Story Sundays: “How to Become a Mars Overlord” by Catherynne M. Valente

Catherynne M. Valente

“We have all wanted Mars, in our time. She is familiar, she is strange. She is redolent of tales and spices and stones we have never known. She is demure, and gives nothing freely, but from our hearths we have watched her glitter, all of our lives. Of course we want her. Mars is the girl next door. Her desirability is encoded in your cells. It is archetypal. We absolve you in advance.”

Catherynne M. Valente’s fictive worlds have been much on my mind for most of December. My first reading of her novel, Palimpsest, is one I’ve drawn lingeringly across weeks, when a part of me would have liked to devour it in one feverish night, but I resisted, because I was more interested in savouring each embellishment and prose filigree as though imbibing from a wineskin. Valente handles language with an adroit reverence that is both gratifying and illuminatory. She furnishes each page with landscapes that linger, with streets and signposts you swore existed only in your most chimeric of dreams. I became curious—would this mistressing of the written word translate just as resoundingly in her short fiction pieces? So I investigated, and “How to Become a Mars Overlord” landed in my lap, or, rather, I alighted upon its curious, ensorcelling geography.

The piece is, in its entirety, a proclamation, a seminar given at an unnamed (and, one supposes, intergalactic) advisory forum for a group of attendants interested in, to quote the introductory greeting, “the potential growth opportunities inherent in whole-planet domination”. This narration fills the story’s frame, told as it is in a metallically cheerful, almost-avuncular first person plural. One gets the feeling that this collective of Martian-conquest entrepreneurs has one’s best interests at heart, a sentiment that surely runs counter to the self-aggrandizement that fuels the core of each overlord’s personal interests. Still, despite the seemingly-simple, two-tiered approach to planetary despotism offered by the board, no records are permitted at the congregation, the uncertain significance of which seems to be understood implicitly by everyone present. The things revealed in this “how to” primer run deeper, possibly, than even the stealthiest trade secrets, but more for the revelations they hold about oneself rather than that elusive, lustworthy red orb.

Any writer with a basic command of her language could tell you, tongue-in-cheek, that the interstellar highway to Mars is equally informed by the journey as by the destination, and betrays just as much about the sanguine conquistadora’s aspiration-flooded heart, as the crimson-floored terrain of the planet itself. Catherynne M. Valente is an exceptional writer, and the transmission of this truth is jewel-studded, dripping with rich, effulgent lyricism. Not an adjective of adornment feels out of place, which is a rousing success when one considers how description-heavy is the writing, how much it shies away from a staid, thrifty commerce in storytelling. Despite this gilt-edged application in style, at no point is wandering through her fictive depictions of the history of Martian ambition cloying. This is a reading experience that is immersive in the best way; it tugs you down the labyrinth without the suggestion of a migraine, afterwards, when you’re trying to retrace your steps. Valente crafts copious, lush paragraphs of character exposition (more on those characters soon), and flanks them with precise declarative sentences, such as “Mastery of Mars is not without its little lessons”, and another in particular, which I won’t quote because it’s at the gleaming core of what makes this story so spectacular for me.

In a short fiction work spanning no more than a few thousand words, the author populates her chronicle with a legion of unforgettable characters, more than many full-length novels can boast. It will be impossible for you not to pick your favourite, as I have mine. Valente describes the unique, incandescent trials of those who have triumphed in the dominion of their own specific red planets: the titan of civil engineering industry and first All-Emperor of Mars, Felix Ho; the winged Muror poetess of celestial unrhyming, Oorm Nineteen Point Aught-One; the volatile,  impetuous and unsuccessful monarch, Harlow Y. She lovingly catalogues the exploits and endeavours of those who have reached for that distinctive brass ring that is Mars, and furnishes no less attention to detail on those who, crestfallen, have failed, dooming themselves to admire the planetary object of their affections from distant, less fiercely-burning surfaces.

As you come to the end of this parable that reads, simultaneously, as assiduously drafted science fiction and lyrical high fantasy, you might be most moved by the notion of discovery that ignites each paragraph of the piece. You’ll learn that Catherynne M. Valente has unveiled more than you thought apparent about space exploration and self-actualization—of how both to strive for Mars, and to strive to own it without losing ownership of yourself—and, if, like me, you’re new to her work, you will wonder where she’s been your entire series of lifetimes until now.

You can read (and listen!) to “How to Become a Mars Overlord” by Catherynne M. Valente here. (Lightspeed Magazine)

This Sunday, Ellen, the creator of the Story Sundays feature, proprietress of Fat Books and Thin Women, shares her thoughts on Touré’s “A Hot Time at the Church of Kentucky Fried Souls and the Spectacular Final Sunday Sermon of the Right Revren Daddy Love”, here.

Story Sundays was created by Fat Books and Thin Women as a way to share appreciation for this undervalued fiction form. All stories discussed are available to read free, online. Here’s Fat Books and Thin Women’s Story Sunday archive, and here’s mine. Want to start up Story Sundays on your blog? Yay! Email for details.

4 thoughts on “Story Sundays: “How to Become a Mars Overlord” by Catherynne M. Valente

  1. Pingback: 46. Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente | Novel Niche: A Place for Books

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