The Past Is Red by Catherynne M. Valente

This is one of those books that I can appreciate, even if I don’t like it. And there’s a lot to like here, so maybe it’s just a me thing. I just… I feel like Cat Valente has a lot to process in terms of abuse and marriage, and that her issues spill out way too messily on the page for me to pretend that her writing isn’t a far too personal peek into a private life that requires a lot more therapy. I totally understand using fiction as a coping mechanism, but I feel more trauma-dumped than entertained every subsequent time she writes about a victimized woman or a fucked-up marriage, both of which feature in this novella.

I originally read the first part of this book, The Future Is Blue, in the excellent John Joseph Adams anthology Wastelands 3. TFiB is a striking short story: a young woman growing up on a floating trash barge in a post-apocalyptic Earth does something so terrible that she’s subject to unthinkable punishment. The Past Is Red moves some years into the future to see what’s become of that young woman, whether her actions were validated and how she survives.

So, first, what I thought was good: the use of Garbagetown as a metaphor for Earth, and the gentle admonishment against leaving it for pie in the sky promises. The critique of consumerism is also pointed and valid, and leads to much of the book’s humor, just in wry observation of how very unnecessary and over-the-top much of corporate branding and marketing is. And I very much liked the idea of our heroine Tetley as a futuristic Candide, tho she’s arguably more Panglossian given that she never rejects optimism, no matter how terrible her circumstances.

The mediocre to bad: the critique of survival mechanisms, and an inability to differentiate between rationing and hoarding, particularly for the purposes of political power. It felt like a clumsy critique of private health care, a deserving subject which was conflated here with the very existence of pharmacies, which exist for a very good reason! I was also a little annoyed at the mini-rants against private ownership when Tetley’s few belongings were both clearly valuable to her and things she was unwilling to cede to others.

Another thing I was iffy about was the decision to change one of the story’s main allegories to a concrete plotline, which undermined, I felt, the wit of it for a more glaring neon signpost. Undermined, too, was the chilling phrase “Thank you for my instruction” when used as a bitter and inappropriate barb back at Tetley. There were a lot of times I wanted to say “these are not the same thing!” to Ms Valente when she insisted on trying to make connections that were tenuous at best. I imagine, as with her tortuously slow development of healthy attitudes towards marriage and abuse if her corpus is anything to go by, that these efforts will eventually get better with time, lived experience and more writing.

The outright bad: seriously, no one sympathized with Tetley? Everyone hated and wanted to kill her, even years down the line? I found it exceedingly unlikely that everyone in Garbagetown thought she was wrong, whether at the time of her transgression or after enough years had passed that people had had time to reflect. I’m not saying that she should have been celebrated for what she did instead, but the absolute venom she engendered felt entirely contrived, as if to better underscore her relentless faith in her country. Even Benedict Arnold had friends. Even the frigging Unabomber has sympathizers.

I feel like I go into reading all of Ms Valente’s stuff really wanting to like it but almost always feeling used at the end, like meeting up with that one old friend after years apart and just having her spend the entire time telling you how miserable her life is. She’s smart and she’s funny but she also really needs to learn how to process her issues in a way that’s healthy for her and not unnecessarily emotionally exhausting for me.

Anyway, this was the first of my novella reads for the Hugo Awards 2022. It’s unlikely it’ll wind up at the top of my list but who knows? It wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever read.

The Past Is Red by Catherynne M. Valente was published July 20 2021 by Tordotcom and is available from all good booksellers, including

Permanent link to this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.