Sunday, 13 March 2016

Short Story Sunday 15: Catherynne M. Valente and Rick Cook

No introduction this post, we're heading straight into the reviews.

“How to Become a Mars Overlord” by Catherynne M. Valente
Read in Year’s Best SF 16 (2011), edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

“How to Become a Mars Overlord” is written as a seminar intended on providing guidance to people interested in conquering the prized planet, Mars. Valente is more interesting in recreating a sense of wonder and yearning for the red planet than she is in telling a story. All of her examples of Mars overlords are pastiche or echoes of pulp stories featuring the titular planet. If they’re not recognizable as a creation of another author, then they’re created by Valente with that same spirit in mind. The whole thing is very inventive and full of energy but it’s done in a style that doesn’t work for me.  

There is a lot of imagination at work here but it’s devoid of any meaning. The best idea at play here is that every star system has its version of Mars, a red planet, closest to the most inhabitable planet, sitting just out of reach. The idea that Mars is a goal to be reached in all of its’ many incarnations is a great on and I wish Valente would have used a different approach to play with that idea.

Ranking: 2 stars
While a good idea, Valente’s execution of this story made me feel cold and distant from the text. There are too many references and ideas crammed into these 10 pages. Honestly, I found these faux-references exhausting as they were never given proper context to be meaningful. If nothing else, it’s a nice tribute to the red planet and its ability to inspire us to dream.

“Megaphone” by Rick Cook
Read in New Destinies Volume VI/Winter 1988 (1988), edited by Jim Baen
Originally published in New Destinies Volume VI/Winter 1988 (1988), edited by Jim Baen

Senator Steven Cherney is at a friend’s farm to remove himself from the busy atmosphere of the city. He’s contemplating the difficulties he will face when dealing with a new bill that will be coming out of committee. He was still deep in thought when the abduction occurred.

The idea of alien abduction has been around for ages and might have been done to death. I admit to not having read many of them. Even so, with this story Cook proves that even tired stories can be given new life when approached from a fresh angle. The aliens captured Cherney because they’re lonely and they want to know why humanity has turned away from space exploration. The reasons, of course, is that we’re too busy squabbling about earthly matters to direct our attention to the sky for more than a passing moment. For this reason, the majority of our great space exploration moments are behind us.

Yet, this little story has another element that I won’t spoil for you. It’s fun, but effective and brings home the main theme of the story which is that people are willing to do morally questionnable things in order to do something good. The ends justify the means.

Ranking: 4 stars
Far from being a radical story, “Megaphone” nonetheless satisfies. It plays with well-known ideas but gives it a fresh perspective. That the story’s tone remains light and familiar actually helps give it a bit more weight. The same can be said of its short length. It’s a solid science fiction story, with a bit of humour mix in with a good dose of world-weariness. 

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