The Past Is Red is a new novel from Catherynne M. Valente, who has a penchant for producing clever, thoughtful stories, with strong messages, human characters, and the sort of prose that makes you sit up and take notice. I’m happy to report that this tendency continues here. The Past Is Red is a rather good book, and a damn fine story.
Before I delve into it any more though, it’s worth noting that a portion of it has turned up as a novella before, in Strahan’s Drowned Worlds collection, and more recently, as the standalone The Future is Blue. So if you get an odd sense of deja-vu for the first section of the book, don’t worry, you’re not alone. That said, even as a re-read, the first section is an enjoyable and incisive commentary on climate change, on humanity, and the choices that we make on a personal and systemic level – and it pairs beautifully with the rest of the text, making something new, and greater than when read on its own.
This is a quiet story, and a story that speaks truth. It’s the story of a young woman, who lives on an island made of garbage. That’s humanity now. Scattered enclaves on a blue marble, living in the detritus of a civilisation which has literally sunk without trace. Every scattered, broken doll, every pill bottle, every broken CD player has its place, as a means of exchange, as a trinket, as a totem, as a home. It’s a world built on the ruins of what we have built, and a world built on the traceless remains of what we destroyed. Modernity is known simply as “The Fuckwits”, and if the people of the garbage heap are sometimes violent, sometimes cruel, they are still a people of love and generosity as well. And a people of betrayal, and old hatreds, yes. People. And this is the future, on a soundless ball of blue, scrabbling in what’s left.
And of course, some of them hate it. Some of them look at what was and what they live within, and live a dream of hope, of something else, of difference. Of land. And then there’s Tetley, our protagonist. Tetley knows that what there is, is all there is. She knows that the people of garbage island are there to stay. She knows that this is all there is. And she loves it, and is fierce in her affection, and passionate acceptance that this is all there is. Tetley is passionate and fierce and young. Tetley is kind and generous and in love. And Tetley is true to herself. As a character, she is pitch perfect. A person shaped by pressures that we cannot know, in an environment we can barely comprehend, but recognisably a person, doing their fragile best in an often hostile world. You can see Tetley, feel her conviction and her tracery of pain and the sheer joy that burns through her. She’s strange and wonderful and human.
As are those around her, those guttering flames of humanity standing in a world surrounded by lapping waves. They’re everything we are, shaped by what we do. They are our grandchildren and our future, and the indictment cast back upon us by all of them, from the most sympathetic to the least, is searing. There is power in these words, in what they say and the quiet spaces in between. Tetley is the future, and the past is us, the past is red.
I don’t want to spoil the plot, though I will note that the second part occurs some time after the first. Tetley the girl is replaced by someone more weary, more contained perhaps, but with that humanity, that potential to reach for anything and also to be satisfied with who and what she is, that makes this such a wonderful character piece. Because that’s what we have here, a woman traversing her world, and making choices that leave her true to herself. And sometimes those choices may change the world, for her, or for everyone else.
In any case, this is a beautifully crafted story, and one which sat with me for days afterward, as I mulled on Tetley and her rights and wrongs. It’s a warning and a truth and a call to humanity to be people. It’s a good book, and a damn fine story, and you should read it.