A few months ago I read The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016, edited by Karen Joy Fowler (spoiler alert: I only read the stories by women, fite me), and had the pleasure of encountering Cat Valente’s “Planet Lion” for the first time. Just now (literally) I had the further pleasure of listening to “Planet Lion” being read aloud on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast (from a few years ago, I know, but I’m a completist and I just started it a week ago).
And even after two exposures to it, I had a hard time following the action completely, which didn’t actually ruin the effect of it because the way that Valente uses words is a pleasure in itself, and she’s the kind of writer that makes you feel confident that she knows where she’s going with it so if you don’t follow completely it’s ok. It was also a somewhat complicated story because it dealt with narrative not only on multiple levels, but the protagonists of the story were a civilization of marsupial lions able to communicate sort of telepathically with one another. Marsupial, three-gendered lions, I should be so precise to say.
Anything could have happened, really.
But the second listening and subsequent interview she gave with the podcast got me thinking about how some immensely effective writers can write a story that is ostensibly about one thing, when really it’s about another thing entirely, and I don’t mean metaphorical meaning, but actual narrative meaning. Valente’s story about marsupial lions on a fictional planet also tells the story of an interstellar war and the people whose brains have been cannibalized to harvest military skills that the combatant planets or governments can use against each other. It’s the kind of stealthy reveal that you can (case in point) miss if you’re not paying close enough attention.
Thinking about this complicated swirl of storytelling in which Valente has engaged got me pondering another story that makes use of this tactic, which is “How Dogs Came to the New Continent,” from Cat Rambo’s story collection Neither Here Nor There. The narrator of this story is writing a preface to a study about the proliferation of species from one continent to another, but the story itself is actually about the people who have gone forth to explore and colonize a newly discovered continent in a fictional world, with a poignant twist at the end which reveals much more about the fictional narrator than one would expect to find, and a pointed commentary on colonialism and racial supremacy in our own very real world.
As Rambo says herself in her afternotes, “I love stories that are disguised as other tings, and so this is a story disguised as a scholarly monograph from a Tabatian scholar, whose underlying story is much more interesting than the pedigrees of the dogs he’s discussing.” Like Valente, Rambo imbues her prose with a richness of meaning and imagery that makes fictional worlds come alive and linger on the palate long after they’ve been consumed. They are both author’s whose work I will be actively seeking out in the future.
I’ve only really encountered this disguised story gambit in short stories, and I think it would probably be difficult to keep up the conceit in a longer novella or novel-length work. Be that as it may, it’s certain a conceit I enjoy and hope to run into again. It brings out a certain attention to detail in world building that provides a solid foundation for plot. In the case of “Planet Lion,” the fact that we know so much about the lions lets Valente get the ball rolling with the human stories that are intermixed, as the lions become more and more wrapped up in the lives they have absorbed, more and more densely the longer this war over their planet is waged. It’s almost a surprise the first time, yet as it happens over and over the reader becomes hungry for this secondary narrative, wondering what could be so compelling that the lions can’t help but re-enact it.
“How Dogs Came to the New Continent” is presented by the erstwhile narrator as a dry introduction to a longer, drier tome, yet it’s almost as if the narrator can’t help but tell his own story, as if the entire reason for the long monograph is so that he can unburden himself of the history he’s long kept hidden. Rambo uses the trope of the dusty scholar to good effect, layering in commentary of those who seek to tell the stories of others with a moving tale of childhood friendship.
These are the kind of stories that get one out of bed in the morning.