Stories That Aren’t, or, Smokescreens for Other Stories

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.

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In the Night Garden, by Catherynne Valente

In
the most perfect garden in the world, a place of planned and controlled beauty,
a girl tells a boy tales, the kind that tell the story of what happens off the
beaten path, in the wilderness of life. 
She tells tales of monsters and princesses, and sometimes, monstrous
princesses.  She tells the story of
a world through the tales that the world has created.  She tells the story of life, the kind of life the boy would
give up nearly anything to hear.

Structured
as layers of lives, each creature encountered telling their own story, blending
with the overall tale the young girl whispers at night to the lonely boy,
Valente builds a world.  Rarely
does one encounter such a vivid world, or characters who shine so brightly,
with so little exposition.  Though
different cultures and creatures war with each other, each aspect of this world
blends together to create a tapestry of beliefs, peoples, lives, and deaths.  It is a complex ecosystem where a
single action, no matter how insignificant it seems at the time, can have great
ramifications for hundreds of years.

Valente’s
writing is stylized in the way of fairy tales, but also simple.  The narrative does not shy away from
what is ugly, or horrible.  It does
not shrink from the overwhelming ambition that leads sons to kill their
fathers, or that leads wizards to turn young women into deformed creatures in a
quest for immortality.  It also
allows the small and forgotten to forge a place of significance through
bravery, honesty, and every good quality that is best exemplified by the
insignificant.  It is a masterful
piece of storytelling.

Readers
who enjoy stories of the ‘once upon a time’ variety will find themselves
spellbound by Valente’s ever-spiraling tales.  Those who like fantasy that pushes the limits of
storytelling and world building will enjoy these tales that have so much to say
in so few words.  Anyone looking
for a complex narrative that combines a rich tapestry of folk and fairy tales
need look no further than In the Night
Garden
.

It Takes Two: Radiance and A Stranger in Olondria

So I sat here at my computer, staring at tumblr posts as the scrolled by, and thought to myself that I hadn’t done much writing–of any stripe–in quite a while.  I’ve really fallen off the book reviewing wagon. My reading hasn’t dropped off in any significant way, but I just don’t have the mental energy to write reviews, edit them, and then get them out.

So instead, I thought back to a few things I’ve read–recently and not so recently–and tried to come up with a theme-y feeling, or feelings-ish theme that I find weaving through at least two novels.

And lo, a theme post is born.

Here I’m going to talk about Cat Valente’s Radiance, and Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, both of which I’ve read and reviewed in the past six months. (You can find those reviews here on or my Goodreads page).  I’m probably going to be too lazy to go back and find links for them.

It Takes Two: Stories of Dead Women

Radiance is (spoilers?) the story of Severin Unck’s final days, her final film, her final journey out among the stars of the alt-Solar System discovered in the Victorian period and subsequently settled all the way out to Pluto itself.  In A Stranger in Olondria, the reader is presented with the coming-of-age story of Jevick, and islander who travels to the mainland nation of Olondria chasing stories and the learning he has glimpsed via a foreign tutor, but his quest for self-fulfillment is subsumed by the story, of a sick young woman he met on ship during the crossing, who revisits him as a ghost and haunts him, prodding him to write her story as she tells it in Jevick’s dreams.

What these two novels have in common is not simply the fact that each is concerned with the story of a woman who is now dead, but that each woman’s story is being told, in some way, by another character–or characters.  Severin’s father, the most famous filmmaker in that version of the solar system, is trying not only to recreate her last days from the memories and speculations of those around her, but to find a proper film medium in which to tell this story.  Jevick’s obsession with the written word is whatt draws the young woman’s ghost to him, an unrelenting commandment to put words to paper, to save her story in a way that her body, her life, could not be saved.

Each novel is a heartbreaking and stunning look at the power of art.  Art creates and drives people to create; stories tell more than their text.  Art is also sinister and dangerous, driving people to the edge, further, making them vulnerable to the manipulations of others.  Severin was driven to understand the murky ends of a small town on Venus, the inhabitants of which were divers for one of the companies who harvested milk from the great, semi-sentient beings living in Venus’s warm seas.  With her documentaries, she pushed limits in ways her father never would with the drama and intrigue he ladled into his fictional films.  Having grown up in a house where nothing was ever really real, having all been caught on film, Severin spent her life documenting instead of creating fiction.  In this way, Valente continues to play with notions of the real–as every documentary is still an interpretation, and is informed by the experiences and opinions of the documentarians.

