In this Author Spotlight, we asked author Catherynne M. Valente to tell us a bit about the background of her story for Lightspeed, “How to Become a Mars Overlord.”
We’ve learned so much about Mars, with so many successful exploration missions in recent years. How do you think our new knowledge will change the way we write about Mars? Do you see Mars becoming more of a fantasy setting than a science fictional one?
I think Mars is just one of the dominant images and metaphors of SF. So the question is, if you write about a Mars that is different from the one we know from probes and images sent back to earth, is that still SF, or does it become a willful kind of fantasy, creating a world that never did and never will exist? After all, much of fantasy consists of alternate Earths. I don’t know. I’d like Mars to be an interstitial space, one which is still the focus of so many longings and dreams, and yet is unavoidably a real place, and one which is not perhaps as writers 70 years ago hoped it would be.
Much of your recent work has been in the realm of fairy tales and folklore; “How to Become a Mars Overlord” reads almost like the future folklore of Mars. Was that your approach to writing it? Do you think there are larger stories to tell about any of the characters and events on your alternate versions of Mars?
Are you trying to lure me into writing my own Martian Chronicles? Temptress! I love the characters I created for this story and could write more about any of them. With, really, the slightest provocation. I especially became enamored of Oorm Nineteen, the revolutionary poet. But to be honest, it was a delight to spin all of their micro-histories into this macro-tale. I approached it more as a combination of historiography and ad-copy, suggesting this massive history and the possibilities of Mars in a small space, almost a brochure.
Does the “seminar” frame have a back story? Where did that idea come from?
So, the Mars Overlord thing is actually a joke between my husband and myself, one of those metaphors married couples develop, only he had this one before he married me and I sort of picked it up—the idea that of course Mars is the ultimate SF object of affection, and so for my husband, an avowed SF fan, to be a Mars Overlord is this tremendous metaphor for being in control of your life, and aiming it toward a more perfect future. One day I asked him if I could write a story about it, and he said I could if I promised to do it right. Hopefully I have. The seminar frame seemed natural to me—every day I see self-help gurus online promising not much less than the rule of Mars.
Which version of Mars would you want to be overlord of, and what kind of overlord would you be?
Oh, I would be a gentle dictator. All of you would love me and despair. In all seriousness I would probably be some kind of Mons Olympus zen hermit, sending poems down with blue-skinned sherpas. The sherpas would trade them for champagne and earth-mangos, and we’d all be happy. But secretly I would be building an army of poetry-loving champagne-addicts.
Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about your story?
It is a strange little beast, but I hope it will be loved. It is a very large metaphor, but also a future history of Mars. It is science fiction, but it is also a wistful kind of fantasy. Mars is contradictory—any story about it must also be.
For those readers who loved “How to Become a Martian Overlord” what other stories—of your own or others—would you recommend?
Definitely “Golubash, or Wine-War-Blood-Elegy,” in the Federations anthology, and “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew” at Clarkesworld. Those are my big SF stories to date, and they have a bit of the same historian-tone of Mars Overlord.