Book Review: Space Opera, Catherynne M. Valente

Book Review: Space OperaCatherynne M. Valente

Book Review: Space Opera, Catherynne M. Valente

Science Fiction: Space OperaCatherynne M. Valente

If Doug Adams and Keith Laumer and David Bowie and James Joyce somehow shared a night of passion with a word processor that produced a science fiction cum Eurovision tribute novel featuring the absurdity and satire and fun and glam and extraordinaryrunonsentencesandportmanteaus of those fathers but was actually written by a woman who makes it her own and amazing and wonderful and absolutely delightful then you would have Space Opera and you would have the talented Catherynne M. Valente and you would have a book that reminds you of some terrific things while being unlike anything else. (This rather intentionally long sentence is in tribute to the authors mentioned above.)


A recurring theme through the book is that “Life is beautiful…and Life is stupid.” Proof of concept: Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros is a three-person band which had an unexpected hit, did a few tours, made a brief splash, then disappeared into what was undoubtedly well-deserved anonymity and obscurity. Until the day when everyone on earth simultaneously meets a representative from the galaxy, shaped rather incongruously like the plastic flamingos filled with liquid that bob up and down as the liquid flows from head to…other side.


Using a technology that allows it to appear to everyone on earth simultaneously (which saves so much time compared to trying to explain it over and over again), the representative gives Earth the good news: the other sentient races in the universe have recognized humans as being potentially sentient and are willing to give them a chance to prove themselves. The bad news: if Earth fails to prove itself, humanity will be destroyed. However, the rest of the universe will check in every 50,000 years or so to see whether another species has arisen to accept the challenge, so although it may be bad news for humans the planet as a whole might see this as simply a practice run.


To prove sentience, a species must participate in an interspecies singing contest and not finish last. They don’t have to win it. That would be an unfair amount of pressure for a new species, after all! But if they finish last, well, Simon Cowell will be the least of their worries. Or maybe the last of their worries. The other good news, though, is that the representative has helpfully identified several musicians and bands that would likely do well in the competition. The other bad news, though, is that the only one of them still living is Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros. And perhaps the worst news is that although their lead singer and their chief instrumentalist are both still alive (though no longer speaking to one another), the heart of the band was killed in a car accident. Her death marked the end of the band, the end of their careers, the end of their friendship, the end of Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros.


Like the heroes they are, however, the two remaining band members step up and…oh, who are we kidding? Earth doesn’t want them to be the representatives. They don’t particularly want to go, nor think they can get the job done. But you can tell from the set up, those concerns are irrelevant to the plot. Off they go to save the world. And all they, and Earth, and we the gentle readers can do is hang on and enjoy every white-knuckled farcical moment of this hilarious novel.


Although the author acknowledges her debt to Douglas Adams, Space Opera reminded me more of the adventures of Jame Retief by author Keith Laumer. (That may be more do to my being American and to my age–Laumer was one of the first sci-fi authors I read as a child and certainly one of the first satirical authors I read.) Regardless, Valente’s book deserves a place of honor on that same shelf. She is witty, brilliant, outrageous, and piercing. She completely sells the possibility that a Eurovision-style competition between races is the appropriate way to determine sentience. Should that indeed prove true, we are probably doomed. But it will be a great show.


If you are looking for a realistic-sounding serious look at future earth, this may not be the right novel for you. If you are looking for a whimsical, farcical, sarcastic, satirical joy ride filled with pop culture references and some of the most creative writing you will see in a long time, the Space Opera is just the ticket. What it may lack in hard science it more than makes up for with hard rock and sheer fun.


Also see:

Book Review: The Refrigerator Monologues, Catherynne M. Valente

Booklist: Fun Summer Reads


Book Review: Space Opera, Catherynne M. Valente

Book Review: Space OperaCatherynne M. Valente


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