The Past is Red

by Catherynne M. Valente

Cover image

Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: 2021
ISBN: 1-250-30112-2
Format: Kindle
Pages: 151

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Tetley is nineteen and is the most hated person in Garbagetown. That's kind of horrible, but life is otherwise great. As she puts it:

I'm awfully lucky when you think about it. Garbagetown is the most wonderful place anybody has ever lived in the history of the world, even if you count the Pyramids and New York City and Camelot. I have Grape Crush and Big Bargains and my hibiscus flower, and I can fish like I've got bait for a heart so I hardly ever go hungry, and once I found a ruby ring and a New Mexico license plate inside a bluefin tuna. Everyone says they only hate me because I annihilated hope and butchered our future, but I know better, and anyway, it's a lie. Some people are just born to be despised. The Loathing of Tetley began small and grew bigger and bigger, like the Thames, until it swallowed me whole.

Garbagetown is a giant floating pile of garbage in the middle of the ocean, and it is, so far as anyone knows, the only "land" left in the world. Global warming has flooded everything until the remaining Fuckwits (as their future descendants call everyone who was alive at the time) took to the Misery Boats and searched hopelessly for land. Eventually they realized they could live on top of the now-massive Pacific Garbage Patch and began the Great Sorting, which is fifty years into Tetley's past. All of the types of garbage were moved into their own areas, allowing small micronations of scavengers to form and giving each area its own character.

Candle Hole is the most beautiful place in Garbagetown, which is the most beautiful place in the world. All of the stubs of candles the Fuckwits threw out piled up into hills and mountains and caverns and dells, votive candles and taper candles and tea lights and birthday candles and big fat colorful pillar candles, stacked and somewhat melted into a great crumbling gorgeous warren of wicks and wax. All the houses are cozy little honeycombs melted into hillside, with smooth round windows and low golden ceilings. At night, from far away, Candle Hole looks like a firefly palace. When the wind blows, it smells like cinnamon, and freesia, and cranberries, and lavender, and Fresh Linen Scent, and New Car Smell.

Two things should be obvious from this introduction. First, do not read this book looking for an accurate, technical projection of our environmental future. Or, for that matter, physical realism of any kind. That's not the book that Valente is writing and you'll just frustrate yourself. This is science fiction as concretized metaphor rather than prediction or scientific exploration. We Fuckwits have drowned the world with our greed and left our descendants living in piles of our garbage; you have to suspend disbelief and go with the premise.

The second thing is that either you will like Tetley's storytelling style or you will not like this book. I find Valente very hit-and-miss, but this time it worked for me. The language is a bit less over-the-top than Space Opera, and it fits Tetley's insistent, aggressive optimism so well that it carries much of the weight of characterization. Mileage will definitely vary; this is probably a love-it-or-hate-it book.

The Past is Red is divided into two parts. The first part is the short story "The Future is Blue," previously published in Clarkesworld and in Valente's short story collection of the same name. It tells the story of Tetley's early life, how she got her name, and how she became the most hated person in Garbagetown. The second part is much longer and features an older, quieter, more thoughtful, and somewhat more cynical Tetley, more life philosophy, and a bit of more-traditional puzzle science fiction. It lacks some of the bubbly energy of "The Future is Blue" but also features less violence and abuse. The overall work is a long novella or very short novel.

This book has a lot of feelings about the environment, capitalism, greed, and the desire to let other people solve your problems for you, and it is not subtle about any of them. It's satisfying in the way that a good rant is satisfying, not in the way that a coherent political strategy is satisfying. What saves it from being too didactic or self-righteous is Tetley, who is happy to record her own emotions and her moments of wonder and is mostly uninterested in telling other people what to do. The setting sounds darkly depressing, and there are moments where it feels that way in the book, but the core of the story and of Tetley's life philosophy is a type of personal resilience: find the things that make you happy, put one foot in front of the other, and enjoy the world for what it is rather than what it could be or what other people want to convince you it might be. It's also surprisingly funny, particularly if you see the humor in bizarrely-specific piles of the detritus of civilization.

The one place where I will argue with Valente a bit is that The Past is Red thoroughly embraces an environmental philosophy of personal responsibility. The devastating critique aimed at the Fuckwits is universal and undistinguished except slightly by class. Tetley and the other inhabitants of Garbagetown make no distinction between types of Fuckits or attempt to apportion blame in any way more granular than entire generations and eras.

This is probably realistic. I understand why, by Tetley's time, no one is interested in the fine points of history. But the story was written today, for readers in our time, and this type of responsibility collapse is intentionally and carefully constructed by the largest polluters and the people with the most power. Collective and undifferentiated responsibility means that we're using up our energy fretting about whether we took two showers, which partly deflects attention from the companies, industries, and individuals that are directly responsible for the vast majority of environmental damage. We don't live in a world full of fuckwits; we live in a world run by fuckwits and full of the demoralized, harried, conned, manipulated, overwhelmed, and apathetic, which is a small but important difference. This book is not the right venue to explore that difference, but I wish the vitriol had not been applied quite so indiscriminately.

The rest, though, worked for me. Valente tends to describe things by piling clauses on top of adjectives, which objectively isn't the best writing but it fits everything about Tetley's personality so well that I think this is the book where it works. I found her strange mix of optimism, practicality, and unbreakable inner ethics oddly endearing. "The Future is Blue" is available for free on-line, so if in doubt, read some or all of it, and that should tell you whether you're interested in the expansion. I'm glad I picked it up.

Content warning for physical and sexual abuse of the first-person protagonist, mostly in the first section.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-08-18

Last modified and spun 2021-08-19