He laughed again and hid his face under the blanket. “Why are you so nice to me?”
“Because I’m an angel.”
“You are.” He stretched out his arm and patted me on the head. “And I’m platonically in love with you.”
“That was literally the boy-girl version of ‘no homo’, but I appreciate the sentiment.”
Radio Silence p.108
[This post is mostly spoiler free! Minor spoilers are noted when they appear.]
Alice Oseman’s Radio Silence has rocketed into place alongside Fangirl and Afterworlds to form a sort of holy trifecta of YA books that effectively present and deal with fandom and creativity. Though, interestingly enough, out of those three Fangirl stands out like a sore thumb for being comparatively super straight and super white. But Radio Silence stands out, to me, as well as for being a book about creativity, for being a book that is overwhelmingly and positively about the love between friends. Which, though it’s an integral part of most people’s lives, you don’t normally see as the star concept of a novel.
Radio Silence follows seventeen-year-old British-Ethiopian study machine Frances Janvier, who knew she wanted to get into Cambridge University as soon as she heard of it at age ten and figured that was where the smart people went. She became Head Girl so it would look good on her Cambridge application. She has read hundreds of books she can’t really get her head around so the list will look long and impressive in her Cambridge interview. She’s not really friends with any of her friends because what she’s best at is studying, and when they make fun of her for being boring her immediate response is always “fair enough”. Her only spark of passion outside the Cambridge goal is a surreal sci-fi podcast called Universe City, which she secretly adores and spends her spare time drawing fan art for. So imagine her surprise when the podcast’s creator asks her to do the official art for the show… and imagine her double surprise when the creator turns out to be a quiet and unassuming friend-of-a-friend she knows in real life.
In a series of drunken shenanigans that neither of them really want to be a part of, Frances and the friend-of-a-friend, Aled, reveal to one another that they are a massive fan of Universe City and the creator of Universe City, respectively. From then on a tentative friendship begins, which quickly morphs into a confident and beautiful friendship that forms the emotional core of the book. Frances and Aled have, dare I say it, a platonic love story that uplifts them, wrenches them free of their insecurities, and is one of the most wonderful and adorable dynamics I’ve read for a while. And yes, it is a strictly platonic love story—the novel even takes the time to lean through the fourth wall and assure you of this:
“You probably think that Aled Last and I are going to fall in love or something, because he is a boy and I am a girl,” narrates Frances. “I just wanted to say—we don’t. That’s all.”
It might be a bit on the nose, but it works in a way because the narration is first person past tense anyway, and a lot of the time feels as though Frances is recounting what happened with Aled—and with his missing twin sister, Carys—to a listener or a journal some time later. In fact, now that I’ve said that, I like the idea it could be a story she’s telling out loud—using audio media to tell your own story when no one in real life will listen becomes a very poignant part of the novel.
It also works because hey, a reader would have every reason to assume that a boy and a girl would fall in love if their relationship was such a huge focus in the book. In the novel, too, plenty of people ask Frances if she and Aled are dating or if they have crushes on each other. But… they don’t. That’s all. The narrative and the characters make it overtly clear that these two people adore each other, and their immediate connection, coincidental meeting in person after having talked under their internet personas, and life-affirming and life-saving bond is almost presented as that of soul mates, but platonic soul mates.
Frances thinks at one point “I couldn’t believe how much I seriously loved Aled Last, even if it wasn’t in the ideal way that would make it socially acceptable for us to live together until we die.” (p.153) She wants to live together until they die! It’s incredibly rare to see this kind of dedication and passion presented in a friendship. Too often, the perception that friendship is either a placeholder or stepping stone for romance wins out—the relationships a protagonist has with their friends will usually be pre-established and end up playing second fiddle to the romantic plot that will take the most attention in the story. Because romance is… more interesting? More important?
The friends-to-lovers trope is also rife in fiction, and while I personally find it delightful (or at least, vastly prefer it to a romance with no prior build-up or bonding), it’s marvellous and kind of groundbreaking to have stories that simply have good friends stay friends. In Radio Silence there’s no pining because the protagonist is in love with their best friend since childhood. There’s no grand realisation that they love each other That Way after all, leaving them living happily ever after. There are two “I have a crush on my friend and I’m not sure what to do” plotlines, in fact, but they are shrouded in subplot territory and the bond between Aled and Frances, which is again, the core of the story and its reason for existing, never even wanders into romantic or sexual territory.
In a bonus round of wonderment (minor spoiler alert) this is because Aled is on the asexual spectrum. And yes, he says that word. It is printed on the page! Not only that, but he identifies as demisexual, which is also printed on the page and said out loud by the characters, which is absolutely boggling and wonderful to me, and a step up from Scott Westerfeld confirming the protagonist of Afterworlds as the same orientation via Twitter. I appreciate Westerfeld’s action, but actual in-text mentions will always get more gold stars than Word of God. And indeed, it adds another layer to the magic of the friendship storyline—if Aled is demi, and thus only attracted to people he has a deep emotional bond with, surely Frances as his platonic soul mate qualifies as someone he’d be into? And surely Frances, who is also confirmed in-text to be bisexual, is qualified to be attracted to Aled? Nope. There is no spark. There doesn’t need to be.
Their friendship is so engrossingly real, too—their dialogue, the things they bond over, the things they do when they hang out, even the language they use when texting each other, is all spectacularly on point both on an emotional level and in the sense that it realistically portrays how teenagers in the modern world act (this, and the pop culture references, will probably make it incredibly dated in a few years, but for now it’s golden). A lot of this is probably due to the author herself being only twenty-one when the novel was published, which will naturally give her more of an edge in that department than, say, a forty-year-old YA writer attempting to get back inside the adolescent brain in the current era. Oseman is also an avid (and current) Tumblr user, leading to the surreal instance of Tumblr fandom (in both its glory and terror) being a major plot element in the book, and the fictional Tumblr posts featured therein actually sounding like real posts you’d see on the site.
And, of course, there’s the fun intertextual element that Universe City is quite clearly inspired by the themes and cultic success of Welcome to Night Vale, neatly nodded to when Frances and Aled admit to being fans of that as well (also nodded to when they discuss drawing the canonically genderless main character of Universe City, agreeing steadfastly that lack of gender identification should not immediately equal “skinny, androgynous but attractive white guy”, which I am about 101% sure is a dig at all the fan designs of Cecil that made him fit exactly that description).
And by God, they talk like fans. The way they pour their energy and love into the Universe City project hit home as being incredibly realistic, and in the case of the other two points in my Holy Trifecta, the book never once presents this creative, geeky obsession as silly or contrived. Universe City is the guiding light in both of their lives, and as the novel goes on Frances learns to see the deeper meanings that it holds for Aled and begins to see it as a force for good to embrace rather than a shameful and nerdy hobby.
Most of the new friends I’ve made over the past few years have been through discussions of shows, books or movies we mutually enjoyed, both online and in real life. Fandom is a fantastic jumping off point for friendship, and can lead to some wonderful, creatively-charged and unabashedly fun interactions where you’re free to let loose and geek out in your comfort zone, which is exactly what Radio Silence portrays in Frances and Aled.
It’s real and gut-wrenching and heart-warming and appealed to me on all sorts of levels, with some very modern and relevant iterations of the “be yourself and follow your dreams” message. And it stands out as a rare gem of a book that says “It’s okay to love your friends this much. It’s okay to love stuff this much. It’s okay to want to find someone, and something, to which you can speak with your own voice, despite what you think other people in the real world want to hear from you.”