custom to close by inviting you all to share the empty seat in my box, that seat must be reserved for the dead tonight. Look up at that persistent little limelight in the evening sky: Venus, who alone knows the secrets we poor chattering monkeys covet so.
* * *
I have my own thoughts on the provenance of Severin Unck, my darlings, but I’ll never tell. Any Father Christmas worth his holly holds something back for next year.
It’s five minutes to curtain, the lights are low, and I must find my seat. I remain slavishly yours,
The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew
(Oxblood Films, dir. Severin Unck, 1946)
SC1 EXT. RED SQUARE, MOSCOW—DAY 1 LATE AFTERNOON [12 JUNE, 1944]
[Open on the pristine streets of sunny Moscow, lined with popsicle-carts, jugglers, dazzled tourists. The streetlamps are garlanded with lime-blossoms, sunflowers, carnations. The joyful throng crowds in fierce and thick; the camera follows as they burst into Red Square. The splendid ice-cream towers of the Kremlin beam down benignly. The elderly TSAR NICHOLAS II, his still-lovely wife, and their five children, hale in their glittering sashes, wave down at the cannoneers standing at attention on the firing pad at the 1944 Worlds’ Fair. The launch site is festooned with crepe and swinging summer lanterns, framed by banners wishing luck and safe travel in English, Russian, Chinese, German, Spanish, and Arabic.]
SEVERIN UNCK and her CREW wave jerkily as confetti sticks to their sleek skullcaps and glistening breathing apparatuses. Her smile is immaculate, practiced, the smile of the honest young woman of the hopeful future. Her copper-finned helmet gleams at her feet. SEVERIN wears feminine clothing with visible discomfort and only for this shot, which she intends, in the final edit, to be ironic and wry: She is performing herself, not performing herself in order to tell a story about something else entirely. The curl of her lip betrays, to anyone who knows her, her utter disdain of the bizarre, flare-skirted swimming-cumtrapeze-artist costume that so titillates the crowd. The wind flutters the black silk around her hips. She tucks a mahogany case—which surely must contain George, her favourite camera—smartly under one arm. All of her crewmen strap canisters of film, a few steamer trunks of food, oxygen tanks, and other minor accoutrements to their broad backs. The real meat of the expedition, supplies and matériel meticulously planned, acquired, logged, and collected, was loaded into the cargo bays overnight. What Severin and her crew carry, they carry for the camera, for the film being shot of this film being shot.
The cannon practically throbs with light: a late-model Wernyhora design, filigreed, etched with forest motifs that curl and leaf like spring ice breaking. The brilliant, massive nose of the Venusian capsule Clamshell rests snugly in the cannon’s silvery mouth. The metal beast towers over Saint Basil’s, casting a monstrous shadow. Most of its size is devoted to propulsion. The living space within is surprisingly small. That etched silver forest will be jettisoned halfway to Venus, destined to drift alone into the endless black. But for now, the Clamshell dwarfs any earthly palace built for the glory of man or god.
They are a small circus: the strongmen, the clowns, the lion tamer, the magician, and the trapeze artist poised on her platform, arm crooked in an evocative half-moon, toes pointed into the void.
CUT TO: INT. Clamshell cantina, NIGHT 21:00 ERASMO ST. JOHN and MAXIMO VARELA pour vodka for the CREW and laugh uproariously:::FILM DAMAGED, FOOTAGE UNAVAILABLE SKIP DAMAGED AREA SKIPPING SKIPPING ERROR SEE ARCHIVIST FOR ASSISTANCE]
From the Personal Reels of Percival Alfred Unck
[A camera is on. The screen is black, for the camera is skewed toward the wall, a clandestine attempt to capture the child without her knowing she is being recorded. Occasionally, flickers of silver interrupt the darkness—echoes from a screen showing more lively activity somewhere behind the device that picks up the following quiet conversation.]
Now, in any film it is important that you know who is telling the story, and to whom they are telling it. Even if no one on-screen talks about it, the director must know, and the writer, too. Now, who is telling this story?
Daddy is telling the story!
[laughing] Well, Daddy made the movie, but Daddy is not telling the story. Look at the characters and how they speak to each other. Look at how the film begins, how the very first scenes shape everything else. Now, who is telling the story?
[There is a long silence.]
The camera is telling the story. It’s watching everything, and you can’t lie to it, or it will know.
My girl is so clever! No, the camera witnesses the story and records it, but it is outside the story. Like a very tiny god with one big, dark eye. Baby girl, look at the lovers, and the villain, and the doting father, and the soldiers, and the ghosts. Which one of them is the authority? Who controls how the story is told? And who is the audience, for whom all these wonderful things are meant?
[Another long silence follows. There is a rustling, as of a little girl twisting her lace skirts while she tries to work out an answer.]
They are all telling the story to me.
Excerpted from Radiance © Catherynne M. Valente, 2015