Young People Read Old SFF

The Limitless Perspective of Master Peek, or, the Luminescence of Debauchery

Catherynne M. Valente

Old People Read New SFF

18 Nov, 2018

And so we reach the end of the first half of this project with The Limitless Perspective of Master Peek, or, the Luminescence of Debauchery by Catherynne M. Valente.First published in issue #200 of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Master Peek was a finalist for the 2017 Eugie Foster Memorial Award. This, in fact, is why I selected it. But will my readers agree with the taste of the Foster jury? 

The Limitless Perspective of Master Peek, or, the Luminescence of Debauchery can be read here.

This story surprised me twice: first by appearing not to be SFF, then by being fantasy after all. 

It appears to be reasonably well-researched, which makes the use of the word hectare” early in the story all the more surprising; the word did not arise until the early 19th Century. 

Due to the narrator’s tone, I never came to particularly like him/her or care much about what happened to her/him. Which is, I suppose, intentional on Valente’s part. Certainly Peek makes no attempt to woo our sympathies. But then, he/she is no worse than the other people in the story, except in the matter of scale. 

The gimmick, when it finally appears about 60% of the way through, is clever and not one I’ve seen before. Adding in apparent immortality at the last moment, though, does seem a bit of a cheat. (Or is Peek supposed to be some kind of undead? Not clear, not clear at all to me…) 

Anyway, I enjoyed it, and if it were the first story by Valente I’d read, I would look forward to more. Instead, this is the more I looked forward to, but there will be more more. 


Once I again I find myself with mixed feelings. The story was great fun to read at the sentence / paragraph level, and kept me moving forward to see what would happen. Plus it expanded my vocabulary, as Ihad never before known the word punty”. But then it ended with a bunch of important questions unanswered: just how and why did the protagonist have this magic power? He/she seemed to be an immortal: again, how and why? I was left feeling a bit empty and unsatisfied. 

—David G

Baroque, delightfully or tediously, depending on taste. Rather sweet. Oh so mannered. A pastiche of something — Angela Carter and early Jeanette Winterson, or any number of filmic versions of Orlando, none of which I’ve seen; pleasing but without weight. 

I liked it. 


*The Limitless Perspective of Master Peek, or, the Luminescence of Debauchery* by Catherynne M. Valente is one part historical fantasy, one part social commentary, and entirely twisted in its plot. 

I enjoyed it thoroughly. Now, I should perhaps mention that one of my hobbies is history. More specifically, I engage in re-creating various aspects of life in medieval and Renaissance Europe. So when a tale touches — however tenuously — on elements of my personal era of interest, I take notice. But that is only one small reason among many for my enjoyment. 

I will admit that the story had to grow on me a bit. I expected a straightforward girl in masculine disguise exacts revenge on thepatriarchy” trope, but instead encountered surprise layered upon surprise, culminating in something that might be a sort of immortality. Through the accidental discovery of a hidden talent (or perhaps a personal magic), Valente’s protagonist gains access to knowledge far beyond her own direct experience. Imagine seeing the world through the eyes of people from all walks of life, of all persuasions, and through centuries of historic time. Even as a mostly passive observer, what would you learn, and what use would you make of what you learned? 

Think on that, and savor the ride. 


I love this story! I am not certain story” is the best label, but I love it nonetheless. Perhaps it is a fictional memoir? It is a baroque word picture of a world that is similar to ours, and very different. Like real pictures the background is a little vague, and sometimes only suggested by a stroke or wash or color, but the central figure is fascinating. I don’t think this character is particularly likable, but the skill of the author in making her evolution feel real and inevitable was a delight to experience. 

The fictional life shown in this story has no more of a beginning, middle and end than yours or mine, and in fact less as it is not certain it will end. As a result, the story does not have a conventional plot, but it turns out not every story needs one. This story is a series of loosely related events illuminating the motivations and actions of Master Peek. The language is well-chosen with occasional colorful archaic sentence structure, and the worldview of a modern woman. I think my favorite detail in the story is the eventual disposition of the Master’s creations; I like an author whose mind works the same way mine does. I have been looking forward to this story since I received the list of assignments, and it did not disappoint. 


