---This is a review of Fade to White by Catherynne M. Valente, which appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 71 ---
Catherynne M. Valente builds strange and unsettling worlds with precision and vividness of paintbrush strokes. The experience of reading her stories is like looking at a canvas from close-up - the multitude of swirls and lines and colors suddenly fall together in the stunning finished image once you take a step back and marvel at it.
Valente does not set up her worlds with a concise description or a neat infodump at the beginning of her tales; instead, she draws the readers into the story, allowing them to feel the ambiance, live the setting, have it crawl under their skin, thus creating the final, finished image. This is how we saw the mythical country of Buyan and the dying besieged Leningrad, the strange skin-etched sexually-transmitted city of Palimpsest, the ever-shifting Interior of Elefsis, and the strangely whimsical Fairyland. And this is how we get to see something new - the alternate history of the 1960s in the world where there was retaliation for Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing, and the very real war that was anything but 'Cold', and McCarthy is President - and yet the 'traditional' American life (or what we think of as the stagnating 1950s with the babies and 'Honey, I'm home!' and seemingly idyllic Caucasian (of course!) family life and all that) continues - or, at least, the appearance of it, the pretense that nothing has changed. Even though it did - but you have to go on pretending it did not.
"The mayor gave a speech. They watched a recorded message from President McCarthy's pre-war daughter Tierney, a pioneer in the program, one of the first to volunteer. Our numbers have been depleted by the Germans, the Japanese, and now the Godless Russians. Of the American men still living only 12% are fertile. But we are not Communists. We cannot become profligate, wasteful, decadent.We must maintain our moral way of life. As little as possible should change from the world your mothers knew—at least on the surface. And with time, what appears on the surface will penetrate to the core, and all will be restored. We will not sacrifice our way of life."
The two central characters in this story are Sylvie and Martin. Sylvie, a fifteen-year-old girl on a brink of inevitable engagement to fulfill her fertile role in this new/old society (and with a secret she shares with her mother, and another secret that she shares with a boy who's not white enough to fit into this world). Martin is a fifteen-year-old boy who dreams of nothing besides being a Husband, is filled to the brim with such genuine sincerity that it hurts, and looks forward to his Father's visits for a week each month. They inhabit this world of picture-perfect America with the background of Geiger counters and Victory Brand Capsule Gardens ("Fight the Communist Threat in Your Own Backyard!") and Glass of California ("On the white sheet, they watched California melt.") and increasingly Japanese Utah, and possible future closeness with the Bouffant, and the all-approved Father's Day products advertised by a couple of cute children ("Note to Casting: get us a boy and a girl, blonde, white, under ten, make sure the boy is taller than the girl. Put them in sailor suits, everyone likes that.")
"As little as possible should change."
The story unfolds bit by bit, and with it the entire picture of the horror of this false picture-perfect world, chilling and yet not that difficult to imagine. Sad and bleak, and memorable in the lovely narrative voice of Cat Valente, it left a clear imprint on my heart. 4 stars. Valente continues to amaze.
"On the sheet, the Golden Gate Bridge vanished.Sylvie rolled the reel back. They watched it over and over. A fleck of nothing dropping out of the sky and then, then the flash, a devouring, brain-boiling, half-sublime sheet of white that blossomed like a flower out of a dead rod, an infinite white everything that obliterated the screen.Fade to black.And over the black, a cheerful fat man giving the thumbs up to Sylvie, grinning:
Buy Freedom Brand Film! It's A-OK!"
The full free text of this novella can be found here, on the Clarkesworld Magazine site. An audio version is here, too, if you prefer hearing it.
As a bonus, if you happen to be a China Miéville fan, like me, this issue also has an interview with CM here. Enjoy!