Some books resonate at the exact frequency of the human heart. Silently and Very Fast is one of them.
Elefsis is a machine intelligence who first learned to speak in similes, whose habitat is the internal brain- and dreamscapes of five generations of the same family, and who now has now found itself bound to Neva – the final angry, secretive scion of the Uoya-Agostinos – under circumstances it does not fully understand, and which Neva herself is reluctant to explain. Who is Elefsis? How deep a routine is love? How long a lesson is grief? What, ultimately, does it mean to be human?
No matter what she writes, Valente herself seems to function as a literary triple-goddess: a three-in-one of Poet, Mythmaker and Mythbreaker. Her stories crack fairytales open like eggs, mixing their yolks with myth and grief and feminism and the outrageous beauty of poetry until something wholly new is produced: a critique of the mythic that nonetheless refracts the power of our oldest stories and turns them seamlessly to new ends. At various points, Silently and Very Fast evokes comparison with China Mieville’s Embassytown, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, Tad Williams’s Otherland and Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone – and yet it is also Inanna and Psyche, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, Hansel and Gretel, Prometheus and Matryoshka dolls and turtles all the way down and, because this is Valente, Persephone emerging from the underworld. (It is not coincidental that Elefsis begins as five bright jewels – five pomegranate seeds – only one of which is taken into the body of a girl-who-is-more-than-a-girl, and whose consumption initiates transformation.)
The whole novella is an exquisite balance of grace notes; at one point, Alan Turing is reborn as the Prince of Thoughtful Engines in a story-within-a-story that is itself a reworking of Snow White. Beautifully structured, poignantly characterised and breathtakingly relevant, Silently and Very Fast is a paean to the idea of stories as identity, with everything from family to consciousness to grief described as an ever-evolving narrative told both by and for its participants. It is an exploration of the mythic and the human whose fulcrum rests on the truth and power of interior landscapes, the worlds we hold inside ourselves becoming oroborous with the worlds we help to make.
Unlike with Valente’s Fairyland, I didn’t cry out loud while reading this book. But its depth and beauty kept me vibrating on the edge of tears the whole way through, that pulse-tight gasping where every word lands on the heart like a kiss, like electricity, and leaves behind a mark. This year, Silently and Very Fast has been nominated for a Hugo award for Best Novella, and I will be extraordinarily startled if it doesn’t win. But even if the unthinkable happens, you need to read this book. Trust me: you won’t finish it the same as when you started.