With Old People Read New SF I’ve often found myself wondering why a) the language used is so basic and b) the protagonists are so darn _nice_. This story doesn’t display either of those qualities. Within the first fifty words we got to one I’d never seen before. (It turned out to be an easily googleable concrete noun.) We also quickly learned that Master Peek is thoroughly unpleasant and lives in a world that lives down to his expectations. It’s one of those tall tales, that take place in a vaguely historical period and concerns low-end fantastic happenings. 

I enjoyed reading it but (even though one of its best aspects is the flowery language) I think it would have made a better pre-code horror comic. As a written story it doesn’t quite hang together. We don’t find out who Peek is talking to or why he decided to set down the tale in this form, or at this time, why he is such a fan of disease and squalor, or why he has the two supernatural gifts he displays in the story. He also doesn’t change or learn much during his long life. 

As an Old People note, I’ll add that it reminded me strongly of Zelazny, or maybe Silverberg. As a New SF note, I’ll mention that it features not one but two trans characters, the main one being very well done but the second one a bit gratuitous, in my opinion. 


Oh, my. I think this is my favourite of the selection, the tale of an unapologetically obnoxious and self-centred glass-blower and his eyes. I don’t think I’ve actually read any of Valente’s work before now, and I fear she has ensorcelled me. 

I felt the style was reminiscent of Avram Davidson, though it’s probably been three decades since I last read any of his work, and very little even then. Or perhaps Fritz Leiber. Or perhaps that’s just the style you <i>have</i> to write in when writing of Restoration England.

Should I comment on the role of gender in this story? It’s the style of every age to think we’ve invented what, I’m sure, was old in our first cities; we just find new ways to tell old stories. The narrator comments on that himself, mentioning comedies of mistaken identity”. Is the new SF so different from the old?

—Nel C

This is a tale with so many diverse elements tossed into it (cyclopean ancestry, magical glass eyes, malevolent birds, gender-swapping and re-swapping, siblings cruel and sometimes not), all embedded within a completely over-the-top prose style, that by rights it should fail to work, like an overly-rich stew prepared by a chef who loves her spice rack not wisely but too well. And yet Valente pulls the whole thing off; it’s thoroughly entertaining and frequently laugh-out-loud funny. (Although I confess I did want to rewrite half a dozen sentences, mostly early in the story.) 


This was the least enjoyable of the stories, mainly because of the rather pedestrian vileness of the protagonist. One is prepared to be sympathetic with her/him (not sure which to use in this context. Him, I suppose, although they appear to also actually” consider themselves a woman. Interesting) due to the initial setup, of the two older brothers taking real valuables and the young sister getting nothing but an iron rod. But Master Peek” isn’t even passively but rather actively nasty. They appear to have nothing but contempt for the world and even themselves, despite a simultaneous arrogant self-centeredness. 

The central SF/Fnal concept — the eyes that permit one to see through their match — is not all that unique, though this particular execution of it is — but the consequences are little explored. Yes, Master Peek says he built the world using his ultimate spycraft, but we’re shown very little of what that world is, so the standard SF/F story concept of explore the consequences of the Big Idea” is absent. 

For the most part, it’s a fairly long monologue of a nasty character. I’m not sure what the author thought the point of the story was, but if there was one, I never got it. 


Catherynne Valente’s great strength is her ability to evoke the sensory imagination. In this story, most of the sensory content is disgusting. There are beautiful bits of decoration, but they are decorating damaged, diseased, dying bodies. Perhaps the narrator’s limitless perspective is warped by his own unpleasant nature; the world and all the people he describes are as repellant as he is. 

Valente’s playful way with words is a delight, but I am not always sure that the word she uses is the one she meant. When the narrator describes painting his lips primrose, for example, is he really coloring them yellow? I guess it would suit him! 


This is a magnificently constructed tale that doesn’t do much for me. Most of the sentences are wonders to read and bathe in. The story starts in the 1600s and the narrator claims to be very old. The narrator is female living as male for reasonably-claimed practical reasons. For the same reasons, I’ll call her him henceforth. One eye is also badly formed. Practically forced into the glass-blowing business, he makes his fortune when he is gifted with the ability to make glass eyes that see for him – wherever they might be. A subsequent marriage also gifts him with a physically compatible spouse. Well, it is more probable than the eyes. And I suppose if it were set 500 years later and festooned with technobabble I wouldn’t think the eyes worth commenting on. The story, also, is richer than indicated here. But things just happen. There is little striving. No puzzles are solved, although truly amazing solutions appear.