The SFF Librarian Reviews: The Past Is Red by Catherynne M. Valente

SFF Librarian Reviews

Jeremy Brett

As a voracious reader, and as someone for whom science fiction and fantasy are part of my daily job as a science fiction librarian, I come across a lot of wonderful work in these genres. I love bringing to the attention of interested readers books and authors that bring me joy, some of which may have slipped below people’s radar, and I do so most months in The SFF Librarian Reviews series for ARB.

Let’s explore strange new worlds together!

Under Review:

The Past Is Red. By Catherynne M. Valente. Tordotcom, July 2021.

No one writes quite like Catherynne M. Valente, and the reading world is all the better for it. Her work is profound, graceful, passionate, and suffused with puckish humor (this last has hit peak hilarity thus far with her 2018 novel Space Opera, by the way). In her new short novel, The Past is Red (Tordotcom, 2021, $20.99), Valente brings her customary brilliance to bear on the looming existential threat of climate change and its social and human costs. But at no time, even in the most emotional moments of the story, does Valente flag in describing the absurdities of life. One of the great gifts of this novel, in fact, is how Valente blends the two—the situation she presents is at once over-the-top in its unrealism and poignant in the opposing realism of its flawed but human characters.

The book is an extension of Valente’s novelette “The Future is Blue”, set in a future where most of the Earth’s landmasses have been swallowed by the ocean. Valente’s redoubtable heroine is one Tetley Abednego, “the most hated girl in Garbagetown”. Tetley lives on a massive floating patch of garbage and detritus, left over from the wasteful age of “the Fuckwits”, those previous generations whose heedless consumption and selfishness doomed the planet. In the post-apocalyptic age, Garbagetown has become something of a civilization that thrives in the ruins, its geography determined and arranged by the mounds of leftover fragments of the past—places like Pill Hill, Hypodermic Cove, Clotheschester, Bookbury, Scrapmetal Abbey, and the (literal) power center of Electric City. Tetley herself resides in Candle Hole, a warren made of the ends and bits of countless scented candles. It’s an objectively odd setting, but perfectly in keeping with the almost magic realist setting of the novel. Garbagetown’s Fuckwit heritage even extends to the naming of its citizens after items of trash (a ceremony involving cake and a long wandering). In other hands, this situation could seem bleak beyond enduring, but in Tetley Valente has given us a protagonist not only at peace with her surroundings but wildly in love with them. 

A single beautiful passage sums up Tetley and her relationship to her strange world:

I still love the things I loved when I was young. Lipstick and encyclopedias and Madeline Brix’s Superboss Mixtape ’97 and my twin brother Maruchan—although I have cooled off somewhat on the plays of Mr. Shakespeare and Mr. Webster after everything that happened. But I have all new things to love now! My navy blue sleeping shirt I have found in Clotheschester that says Jinjiang Action Park Presents the All New 3-D Monday Night Football Experience of Western Decadence on it in Cantonese above a frankly just amazing golden cartoon eagle in a huge golden helmet eating a huge golden football-shaped cheeseburger. Mars, which floats over the messy wet horizon all glittery and perfect and dumb like a fake ruby. The fishing cage I made out of unbent and then rebent wire clothes hangers from a place called Nordstrom. Sunsets over the spires of Electric City. Extra-fat tabby cats. An Airedale named Mick Jagger. A girl named Red. The jumbo bottle of Surprise Vitamins King Xanax gave me—only the good stuff, uppers and downers and happy pills and horny pills and super funtime pills. Revlon Super Lustrous 919 Red Ruin is out. L’Oreal’s Endless Eyeliner in Devastation Black is in. Garbagetown is always in. Garbagetown still, Garbagetown forever. The beautiful reek of my big rubbish heart spreading out for miles of the infinite sea.

Tetley’s spirits are almost always high, and she is a force of fierce, optimistic hope in a world defined by the waste and junk of generations long dead. (This determination to preserve her home as the best place in the world has fateful consequences for Tetley at one point, leading to her status as the “most hated girl in Garbagetown”.) But even so, Tetley finds herself in a state of near-solitude, and much of the book is driven by her quest to form relationships. In a city built on objects divorced from their original context and memories, the most interesting (even poignant) relationship in the story becomes Tetley’s growing friendship with an AI data storage device (which she names “Mister”) that belonged to a long-gone Fuckwit and has been separated from its old satellite network. Mister, too, is alone in the world. The Past is Red is, in large part, about the formation of emotional connections and the maintenance of hope as survival mechanisms in a new world. 

The book also asks a question that is becoming of increasing concern as we near the fateful climate change tipping point (another question being what can we do with all the endless tons of sheer stuff we’ve created and continue to pile up): what kinds of lives can we make for ourselves in a world where all we have is decontextualized detritus? Can we make a society that still gives us a chance to be human, to be the best of ourselves? In Tetley readers see a determined and stubborn young woman who still feels love and longing and attachments—if the time comes, can we muster the inner strength to build a life out of wreckage, and make it something new?

Jeremy Brett (he, him, his) is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M university, where he serves as Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world. 

Transparency Statement

This series was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in October 2020. No review copies were arranged by ARB.

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