Reviews

Sci-fi Novella Review: The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente

Catherynne M. Valente is not an author I’d read much before this year, but with Hugo nominations in three different fiction categories, this year is quickly changing that. The only one of those three that will warrant its own post—I usually roll up shorter work into my monthly round-ups—is the Best Novella Finalist The Past is Red

The Past is Red is an expansion of Valente’s previous novelette “The Future is Blue,” which serves as part one of the novella. It follows Tetley Abednego as she goes from child to adolescent to adult in Garbagetown, a floating pile of trash the size of Texas that houses most of humanity’s survivors after climate disaster plunged all habitable land beneath the sea. Tetley’s beliefs and actions have made her a parish in Garbagetown, but she maintains an optimism in the face of social ostracism and awful living conditions that gives the novella a memorable narrative voice and inevitably draws comparisons to Voltaire’s classic satire Candide

Like Candide, there is no one overarching plot that drives the tale, but rather a series of snapshots from the lead’s life that shine a light on all the horrors of the world, even as the main character refuses to be horrified. The two sections of The Past is Red consist in an adolescent and an adult Tetley interspersing descriptions of present-day life with vignettes from her past that explain how she came to her current station. These stories do some together to form something of a cohesive whole, but it’s not the sort of plot that snaps together to wow the reader with a big finish. Instead, the novella stands and falls on the strength of the worldbuilding and the lead character. 

And the worldbuilding and the lead are plenty to make this one worth reading. This may be a tough read for those who have trouble suspending disbelief, because plausibility tends to be sacrificed in favor of creating a striking setting, but the Garbagetown culture really shines through, and the aesthetics hammer home what has been lost in the climate catastrophe—even if Tetley herself appreciates what she has. And the contrast between the setting and Tetley’s optimism make for an intriguing and memorable narrative voice. Sometimes it can take a minute to figure out whether she’s narrating the present or spinning off into the past—or even telling the story the way she wished it had happened, and not the way it actually did—but no matter where the narrative turns, it’s never boring. 

The Past is Red is the sort of novella I’d like to see more often. It isn’t shackled to an overarching plot, rather focusing on setting and theme and a first-person narrative that bounces back and forth between timelines. But it’s also a novella that just felt like it needed one more piece of the puzzle. It had some clever and satisfying plot reveals, but it’s clearly not a book that’s going for the big finish that pulls everything together. And though there are certainly some pithy sayings and moments of humor, it lacks the laugh-out-loud hilarity that made a story like Candide endure. The setting and lead make it well worth the read, and it’s a novella that doesn’t have any clear weak points, but it’s missing that third element to join the world and the main character to make it an absolute must. 

Recommended if you like: stories about climate catastrophe, interesting narrative voices. 

Can I use it for Bingo? It’s a Book Club book written by an Author Who Uses Initials. 

Overall rating: 15 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads. 

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