Genres: Sci Fi
Published on: 20th July 2021
Catherynne M. Valente, the bestselling and award-winning creator of Space Opera and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland returns with The Past is Red, the enchanting, dark, funny, angry story of a girl who made two terrible mistakes: she told the truth and she dared to love the world.
The future is blue. Endless blue...except for a few small places that float across the hot, drowned world left behind by long-gone fossil fuel-guzzlers. One of those patches is a magical place called Garbagetown.
Tetley Abednego is the most beloved girl in Garbagetown, but she's the only one who knows it. She's the only one who knows a lot of things: that Garbagetown is the most wonderful place in the world, that it's full of hope, that you can love someone and 66% hate them all at the same time.
But Earth is a terrible mess, hope is a fragile thing, and a lot of people are very angry with her. Then Tetley discovers a new friend, a terrible secret, and more to her world than she ever expected.
I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
~All hail St Oscar of the Trashcan
~sometimes you have to save the idiots from themselves
~a lot of the time, actually
~garbage is precious too
Depending on how you look at it, The Past Is Red is either incredibly depressing or incredibly hopeful – and I don’t think that’s an accident.
If you’ve read Valente’s anthology, The Future Is Blue, then you already know Tetley. If you haven’t, that’s okay – the short story the anthology is titled after is the first part of The Past Is Red, so in picking up this book, you have absolutely everything you need to fully appreciate it. And there is a lot to appreciate.
I don’t think that’s an accident either.
Rubbing a seal’s stomach is the opposite of nihilism.
Tetley lives in Garbagetown, a floating not-land inspired by the very real North Atlantic garbage patch. There may be a handful of other sea-drifting cities, and there’s at least one band of performers that travels back and forth between them, but for the most part humanity is gone – wiped out by environmental collapse and most especially risen sea levels.
There are some things you just can’t ever get back. Years. Gannet birds. Husbands. Antartica.
Or rather, wiped out by themselves, the Fuckwits – that’s us, by the way, you and me and we – whose gluttony and laziness and entitlement caused that collapse.
There is something bitterly hilarious in seeing the people of our time universally referred to as The Fuckwits; I remember genuinely laughing, the first time I read The Future Is Blue in 2018. Maybe it’s just the general malaise of *waves vaguely at everything*, but it felt much more bitter this time around. Still funny, but almost too on the nose when I’m feeling this raw about the state of the world.
Still accurate, though.
I don’t know how long it’s been since I loved a character as much as I love Tetley. I think most of us would consider it horrifically awful and depressing to be living on a giant garbage heap, but Tetley sees so much beauty in it that instead it feels almost like some fairytale realm. It’s a dissonance that reminds me of Room by Emma Donoghue, and other books with narrators who are not so much unreliable as genuinely don’t comprehend what’s going on. The reader can see how angry and bitter the people around Tetley are, how unhappy they are, but Tetley really and truly doesn’t get it, because to her, the world she has is beautiful. The world they have is beautiful. Yes, lots of things are hard or outright impossible now, but look at what they do have! It’s just stupid pointless greed to want more.
“the kind of hope I have isn’t just greed going by its maiden name. The kind of hope I have doesn’t begin and end with demanding everything go back to 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.”
And people hate her for it.
But the thing is, she’s not wrong. I don’t know if you can choose to be happy, but you can definitely work on not constantly ruminating in the things that are gone and done, and it seems more sensible to me to look for joys – big or small – than to focus on all the reasons to be miserable. When we read about Candle Hole – the part of Garbagetown where all the candles ended up, where everyone’s home is multi-coloured and made out of hundreds of different melted candles – it’s magical, and if the other characters don’t see it that way… It’s a mindset issue, isn’t it? At least partly? A question of perspective? They and Tetley are both looking at the same thing. Why is it only beautiful to one of them?
What is it about humans – most of us, at least – that we look at so many things and just…immediately want them to be more? Why is it so hard to be happy with what you have, to delight in what you have, without a voice in the back of your mind whispering but it could be bigger, shinier, fancier? We resent having less even when what we have is enough.
Enough is enough.
“Goddammit, why am I the only one who knows things?”
Listen to Tetley, okay? Because she’s not simple, or slow, or stupid. She’s fucking brilliant. She’s dazzling. She is so brave and so strong and smarter than all of us. The hardest, most courageous thing in the world is not giving into despair, and she does not, will not, cannot.
We can’t either. It would be so easy – it would be understandable – but we can’t. Tetley loves Garbagetown enough to save it, looks at it and sees something beautiful and precious where everyone else sees ugliness and worthlessness. I said it’s not an accident that there’s a lot to appreciate in The Past Is Red and no, obviously it’s not, no writer deliberately tries to write a bad story – Valente sat down to write a good story on purpose – but what I meant was that there is so much to appreciate even though parts will make you flinch, or ache, or want to cry.
And that’s a pretty spot-on metaphor for the world, right there.
It’s very easy, for heartbreakingly many of us, to look at the world and see something ugly and worthless, to see a garbagetown – but damn it, it’s not. We need to look at it properly and see how beautiful it is, because it needs saving, and we need to save it.
Or any future humans who are left will be absolutely right to call us Fuckwits.
St. Oscar, keep your mighty lid closed over me. Look grouchily but kindly upon me and protect me as I travel through the infinite trashcan of your world. Show me the beautiful usefulness of your Blessed Rubbish. Let me not be Taken Out before I find my destiny.
This might be a hard book to read in a moment when you’re feeling raw, but there’s so much to love here. The Past Is Read is all love, in a lot of ways. It’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek. It’s houses made of candlewax and going on quests to find your name and the 8th-Best Daffodil and being the moon. It’s a middle-finger to our present and our future. It is not a promise that everything will be okay, but it is a promise that there will always be something wonderful if you look. It’s not a hug; it’s hands gripping your shoulders and shaking hard, hopefully shaking some sense into us. It’s those same hands touching your cheek to turn your head, pointing out all the things we have to love, everything that’s precious.
Demanding you take care of them.
Anarchy can be so cozy, if you bring enough pillows.
There’s something gut-punching on every page. There’s something to make you laugh, something wry and clever and poking fun around every corner. There’s something beautiful, even in the ugly parts.
The Past Is Red is an unequivocal condemnation of how humans are collectively dealing with the environmental crisis – but it’s also a book about optimism; about how you can find beauty in almost anything if you look hard enough, from the right angle. It’s whimsical and biting; despairing and delightful. It’s a story about how nothing’s fair. It’s a frustrated scream for people to just stop. It’s a stubbornly hopepunk little book…about the dangers of hope, when hope is just a mask for greed. It’s about the strange and wonderful forms human happiness can take. It’s about how having enough is enough, for the love of all the gods.
It’s a question:
What do you want to be when you grow up?
I want to be Tetley. Or at the very least, not a Fuckwit.
The Past Is Red releases July 20th, and honestly? You’d have to be a fuckwit not to grab yourself a copy.