A Stranger in Olondria pulls from the vast tradition of telling stories with other stories.  It is an astounding piece of worldbuilding, creating not only the people and living culture of Jevick’s home, Olondria, and other nations, but also the stories by which those places know themselves.  Jevick is so caught up in what he thinks is his story of discovery and growing up–almost a sort of ironic “noble savage” narrative, on his part–that he fails to see what is right in front of him.  In the same way, Severin’s father is so caught up in turning everything into fiction that in the end he doesn’t really understand his daughter, and is obsessed with crafting the perfect fiction to describe her real, non-fictional life.

The importance of these two narratives dealing with the stories of dead women is twofold.  First, in pushing each story-writer character to craft the story of the dead woman in each–via their different but equal motivations–the authors are not telling how these women died, but how they lived.  Though one is dead at the beginning of the novel and the other dies at an important turning point for the main character, the reader is fully immersed in the very real and vibrant lives of these women.

The second aspect of importance is not simply that these women had lives which are a strong part of the narrative, but that they did something with those lives.  These women had, and throughout their respective novels continue to have, agency and effect over the course of their lives.  Severing took control of a life she’d grown up feeling she had no control over, and went out amongst the planets to give context and reality to other worlds.  The ghost haunting Jevick belongs to a young woman who grew up illiterate, daughter of two worlds in a bizarrely colonial landscape that left her little room to be herself.  She dies from exposure to a disease she had contracted while on an adventure, and even in her sickness she refuses to be treated as a simple invalid.  In death, she is powerful and takes on a new life, part of which is the telling of her youth, and the other a hunger for literacy and immortality in the stories that Jevick prizes so highly.

The glint of immortality shines strongly through each of these novels, hastened by their meta-textual themes–film in Radiance, and writing in A Stranger in Olondria.  Not only do these novels share a similar theme, but they also share a carefully crafted duality that is both satisfying and challenging to read.  Though these novels are different in voice and style, they are well-matched.

Radiance, by Catherynne M. Valente

It’s
a party, sweetheart, and everyone’s invited.  On every planet in the sky humanity teems—watching silent
films, drinking drinks with fancy names, and living off the fruits of nine
planets plus all their moons in the art-deco alternate world Valente has
created, where humanity shot itself to the stars before even the 20th
century came splashing onto the calendar. 
And through it all, all the people on all the worlds are united by
film.  In the world of Percival
Unck, you can be famous not just on one planet, but on all of them.

Radiance is a story of stories.  Percival Unck’s daughter, Severin,
disappeared in the 1950’s on a shoot on Venus, only no one knows what happened
or how.  Through found footage, old
classified reports, and diaries, the novel attempts to recreate Severin’s life,
parallel to Percival’s attempt to give his only daughter a good ending.  If he could just tell the right story,
she might be able to rest—somewhere—knowing how much he loved her.  And Percival might be able to rest,
too.

Valente’s
novel is both a beautiful homage to a medium that has shaped the stories we
tell ourselves as a culture and people, and a nod to the classic science fiction
stories that first went to the moon and beyond.  Radiance proves
that not all stories have to be real, true, or even believable to have
meaning.  Switching seamlessly
between character points of view and storytelling style, Valente immerses the
reader in the tumultuous and trendy world of inter-planetary colonies, strange
creatures native to the furthest planets in the solar system, and the stories
that unite them all—from the stars of the silver screen to the serialized radio
broadcasts that eventually catch up even to all planets, even if they go behind
the sun for 70-odd years.

Readers
nostalgic for the open-ended feeling of early space travel science fiction will
find themselves enthralled by the way Radiance
dances in the light of all the imaginative stories that have come before
it.  Those looking for a novel that
is less run-of-the-mill than your average science fiction will love Valente’s
talent for telling a complicated and multi-faceted story.  Anyone who has ever dreamed of going to
the stars, or becoming a star, should check out Radiance.