Saga Press, 2018, 294 pages
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy meets Eurovision in an over-the-top galactic science fiction spectacle from best-selling author Catherynne Valente where sentient races compete for glory in a universe-wide musical contest - where the stakes are as high as the fate of planet Earth.
A century ago, the Sentience Wars tore the galaxy apart and nearly ended the entire concept of intelligent space-faring life. In the aftermath, a curious tradition was invented - something to cheer up everyone who was left and bring the shattered worlds together in the spirit of peace, unity, and understanding.
Once every cycle, the civilizations gather for the Metagalactic Grand Prix - part gladiatorial contest, part beauty pageant, part concert extravaganza, and part continuation of the wars of the past. Instead of competing in orbital combat, the powerful species that survived face off in a competition of song, dance, or whatever can be physically performed in an intergalactic talent show. The stakes are high for this new game, and everyone is forced to compete.
This year, though, humankind has discovered the enormous universe. And while they expected to discover a grand drama of diplomacy, gunships, wormholes, and stoic councils of aliens, they have instead found glitter, lipstick, and electric guitars. Mankind will not get to fight for its destiny - they must sing.
A band of human musicians, dancers, and roadies have been chosen to represent Earth on the greatest stage in the galaxy. And the fate of their species lies in their ability to rock.
Life is beautiful and life is stupid. This is, in fact, widely regarded as a universal rule not less inviolable than the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the Uncertainty Principle, and No Post on Sundays. As long as you keep that in mind, and never give more weight to one than the other, the history of the galaxy is a simple tune with lyrics flashed on-screen and a helpful, friendly bouncing disco ball of all-annihilating flames to help you follow along.
Picture a Pakistani-Brit Ziggy Stardust in a Douglas Adams novel, in a plot like The Pink Panther Strikes Again with casting from the Mos Eisley Cantina, staged on Eurovision, and you have Space Opera, and a fair description of what most of the text reads like as well.
I am a big fan of Catherynne Valente, but she's one of those writers with a very distinctive style that does not always hit the right notes for me. To use what is possibly the most unlikely equivalence of all, I will compare her to Cormac McCarthy — sometimes his long, run-on punctuationless walls of text evoke the natural world and the brutality of humankind in an incomparable, breathtaking fashion, and sometimes you just want to throw one of his books at the wall and say "Learn what a comma is for, you pretentious piker!"
Valente is very fond of "word bling" — she decorates her sentences with glittering Oort clouds of adjectives and metaphors dredged up from Jungian archetypes as envisioned by Lovecraft in prosey crafted artisanal constructions that sometimes look like works of genius and sometimes look like the work of a precious, precious child trying to show what a clever girl she is, with such a big vocabulary.
In Space Opera, Catherynne Valente tries to be funny. And... it doesn't really work.
True confession time: I have never been a fan of Douglas Adams. I read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and my reaction was "meh." Yes, it was clever and funny in places and unimaginably alien aliens who still act like a bunch of quarreling civil servants was a cute schtick for... oh, one book. I felt no need to read the rest of the series. Catherynne Valente is clearly doing a riff on Adams in her own style, and she always puts a little bit of heart, some existential soul-searching, into her books. So in Space Opera, the aliens who come to destroy Earth aren't doing so because it happens to be in the way of an intergalactic freeway construction progress. They are doing it because:
I'll put this in words you can understand: humans are hideous, pain-guzzling, pollution-spouting space monsters who might threaten our way of life. Now, how does that usually pan out in the movies, kitten? At least we let you try to convince us we're wrong. I doubt you asked the dodo birds what they thought about it before you blasted the last one in the face with a blunderbuss.
Earth got noticed by the rest of the galaxy, and it turns out that there is a process for inducting newly-discovered sentient species into the galactic community: you have to prove your sentience. With a song.
In madcap Douglas Adams-style fashion, the aliens abduct a has-been glam rocker named Decibel Jones and his estranged band to represent Earth in the Metagalactic Grand Prix, which is basically a EuroVision-style music competition in which Valente can describe all sorts of bizarre aliens performing music in ways that defy carbon-based physiology and psychological understanding, and yet underneath the tusks and tentacles and slime and photonic beams and viral colonies, all the aliens are basically a bunch of divas converging on the Grand Prix like a Coachella Festival as filmed by James Cameron with set design by H.R. Giger. For added drama, it turns out that it's tacitly encouraged to sabotage your competition before the performance; the drama makes for better ratings. Actual murder is considered a bit gauche, but not against the rules. So Decibel Jones and his band not only have to outsing the rest of the galaxy, but also avoid getting kacked in the process in a game whose rules they don't even really understand.
And it's all kind of funny. But with sentence after sentence with descriptions like "something that looked like a zoo run through a blender" or "the lovechild of a rhinoceros and a chainsaw who then went on to mate with (some other ridiculous bizarro combination of unlikely juxtapositions)," it also got a bit tedious. There was more "Look how zany and clever and funny all these alien shenanigans are!" than plot.
This reads like a negative review, I know. I am often critical of those "middle-of-the-road" books that I actually rather liked but just wanted to be so much better. And Catherynne Valente is capable of much better. Space Opera was an imaginative romp that lives up to its title — alien hijinks and glam rockers saving the world. It was just a bit lightweight with too much descriptive filler. But I absolutely think Jermaine Clement should play Decibel Jones in the movie.
Also by Catherynne M. Valente: My reviews of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, The Habitation of the Blessed, Silently and Very Fast, Deathless, and Six-Gun Snow White.
My complete list of book reviews.