Book Review: Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Saga Press (April 10, 2018)
Length: 294 pages
The first line of the description for Space Opera likens it to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and I think it’s an apt comparison because the influence of Douglas Adams clearly shows (and the author even acknowledges it). This is the kind of book that will make you simultaneously laugh and shake your head in amazement wondering how anyone could have come up with such crazy ideas. Considering how my first experience with a Valente novel was something of a downer (with The Refrigerator Monologues) this over-the-top and fun-filled romp through the galaxy was the breath of fresh air I needed.
Our story starts in the new future, when Earth suddenly finds itself visited by a bright blue, seven-foot-tall flamingo-like alien who offers humanity an opportunity to join the greater galactic civilization at large. However, after the disastrous results of a galaxy-wide conflict known as the Sentience Wars, these invitations are hardly going to be simply handed out to every new species they come across. So, what ultimately determines whether humans will be deserving of recognition and a place among the stars? The Metagalactic Grand Prix, a singing contest in which all prospective species vying for inclusion must compete to prove their worth. Come in dead last, and you will be deemed non-sentient and unfit to join the intergalactic community. Worse, your entire species will then be exterminated to prevent you from becoming a danger to yourself and others. (“Hey,” the blue alien bird thingy pretty much says to the people of Earth, “I didn’t make the rules. I’m just telling you all what’s up, so you better choose your representatives wisely if you don’t want your whole planet incinerated.”)
The good news is that the aliens are not just going to let the humans flounder, and they’ve even provided a helpful list of their favorite singers and bands—those they believe might have the best chance at success in the contest. The bad news is, pretty much everyone on that list is dead and gone, except for Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, a washed-up glam punk rock band who had one single hit in the mid-2000s before fading rapidly back into mediocrity. The band’s frontman, who was just getting used to being completely forgotten, is suddenly thrust back into the limelight as all of humanity’s hope now rests on his and his bandmates’ performance at the Grand Prix. Things aren’t looking too good for Earth, but at the very least, people are reminding themselves that they don’t have to win. Just as long as they don’t come in last, humanity has a chance! Unfortunately, Decibel “Dess” Jones isn’t even sure he has what it takes in him anymore, not to mention one of his band members, Oort St. Ultraviolet, is has become a weary middle-aged commercial musician with an ex-wife and two kids, and the other, Mira Wonderful Star, is dead, killed in a car crash. Everyone on Earth is now counting on what’s left of the Absolute Zeroes to get past all their insecurities and hang-ups in order to pull off a literal out-of-this-world performance—one that will mean either life or death for the entire human race.
Wow, where do I start? First: freaking awesome premise! But as this is Catherynne Valente, insanely and wonderfully creative ideas are pretty much a given. Her style can take some getting used to, especially in this case, where the novel is presented as an almost rambling narrative full of tangents and asides (some of which are just as interesting, if not more so, than the main story being told). In fact, the characters themselves even feel like mere footnotes at times—ancillary pieces of information tacked on to add more context to what’s playing out on the page. As a “characters first” kind of reader, I thought at first this would bother me, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. After all, how could I not be immediately drawn in by the wonders and fascinating sights of this amazing universe that the author has created? A small story in a big galaxy is how I look at this one. While it’s true that the book is more exposition heavy, and character development might be on the lighter side, Valente has really gone all out with her imagination and world-building here. Just reading about all the different kinds of unique alien species and cultures she has invented is worth the price of admission alone.
And then there’s the humor. It can be described as a mixed bag, but satire is definitely a major component. Valente spares nothing and nobody, poking fun at everything from sci-fi genre tropes to the absurdities of human existence. There are also pop culture references aplenty, as well as moments of slapstick comedy and just plain silliness. Admittedly, it can also become a bit too much at times, and I’ve noticed that the author has a tendency to get carried away, especially when she’s getting into a rhythm and doesn’t know when to hold back. Despite the story’s energetic pacing, things started flag for me in the last third of the book, quite possibly as a result of the novelty starting to wear off and fatigue settling in. Also, humor being so subjective, the strange and madcap nature of the kind in this book will mean that it won’t be for everyone. Your mileage may vary, and personally, I was able to enjoy the style and tone of the novel, but even I felt it ended exactly when it should have.
All in all, Space Opera was good fun—as you would expect from a novel with its loud and glittery cover, quippy tagline, and punny title. Its premise is most certainly guaranteed to be nothing you’ve ever seen before, full of lightness and frivolity, but there’s also a lot of heart and meaning. That said, I was still glad when the book finished when it did, before we started going overboard with the comedic shenanigans and lengthy asides. Valente might have wound up overdoing it in the end anyhow, but then managed to pull it back just in time for a satisfying conclusion.