King of the Dogs, Queen of the Cats, James Patrick Kelly (Subterranean 978-1-59606-934-3, $40.00, 128pp, hc) January 2020
One of the most enduring and useful conventions of traditional SF, dating back at least to the pulp era, is the notion of a broad confederation of planetary civilizations, whether it’s Le Guin’s League of All Worlds (later the Ekumen), Poul Anderson’s Pyrotechnic League, or James Patrick Kelly’s The Thousand Worlds (a term also used by George R.R. Martin in his early SF). It’s a conveniently self-explanatory concept, implying a huge backstory that may never get outlined in detail, but that permits writers a kind of shorthand for locating planetary settings in a broader context, enabling them to concentrate, especially in short fiction, on stories whose focus only marginally needs the large-scale SF background at all. Kelly, whose latest Thousand Worlds novella King of the Dogs, Queen of the Cats also draws on the familiar tradition of talkative “uplifted” animals, is a past master at combining familiar SF elements into something that seems entirely new. What makes this one seem even newer is the way in which Kelly deploys a couple of ancient plot devices that have little to do with SF: the mysterious circus which comes to town, upending local complacency (á la The Circus of Dr. Lao) and the even older trope of running off to join said circus.
In the Enlightened City on the planet Boon, governed by a sort of clone/hereditary Supremacy, three species share a sometimes uneasy accommodation: uplifted cats and dogs, who serve as a kind of underclass, and humans. Visitors from offworld, called the upside, are also widely distrusted. Gio, who shares senatorial duties and even a wife with his ambitious grandclone Fra, but who dreams of escaping to the upside, is intrigued by posters advertising a multispecies “scofflaw circus,” the like of which has never been seen on Boon. Visiting a rehearsal in a nearby forest, he meets and finds himself attracted to another young senator, Kly, and also meets the ringmaster, a cat named Scratch. Sensing the anarchic possibilities of the circus at a time when the old-guard government is growing unstable, Gio and Kly join up, hoping that the circus – which “had never been just a show” – might provide a model for a more enlightened era of interspecies cooperation. Kelly packs a good deal of insightful political and social commentary into this brief but entertaining fable, persuasively portraying the uplifted cats and dogs as intelligences at once alien and familiar while suggesting sly allusions to everything from Alice in Wonderland to Puss in Boots. It’s a shrewdly comic tale with more of a bite than we might at first suspect.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
This review and more like it in the January 2020 issue of Locus.
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