Posted on October 13, 2018
39. ‘Space Opera’ by Catherynne M. Valente
This book is absolutely nuts. That’s not an original opinion – it was written to be that way – and it’s a good thing! I dove into Space Opera when I was in the height of a personal crisis, and ended up devouring it in just a few days. I’d read it last thing at night, then go to bed excited to wake up and read some more. And let me tell you, it’s a hell of a pick-me-up!
Ageing glam rocker Decibel Jones is pissing away his life, drunk, in a shitty flat, lamenting the loss of his brief but stellar career. He was the wild, glamorous, sequin-bedecked frontman of musical trio Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros, but after a tragedy befell one of his bandmates, their fame took a nosedive and Decibel never fully recovered. He’s supposed to be famous; he was born to be adored by a crowd. And he might just get his chance, because Earth is suddenly visited by an alien that resembles the roadrunner from Looney Tunes, who tells humanity that they must compete in a vast intergalactic singing competition or face extinction.
I believe this book was born out of somebody on Twitter challenging Valente to write a book about Eurovision set in space. And she absolutely pulled it off. Space Opera totally captures the absurdity of that competition (which I love, by the way), where everybody involved knows that it’s silly and over the top, but they do it anyway. And at the heart of the competition is a message of unity and togetherness that we sorely need at the moment. In the liner notes to this book, Valente writes about Eurovision, which was born in the 1950s in the aftermath of World War Two:
“To unite a continent after the most horrifying war in the history of this planet with song, dance, and sequins is so ridiculous and hopeless as to be sublime.”
So Space Opera takes the spirit of Eurovision and projects it in glittering, mile-high letters across the stratosphere. Valente’s version is an interstellar competition, featuring dozens of alien species, each described in glorious technicolour. Their home worlds are described too – don’t look for super-believable sci-fi ‘realism’; this is about balls-to-the-wall imagination that you will either totally go with and love, or you won’t. It just so happens I did.
This book is also drenched with the spirit of glam. The cosmos Valente has created is vibrant and colourful and loud, and the competition humanity is up against in the Metagalactic Grand Prix is tough. New civilisations, like us, must compete to prove their sentience (and thus earn their right to live) – and although we might think we’re all that with our musicians and artists and poets, we also have a lot of black marks against our name (wars, genocides, the way we treat animals), so our fate is far from decided.
Writing about this book, it’s hard not to write in the style of this book. Valente uses long, adjective-stuffed sentences and drawn-out similes that really enhance this mad helterskelter of a story. At times I felt it was overdone, like she was obviously trying to make me laugh, but for the most part the writing is genuinely funny, and even when it annoyed me I couldn’t deny its charm. I think it would be difficult to dislike Space Opera for being over the top when that is the entire point of the story. Why do we hold ourselves back and zip ourselves up and try to hide the absolute fucking joy of being alive? This book is a manifesto for embracing life completely and fighting for what is good in the world. The central message of Space Opera is “Life is beautiful and life is stupid,” and Valente has captured that sentiment perfectly.
There’s so much that’s just pure fun in this book: talking cats, time travelling red pandas, coral-reef spaceships and monstrous, murderous horror-aliens. Space Opera is a breakneck, kaleidoscopic ride that will leave you feeling breathless but happy. I’ve never read anything quite like it. Plus, it’s simply delightful to read a book by a writer who has set no limits on her imagination and is so clearly excited by what she’s doing.
“Do you have enough goodness in your world to let the music play?”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
If you want to read it, you can buy Space Opera here.
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