Tuesday, May 10, 2022

The Past is Red by Catherynne Valente

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


This was a random book I picked up off of the new books shelf at the library. In essence, it was one of those “these new books are all the same color” thing, but this one caught my eye because of the author. I have enjoyed Catherynne Valente over the years, both her Fairyland series for kids, and Space Opera, her science fiction-meets-Eurovision book she wrote on a bet. This book sounded interesting, was short, and it seemed like a good contrast to other stuff I was reading. 

As it turns out, The Past is Red is kind of a sequel to a short story, “The Future is Blue,” which I have not read. I suspect it might have been better to start with the first one, but you can kind of fill in the gaps. 


The story is a post-apocalyptic one, and one in which it is best to not think too hard about the science. Obviously the science doesn’t work - that’s not the point. In the scenario Valente imagines, global warming has meant all the dry land is now underwater. Which, unless something about plate tectonics changes drastically, or we add a LOT more water to what we have, isn’t happening. And also, for it to happen, no humans could survive. But again, not the point. 


The humans that do remain on the planet after most have died live on things that float. So, some surviving boats, some improvised things (like a pier), but mostly on floating islands made of the garbage left over from the previous iteration of humanity. Tetley, the protagonist and narrator, lives on Garbagetown, a fairly large place that takes days to cross. Maybe more? It is hard to tell just how big it is, since we only experience a few areas of it. Sometime in the past was “the big sort,” when humans sorted all the garbage into types, so each area has its one kind of garbage, and tied the thing together enough that it became solid. Tetley lives at the beginning in a place made entirely of the wax from scented candles, for example, and visits another made entirely of trophies. This whole concept is actually something Valente has used before, notably in the Fairyland series. She seems to have a fascination with stuff, and detritus, and the possibility of use, reuse, and repurposing in weird ways. 


The story jumps around a lot, from present to past at various times, and it takes until near the end to put together what has happened and what is going on at the present. A good summary would be that as a teen, Tetley blew up a bunch of shit, in order to prevent the relatively rich people of Garbagetown from using all their resources to try to find a rumored bit of dry land. Because of that, she is the scapegoat, and everyone gets to abuse her (but not kill) her, at will. After her wax house is burned down, she goes on the lam, only to be found by a messenger for a supposed king, who turns out to be her teen flame. Oh, and she also finds an AI prototype that is powered by touch. Through this, she eventually discovers that the ultra-rich fled to Mars before the Earth went to hell, and that there is a colony up there. Through this, she establishes a relationship with a girl on Mars, and since both of them were born where they were, they come to a kind of understanding of the costs each group has paid over time. 


I’m not the first to notice that The Past is Red is kind of a riff on Candide. Tetley is an incurable optimist who believes that Garbagetown is, in its own way, the best of all possible worlds. And she retains a kind of hope no matter how many horrible things happen to her. 


The thing is, while Voltaire meant his book to be a satire of society, and relentlessly punishes his optimist, Valente seems to intend to portray the way the human spirit finds meaning and goodness even in the worst circumstances. Sure, the earth is destroyed and even if it eventually “recovers,” it will be long after the living are gone. But humans find a way. They form societies, they have children, they form relationships with each other and with other living things. They make the best of what they have. Which is, if you think about it, the human superpower. We adapt, we innovate, we form social groups to solve problems together. We make meaning wherever we are. 


So, in a weird way, this is a hopeful book. The situation sucks. And people still suck. But not everyone does, and even for a social outcast like Tetley, there are still plants and animals and a long-distance friend. 


Valente is good at writing real zingers, particularly when talking about social issues - this holds true in the books for kids too, which is one reason they are fun for grownups too. Here is one that I liked: 


There’s only a coupla reasons to get married in Garbagetown and love isn’t one of them. If it was just about love, why bother? For the tax benefits? For inheritance? So you’ve all got the same last name? So you can go to heaven because God is just a real hardass about having a giant party and a bit of jewelry before you get down to screwing? Who cares? That’s Fuckwit talk. Nasty little hoarders. St. Oscar says SCRAM to all that. Just be trash together and love as long as you can and then stop when you can’t anymore and be trash separately. 


So much to love here. First of all, a reminder that marriage has always been about property. Preserving property for posterity and ensuring that that posterity is legitimate. This is an inconvenient truth when it comes to religious beliefs about marriage. This whole “lifetime commitment before god” is a relatively new idea. Marriage was so clearly understood to be about ownership of women and inheritance rights, and the modern “explanation” is just a way to find meaning in a legal relationship that no longer serves its original purpose. And that bit about God being a hardass is hilarious. And pretty spot on. 


To be clear, I don’t have an issue with marriage. I have been happily married for nearly 21 years, and am not exactly eager to stop loving. But the way Tetley describes a relationship is actually pretty much the way we do our marriage. We love each other, and intend to continue to do so, but she knows that if she doesn’t want to be with me anymore, I will not pull a “you promised” card. If she is no longer able to love me, then she is free to go. I don’t own her. 


A few things to explain: “Fuckwits” are the humans before the environmental catastrophe - the ones who fucked everything up. “St. Oscar” is…Oscar the Grouch. And the patron saint of Garbagetown. Some people literally believe in him, but mostly he serves as the imaginary entity people pray to, in order to fill that kind of religious need in their lives, the desire to think that something outside of themselves might have some control of the world. 


There is also an interesting exchange between Tetley and the messenger the king sends to her. 


“Does that mean you forgive me?”

“No,” she said finally. “I can’t, I never will. But I accept you.” 


Another extended conversation happens throughout the book, between Tetley and Big Red Mars, the girl from Mars she becomes friends with. They end up discussing whether and why humans end up with hierarchies. 


[Tetley] “I will tell you what I think. I think kings happen because some people have an empty place inside them that wants to be full and it will do anything to feel full and the first thing that makes it feel the opposite of empty it will chase forever and ever. And the weirdest thing about this place is that obeying fills it up, but making someone else obey makes it slosh up and splash all over the floor.”


Oh man. I know exactly what Tetley is talking about here. I have mentioned before that my parents self-medicated with Authoritarian Fundamentalism. They both had traumatic childhoods, so I understand why there was pain and hurt and a craving to make things better. Unfortunately, Valente is correct about this. Obeying something, somebody, some idea, helps fill that empty space. And yes, making someone else obey fills it even more. Which is why when I moved out, and stopped obeying (and my wife never obeyed) it left a gaping hole that has never really healed. 


Finally, I think this line is fantastic. 


“The kind of hope I have isn’t greed going by its maiden name. The kind of hope I have doesn’t begin and end with demanding everything go back the way it was when it can’t, it can’t ever, that’s not how time works, and it’s not how oceans work, either. Nothing you love comes back.”


Living in our troubled times, I find I seek this kind of hope too. “Greed going by its maiden name” is perfect. This is the kind of “hope” my former tribe - white evangelicals - have. They “hope” to restore the former hierarchies with them on top, to go back to a past that never really existed, and can’t ever come back. Time doesn’t work that way. Tetley’s hope is more realistic. She has hope of making the world just a bit better, making beauty and meaning in the circumstances she has. And this is why she never does reveal to her fellow humans the truth about what little land exists: she doesn’t want them expending everything they have trying to make something happen that can’t. I feel Tetley’s emotions here so much. I wish I could convince the people in my life that we have to look toward the future, to deal with the problems we have now, not try to retreat to the safety of the imaginary past. The past is red. But the future…is blue. 


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