The novelette offers an opportunity to experiment in a way that short stories and novels don’t often do. You have much more room in which to create a world than a short story, where a glimpse at the larger picture is often all that you can afford. On the other hand, unlike a novel, there is no requirement to have a lengthy plot. With “Fade to White”, Catherine Valente depicts a world torn apart by war and a society that has changed dramatically to compensate. She uses the length of the novelette to delve in and out of different parts of this world, even as she constructs a simple plot about coming of age after the apocalypse.
“Fade to White” is set in an alternate 1950s United States. This is a country recovering from the aftermath of nuclear warfare. McCarthy is in the White House. With much of the population infertile, those who can reproduce are valued for this act, elevated to the role of Mother and Father. Since fertile men are in much smaller supply than women, each Father has four households that he visits in a weekly rotation. Sterile men and women become civil servants, imbibing by order of the state a drug that suppresses their sex drives and makes them happy with their lot in life. Valente doesn’t give us much of an idea of the diversity of occupations in this society, but we spend a lot of time learning about how propaganda works.
The underlying irony of this story is simple: America won the war, presumably, only to turn into the very type of paternalistic, fascist state that they were fighting against. Mutually assured destruction was not so mutual, but it was definitely assured, and now the survivors are trying to pick up the pieces. The government has had to make a lot of hard decisions about how to keep the country together; I don’t envy the leaders who had to step up to the plate after whatever disaster befell them. Valente handles the horror of this world with a light touch, guiding us towards the realization of what has happened but not actively preaching against it. I found this to be a very effective and satisfying way of handling the story.
I’m not sure this novelette is experimental so much as it is a return to older forms. It reminds me of something that an author out of previous generations, someone like Bradbury, might have written. It has that same concern with using science-fiction to depict what society could become, if certain excesses occur. And it has the same dour tone mixed with a kind of dark but situational humour. Retro in feeling, this is a charming but also chilling story that I’d definitely recommend.