#SciFiMonth Novella Review: The Past Is Red by Catherynne M. Valente

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I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

The Past Is Red by Catherynne M. Valente

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Science Fiction, Dystopia

Series: Stand Alone

Publisher: Tor.com (July 20, 2021)

Length: 160 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Novellas are not my preferred format and I rarely seek them out on my own, but whenever I come across anything by Catherynne Valente, I feel it warrants a look. While her books are by no means always my cup of tea, at least I can be sure I’ll be getting something damned cool and original.

The Past is Red happens to match both those descriptions—and it worked very well for me. The story, which takes place in the future on an Earth flooded by climate change, opens on the life of a girl named Tetley. She and her twin brother, Maruchan, were born in Garbagetown, an island of refuse floating on the ocean. But even in this society made up of some of the world’s last survivors, there exists stratification. Parts of Garbagetown are named the leavings of humanity where they have more or less ended up, so Pill Hill is where all the pharmaceutical waste has collected, Electric City is full of old batteries, and so on and so forth.

Each section’s residents have their own unique customs, culture, and societal status. Against all odds, Tetley, who hails from Candlehole, meets a boy from Electric City named Goodnight Moon, forming a lifelong friendship despite their differences. However, all that comes to an end when a terrible truth is revealed to Tetley, and she takes it upon herself to literally blow it all up. For many years after that, she lives in isolation, ostracized by everyone including her own family. Still, she has never regretted her violent actions, believing Garbagetown to be a magical, wonderful place anyone would be lucky to call home. She can’t imagine why anyone would ever want to leave and sail into the great unknown just to chase an illusion, but she accepts her punishment and is prepared to live alone for the rest of the days…until a visitor shows up with a mysterious summons, bearing intriguing gifts.

Somewhere in my pile of books is a copy of The Future is Blue, an anthology containing the title story in which Tetley first appears. The Past is Red is an expansion of that novelette into a lengthier work giving us an update on the character, and I love that it offers a glimmer of hope in her otherwise dark and broken world. That said, this story is still pretty bleak. Tetley literally lives on a garbage heap, she doesn’t get much love at home, and she is harassed and bullied mercilessly whenever she’s out and about. When you’re living a life hers, there just doesn’t seem to be much to look forward to.

And yet, that isn’t going to stop this girl from dreaming, even if her dreams for the future are vastly different from everyone else’s. While the rest of the world is still chasing a fantasy, building grand plans to leave Garbagetown, or losing themselves in utopic visions that may never come to pass, Tetley has her feet planted firmly in the detritus-strewn streets asking questions like, “Well, just what is so wrong about what we have right in front of us?” Why bother seeking out a new land, after all, if we’re just going to fuck it all up again? Why not just stay and rebuild, and make something beautiful out of what we already have?

In fact, there is beauty in Garbagetown already—but only if you cared to look.  Tetley loves her world because she lives in the now, recognizing that many of the Earth’s problems were caused by the myopic views of the generations that came before hers, AKA the Fuckwits. But for all her hatred of the Fuckwits, Tetley also loves the things they left behind. All their creators are dead and gone now, and nothing can be done about that, just like there’s nothing they can do about the crap place the world has become. Nevertheless, while no one can ever accuse Tetley of being an idealist, she’s also not afraid to see the magic and wonder around her. There’s also wisdom in her practicality of accepting the situation, along with her preparedness to address things accordingly.

As you can probably tell, Tetley made this whole book for me. While she can be both rash and foolish at times, everything about her is also sincere. If I’m to be honest, like most novellas, the story felt too short, and nothing about the plot was particularly mind-blowing. World-building was also great, certainly above average when it comes to imagination, but again, not enough detail came through given the format’s restrictions. Tetley, though, was a shining beacon. Like I always say, a well-written character can change everything. The Past is Red could have easily become this bleak, preachy overblown piece with little substance, but instead it came across very charming and full of heart as it was told through Tetley’s narrative.

All in all, this was a wonderful read.

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