Review: Catherynne M. Valente – Silently and Very Fast

February has just started and I felt like a nice, quick Valente snack. Her award-winning novella seemed like a good story to read, as I don’t feel ready for another big adventure yet. Deathless is still too close to my heart.

silently and very fastSILENTLY AND VERY FAST
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: WSFA Press, 2011
Online: Clarkesworld (text + audio)
ISBN: 1936896001
Hardcover: 127 pages

My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Innana was called Queen of Heaven and Earth, Queen of Having a Body, Queen of Sex and Eating, Queen of Being Human, and she went into the Underworld in order to represent the inevitability of organic death.

Fantastist Catherynne M. Valente takes on the folklore of artificial intelligence in this brand new, original novella of technology, identity, and an uncertain mechanized future. Neva is dreaming. But she is not alone. A mysterious machine entity called Elefsis haunts her and the members of her family, back through the generations to her great-great grandmother-a gifted computer programmer who changed the world. Together Neva and Elefsis navigate their history and their future, an uneasy, unwilling symbiote. But what they discover in their dreamworld might change them forever . . . 2011 Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novella 2012 Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novella

dividerThis is the first time I will not completely gush about a Catherynne Valente book like a little fangirl. Silently and Very Fast is a difficult story to get into. The story of Elefsis, an artificial intelligence, and how he/she came to be is interspliced with scenes set in a strange dreamworld where Elefsis deals with the girl who is dreaming, Neva. In turn, these two plotlines make way for retellings of fairytales and fables, always revolving around humanity’s relationship with their creations, especially robots – these little bits of AI mythology were my favorite part of the book and they always taught us a little bit about Elefsis as well as just being great vignettes.

It took me almost half the novella to truly get into it. The beginning was as beautifully written as all of Valente’s fiction but I was desperately looking for some kind of anchor to hold on to, some time or place to ground the story in. We get nothing. We are disembodied creatures, floating around in a dreamworld where everything is possible and where nothing much makes sense. It becomes clearer later on what this dreamworld is and how Elefsis came to be there but until then, it was a bit of a struggle and I suspect certain scenes and sentences that were supposed to be meaningful just didn’t hit home as hard as they were supposed to.

Once I learned a bit more about what kind of AI Elefsis is and how he/she was created, the story became more interesting. I cared about Elefsis and I especially wanted to know the little secrets that are often alluded to. Ravan – Elefsis’ former companion – has met a mysterious fate that even Elefsis doesn’t know about. By following his/her past through the generations of Elefsis’ human family of companions, he/she hopes to learn this secret him/herself. It is in these flashback chapters that we have the chance to care about Elefsis and the Uoya-Agostino family who have been with Elefsis since his/her creation. I shouldn’t be surprised by anything Valente does, but it still amazed me how much she brought the characters to life on so few pages.

The prose is beautiful. Poetic and flowing, quotable and engaging readers to think for themselves, it has captured me yet again. I am unsure how I feel about the ending. It felt a little rushed and too open for my taste, although the melancholy tone hit the mark.

THE GOOD: Beautiful language, food for independent thought, a sort of mythology for robots.
THE BAD: Very confusing in the beginning, I wasn’t a fan of the ending.
THE VERDICT: Recommended for fans of Valente’s style – really anything she writes has a beautiful ring to it – but I wouldn’t recommend it as a Valente starter-novel(la).

RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good

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Second opinions:

6 thoughts on “Review: Catherynne M. Valente – Silently and Very Fast

  1. Carl V. Anderson says:

    Sorry to hear you had a hard time getting into it, especially considering how much you like her work. This is such a gorgeous looking book. I knew I had to have it the moment I saw the cover. Now to get around to reading it.

    Do you listen to the Squeecast? Valente is a regular on that podcast and I hadn’t listened to it until this weekend and now I’m addicted. I love the idea of a podcast where they just gush about things they love. It is very well done and hard to stop listening to.

    Like

    • Nadine says:

      I love the Squeecast. That podcast just makes me happy. I’ve only discovered it a few months ago but I’ve listened to all of their episodes and bought a lot of books based on their recommendations.
      The more I think about Silently and Very Fast, the better it gets. Maybe it’s just one of those stories that has to sink in a bit first.

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      • Carl V. Anderson says:

        I’ll be interested to see how I feel once I get to it. I’ve LOVED some of Valente’s work and have been underwhelmed by some of it. Never by her skill as a writer but more by my ability to engage in her work, or not.

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        • Nadine says:

          That pretty much nails it down. Her writing is superb and exceptional. It just depends on whether a particular story resonates with the reader. You can’t love them all, I suppose. 🙂

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          • Carl V. Anderson says:

            I also think she is brilliant and her mind works so far above mine in the context of her knowledge of folklore and mythology that in some instances I enjoy the craft of her work while knowing that I don’t have the foundation needed to really get what she is trying to do. Fragile Dialects is a good example of this.

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