The Future is Blue: Life, and this collection, is like a box of chocolates

The Future is Blue by Catherynne M. ValenteThe Future is Blue by Catherynne M. Valente speculative fiction book reviewsThe Future is Blue by Catherynne M. Valente

Fans of Catherynne M. Valente who especially love her line-by-line prose will be pleased with her 2018 story collection, The Future is Blue. Fifteen of Valente’s shorter works are showcased here. The title piece is a novelette. The similarity they share is the priority of narrative voice and prose above other story elements, even those of character and plot.

I recommend that readers who love Valente’s prose consider this book as a box of gourmet chocolates, rather than a meal. It is possible to overindulge on Valente’s fascinating and fantastical conceits if you try to read this one sitting — and since it’s a story collection, you don’t have to.

The stories included are:

“The Future is Blue”
“No One Dies in Nowhere”
“Two and Two is Seven”
“Down and Out in R’lyeh”
“The Limitless Perspective of Master Peek, or, the Luminescence of Debauchery”
“Snow Day”
“Planet Lion”
“Flame, Pearl, Mother, Autumn, Virgin, Sword, Kiss, Blood, Heart, and Grave”
“Major Tom”
“The Lily and the Horn”
“The Flame After the Candle”
“Badgirl, the Deadman, and the Wheel of Fortune”
“A Fall Counts Anywhere”
“The Long Goodnight of Violet Wild”
“The Beasts Who Fought for Fairyland Until the Very End”

I will talk about the stories I liked and, toward the end, discuss a couple I didn’t like as well.

“Major Tom” and “Planet Lion” are both science fiction. “Major Tom” tackles a common trope, an AI becoming self-aware. I liked how the story is presented as a series of memories. Little details, like fishing trips, gardens and the smell of vanilla extract brought the story to life for me, and I liked the ending. “Planet Lion” shows us a culture clash as human space explorers study —or think they are studying — a native species on a planet. I liked how the native point of view was depicted. This is another story where the language is given much attention.

“Nobody Dies in Nowhere” is set in a place that reminded me of Catholic limbo, or a bardo state. People who have died linger there, with hopes (or maybe fears) that they will one day go to the mountain. The sense of place is vividly captured in this police procedural mystery about, well, murders in the land of the dead. This was one of my favorites.

My other favorite was the fantasy tale “The Lily and the Horn.” Against a strange and well-realized fantasy world where battles and wars are waged, literally, over the banquet table, our first-person narrator prepares for a battle in her home. She is a “Lily,” a trained poisoner, whose job it is to poison the feasters of her husband’s adversary, while the adversary’s “Horn,” also a woman, provides antidotes. Whichever side has a feaster alive at the end of the banquet wins. I have heard that this is like some people’s Thanksgiving dinner experiences. The narrator and the opposing Horn have a history; they met in poison school. Valente often literalizes figurative things. It doesn’t always work for me, but it does here. I like the descriptions, and the narrator’s motivations were believable. At the end we discover just how deep her use of poison goes.

“Badgirl, The Deadman, and The Wheel of Fortune,” is a brief and chilling horror story set in a present-day city. It is about a little girl, her drug addict father and her father’s dealer; it sets out to be horrifying and it succeeds. It’s a change of pace.

Also a change of pace, in a different direction, is “Down and Out in R’lyeh,” which as you might have guessed from the title, isn’t your ordinary Elder-Gods-Gothic tale. I squawked, “What?” at the first sentence, which is exactly what Valente wanted me to do. She has fun with this one and it shows, and in its own way it’s a tour de force.

“Two and Two is Seven” is set in a world that appears, at first, to be a traditional second-world fantasy land. It isn’t. The Valley of N is something else. I liked the character of Maribel and enjoyed the entities with whom she interacts, especially Milosz. The theme is conventional, with a controlling man meeting a woman he only thinks he controls, and I got a little tired of the marquee-level cleverness of foodstuffs that only started with the letter N, but otherwise this was a thoroughly enjoyable tale. One of my complaints about Valente’s work, and it stands out in this book, is the level to which a clever thing is used, and used, and used some more. The “food starting with N” is one example.

“The Beasts Who Fought for Fairyland Until the Very End” is, naturally, a Fairyland story and features some characters we recognize from the novels.

“A Fall Counts Anywhere” follows an arena-battle match with robots vs. fairies. As you probably guessed, it originally appeared in the anthology Robots vs. Fairies. Two play-by-play commentators, one from the world of robots and one from Faerie, narrate the story, and the pleasure is in the constant stream of legal disclaimers the robotic commentator is forced to say.

There were a few misses here for me. “Snow Day” has an interesting premise and the character of Gudrun’s mother is well-drawn and fascinating. The story is set in close to present time, in rural Hawaii and, to my surprise, given Valente’s skill at creating settings, did not convince me I was in Hawaii. Gudrun and her mother live on an abandoned plantation near a small town, and that town does not have the feeling of an island village. It’s worth reading for the story idea, though.

The biggest miss was the title piece, “The Future is Blue,” which I thought went on too long. Here, Valente’s playfulness with literal versus figurative backfired for me; the fantastical, ornate description of a city that is part of a floating garbage dump did not work for me. Many things did work, especially the naming-quest young people go on. I wasn’t taken with the main character; women martyr-heroes can be interesting, but this one just wasn’t for me. And I thought some pieces of the plot got tacked on without much foreshadowing of development. I suspect that die-hard fans will fight me on this and want to explain all the ways the story is wonderful, and to this I say, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

The Future is Blue has far more hits than misses, and the gold-dust sprinkle on top of the chocolate pieces is a gorgeous cover by Galen Dara. It’s beautiful, it hints at what you’ll find inside, and it’s a good recapitulation of Valente’s verbal style. Looking on Amazon, it appears that Dara might provide interior illustrations as well. If that’s the case, that bumps up the book’s attractiveness even more.

Published July 31,2018. Subterranean Press is thrilled to present a major new collection from one of the most dazzling, distinctive voices in the literary world. Catherynne M. Valente, the New York Times bestselling and multiple-award-winning author of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making and other acclaimed novels, now brings readers thirteen stories unlike any others. In the title story, Theodore Sturgeon Award-winning novelette “The Future Is Blue,” an outcast girl named Tetley lives on floating Garbagetown, in a world that dreams of the long lost land. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos is explored and reinvented in style in “Down and Out in R’lyeh.” In the novelette “The Limitless Perspective of Master Peek, or, the Luminescence of Debauchery,” Perpetua masquerades as a man in order to continue her father’s business as a glassblower and must fashion a special eye for a queen. And in “The Beasts Who Fought for Fairyland Until the Very End,” the wyvern A-Through-L, the warrior Green Wind and his giant cat the Leopard of Little Breezes cope with their broken-hearted disappointment over politicks as the evil Marquess ascends to rule. Of her previous collection, The Bread We Eat in Dreams, the New York Times said, “Valente’s writing DNA is full of fable, fairy tale and myth drawn from deep wells worldwide.” With The Future Is Blue she continues to build and invent unforgettable worlds and characters with lyrical abandon, creating stories that feel old and new at once. The Future is Blue also includes three never-before-printed stories, for almost 30,000 words of work exclusive to this collection: “Major Tom,” “Two and Two is Seven,” and the long novelette “Flame, Pearl, Mother, Autumn, Virgin, Sword, Kiss, Blood, Heart, and Grave.”

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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