The world is both on fire and drowning. We are all living on borrowed time on this planet of ours, and if we’re not careful–and we’re not, not right now anyway, despite government promises–we will, if we’re lucky, have to live in a place like Garbagetown.
“My name is Tetley Abednego, and I am the most hated girl in Garbagetown.” And so author Catherynne M. Valente begins her bleak but hopeful novella The Past Is Red. It began life as a short story called The Future Is Blue, which Valente wrote early in 2016. In her afterword, which is definitely worth reading, Valente explained that Tetley’s voice stayed with her for a long time and she wanted to see how she grew from being a hated girl to a hated adult, but still keeping her compassion, composure, and willingness to explain the truth to her fellow town people no matter the cost to herself. So she wrote The Past Is Red. This edition contains both stories and is a compelling, uncomfortable, but necessary work of post-apocalyptic fiction that hits home hard and fast.
Garbagetown is exactly how it sounds. It’s a “landmass” made up of garbage that came into being when the climate change and the carelessness of Fuckwits (i.e. us humans) destroyed what was left of habitable Earth. Apparently there is a Garbagetown the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean, but it hasn’t risen above water yet. That time may soon come in the next one hundred or so years. On Tetley’s Earth, our future Earth, dry land is but a memory. In fact, for Tetley, Garbagetown is all she and the others have ever known. When a cruise ship calling itself Brighton Pier docks at Garbagetown, offering its citizens the promise of dry land if their willing to share electric power with them, Tetley sabotages the plan to expose the truth: there is no dry land out there. Her punishment is regular beatings and name-calling, for which she thanks her assailants for their instruction.
During the course of her journey in this strange and dangerous world, Tetley has a couple of travelling companions. As a child she had a close relationship with her twin brother Maruchan, until the time comes when she doesn’t. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” she asks him nightly. One day he replies, “An only child,” and that’s that for them. She falls in love with Goodnight Moon, a boy from Electric City, but even that relationship turns sour after the events of Brighton Pier. Later, as an adult, she talks to someone she calls Big Red, but we don’t find out who or what this person is until the end, and it’s a surprising revelation. Once again, Tetley finds herself with a choice to reveal the truth, and cause more trouble for herself and the people around her, or to continue living her life in the only world she has ever known. The answers lie with Mister, a crystalline artificial intelligence that is reminds the reader of Alexa.
Humanity’s future is bleak, and Catherynne M. Valente doesn’t pull any punches about how things will work out for us in the not too distant future. But behind this bleakness is a strange kind of hope. Tetley, through some amazing prose and imagery, is a truth-bearer. She knows we’re all we have left and we have to accept responsibility of where we go next. Valente, in this novella, has created a world that is heart-breaking but inevitable–if we’re not careful. Tetley’s voice shines in these pages, and although her follow Garbagetown citizens may hate her and wish her harm, we most certainly don’t. She may be the only hope humanity has left.
My thanks go to NetGalley and Tordotcom for providing me with an ARC of The Past Is Red. Catherynne M. Valente’s novella is on sale now.