Book review: The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente

Very few modern authors have the knack for presenting serious issues with so much light-hearted, yet insightful flair as Catherynne Valente. Her easy flowing prose is entertaining, inventive, and yet insidiously indoctrinates the reader into the author’s way of thinking. I can’t help but love her works, and The Past is Red is no exception.

Tetley is a young woman living on a garbage patch in the middle of the ocean. After an ecological catastrophe, the garbage patch the size of Texas is one of the last refuges where people can live on a planet that is otherwise covered by water. The first generation of the Garbagetown residents organized the patch, piling trash based on its category, to create districts such as Candlehole, which consists of wax and the remnants of candles, and Electric City, for batteries and all electric utilities. Tetley grew up as an unwanted and neglected child in Candlehole, and despite the indifference she received from everyone, she grew up into the possibly most content inhabitant of the patch. So, when a traveling drama company arrives in Electric City and proclaims that they found dry land, and when the Electric City inhabitants prepare to power up the turbines to move the garbage patch towards dry land, she blows up the turbines because she believes that life can’t get better on the patch, and false hopes would only foster unhappiness.

Her act of sabotage results in the first trial in Garbagetown’s history, and Tetley is sentenced to having to tolerate any abuse, physical and mental, from anyone, short of being killed. She becomes the most hated person on the patch, and after her wax house is melted down by others, lives in squalor. Still, she is perfectly content with her life, until her old lover comes knocking. He tried to hate her but failed. After he gained control over the heaps of discarded pharmaceuticals, in particular antidepressants, however, he’d become important enough to get away with marrying her, and thus elevating her status again. He gives her two gifts, one of which is an Alexa-like device with artificial intelligence, with whom Tetley begins communicating. He then takes her to the dry land that the traveling company mentioned: a tiny island, with a single tree, which validates Tetley’s action against having the entire patch travel there. Tetley’s husband then promptly dies, and Tetley takes his boat, ties it to the island and is content to live out her life there, in the company of the A.I. and the remote communication with one of the Fuckwit (the name for Earth’s inhabitants who caused the ecological catastrophe) descendants who settled Mars.

The story is far from being as linear as I described it. We first learn about Tetley’s sentence, and only slowly gleam what she’s done. We also meet the Mars inhabitant far sooner than we learn about a human colony on Mars. This sort of backward narrative adds flavor to the story, keeps the reader guessing and introduces a more subtle layer of fun than the in-your-face description of Fuckwits, the workings of the garbage patch and certain cultural norms, such as the naming of the characters. Valente has thus succeeded to create a very vibrant world, with a story that is more interesting than it has right to be.

If it wasn’t for the narrative structure, the story would actually be very dull, and it would be very obvious that it only served as a vehicle to philosophize over the current economic and social trends. Sometimes, the author can get a little too preachy, but that’s largely lost in the language, or in selections so profoundly insightful that I added them to my exceedingly limited collection of quotes to remember:

…of all the things Fuckwits gave trophies for, they never thought listening like nothing exists but time and words was half as important as losing a volleyball tournament.

This sentence also perfectly illustrates the style and grammar of the entire novella. The content tends to be astute, but it’s wrapped in such an entertaining language that many readers don’t even realize what education they are subjected to. In many cases, I believe the readers will subconsciously take away lessons from the book.

Unfortunately, as strong as the worldbuilding and language are, the same cannot be said about the characters. Everyone other than Tetley is a very flat bit player, and Tetley herself is so content and happy with her situation that the reader may suspect a level of mental retardation in this poor woman. As a result, the ultimate lesson one may take away from the book is that happiness means stagnation until resources are slowly but surely depleted, instead of efforts to improve one’s situation. In fact, Tetley is a martyr precisely because she violently fought against any hope of improvement. The criticism of our current society is all fine and often on target, but in this book the pendulum has swung too much in the opposite direction, elevating passivity to a virtue.

Personally, I was very entertained by this title. Valente’s prose is very easy to follow, her style and narrative structure make the reading very interesting, and in individual cases, she is right on the money with her criticism of current societal trends. However, the characters were weak, and I felt that the overall lesson was actually harmful to the reader. This makes me a little less inclined in recommending the book or placing it too high in my Hugo ballot.

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