Short Story of the Week: How to Become a Mars Overlord by Catherynne M. Valente

Lightspeed Magazine, August 2010Catherynne M. Valente is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors even though I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of her work. She’s most well-known now for her Fairyland series (which starts with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making), but she’s also a highly prolific author of short stories and novels for adults.

I first heard of her thanks to the novel Palimpsest, which was nominated for a Hugo and which I checked out from the library (but did not actually read). The thing about Valente is that her prose is thick with imagery and convoluted sentences. The effect is beautiful, but her writing can be a bit difficult to parse if you aren’t in the right mind-frame. Even the first Fairyland book was far more descriptive than your average middle-grade novel.

However, I’ve had good results by listening to the audio versions of her stories. Thankfully much of her recent work is available in audio, and a number of her short stories have been recorded for fiction podcasts, so there are a wide selection of excellent places to start with her bibliography.

Lightspeed: Year OneOne stand-out story is How to Become a Mars Overlord, included in the Lightspeed: Year One anthology, a collection of stories first published online at Lightspeed Magazine. I picked up the audio version from Audible, but most (if not all) of the stories are still available free on the Lightspeed website.

How to Become a Mars Overlord is, much like it sounds, a primer on becoming overlord of your very own version of Mars. You see, it turns out that some analog of the fabled red planet exists in every galaxy, and ambitious overlords across the universe have been striving to conquer it throughout history.

The narrator describes various shining examples and cautionary tales for the edification of his audience of aspiring despots, and each is both strikingly alien and gorgeously imagined thanks to Valente’s luxuriant prose.¬†Additionally, the narrator of the audio version, Robin Sachs, is a pitch-perfect choice for the character. Sachs is arch, knowing and oh-so British, and Valente’s words roll off his tongue with precision and aplomb.

The story doesn’t have an overall narrative arc, but the series of vignettes about various Martian overlords paints a picture of a strange and wonderful world that harkens back to the science fiction of old while twisting it into something modern and far more surreal.

I’ll definitely be checking out more of Valente’s work (and giving Palimpsest another chance) very soon.