December 16th, 2010

So Palimpsest…um, it’s weird. It might also be brilliant, but it’s definitely weird.

So there’s this magical, fairy-tale city somewhere in a universe parallel to our own. Almost anyone can get there in their dreams, if they’re willing to pay the price to get there, and it is apparently beautiful and compelling and all of those things you’d expect from a magical fairy-tale city, right? The price to get there, though, is a sexually transmitted disease.

No, really. You have sex with somebody else who has access to the city (which is named Palimpsest because, one assumes, Catherynne M. Valente didn’t check first to see how many books and stories already had that name. Seriously, there’s some short fiction with the same name also in the contention for the same year’s batch of Hugos that this was nominated for) in order to get access to the city yourself, and the more people you have sex with who have the disease the more of the city you get to see.

As erotica, it’s definitely some of the finest crafted fiction I’ve ever seen. As played out as it might be, there are nearly as many layers to the story as the title might suggest, and multiple possible simultaneous interpretations are entirely feasible if one were interested enough to attempt thorough deconstruction. As general speculative fiction, however, I’m not sure how well it fares. The characters are mostly unpleasant people, and the only really interesting thing about most of them is the access to Palimpsest and the obsessive sexual behavior it encourages. In some ways, it’s a gimmick novel, and while the gimmick is certainly interesting, it relies upon the craft of the author to make the object of the characters’ obsession, the city of Palimpsest, to be so appealing that the reader can identify with the characters and their drive to journey there, and for me Valente just didn’t have the chops. Palimpsest is interesting, but what she describes couldn’t possibly motivate me to the “one more hit” behavior of her addicted characters. It was a disconnect striking enough to make me wonder if that paradigm of addiction and the effects of drug use in transforming the banal to the sublime was an additional layer to the commentary of the book, but I eventually decided it probably wasn’t. I think Valente is entirely sincere in her intimate love letter to her dream world, and that I am just not an obsessive enough personality to find it as appealing as she might have intended.

So I think it might be brilliant. But maybe not for me. But if it might work for you, I¬†wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as generally well done…for what it is.

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