Space Opera

by Catherynne Valente
April 10, 2018 · Saga Press
Science Fiction/Fantasy

Space Opera is not a book to read all at once. It is a book to savor. You should read one chapter at a time and bask in the afterglow. I have a chronic illness that causes me to spend a lot of time in the bathroom, so when I say that this was a perfect, incandescent, practically glowing bathroom book, I mean it, unironically, as the highest praise. If it can punctuate the last week I had with moments of glitter, light, and delight, then this book can do anything. But I would no sooner advise you to read it in one go than I’d advise you to chug an entire bottle of straight absinthe. At least, not if you are planning to operate heavy machinery.

The set up for the plot, such as it is, is that after the conclusion of a terrible series of wars, intergalactic species agreed to come together periodically for a musical contest: the Metagalactic Grand Prix. All space-faring species must participate. Since the Wars, the various surviving races have determined that once a species has become space-faring, they must be evaluated for a level of sentience that suggests that they might not be irredeemably awful. The only way to prove this to the intergalactic community is by playing in the Metagalactic Grand Prix and not coming in last:

The only question is this:

Do you have enough empathy and yearning and desperation to connect to others outside yourself and scream into the void in four-part harmony? Enough brainpower and fine motor control and aesthetic ideation to look at feathers and stones and stuff that comes out of a worm’s more unpleasant holes and see gowns, veils, platform heels? Enough sheer style and excess energy to do something that provides no direct, material benefit to your personal survival, that might even mark you out from the pack as shiny, glittery prey, to do it for no other reason than that it rocks?

Are you kind enough, on your little planet, not to shut that rhythm down? Not to crush underfoot the singers of songs and tellers of tales and wearers of silk? Because it’s monsters who do that. Who extinguish art. Who burn books. Who ban music. Who yell at anyone with ears to turn off that racket. Who cannot see outside themselves clearly enough to sing their truth to the heavens. Do you have enough goodness in your world to let the music play?

Do you have soul?

It’s intergalactic Eurovision, you guys! Which means now I know about Eurovision!

Why didn’t anyone tell me about Eurovision before? Have I no friends? If you don’t know about Eurovision, please make haste to YouTube. Eurovision acts thrive on glitz and glamour and ridiculousness.

I’m so happy, you guys. It’s really hard to write to write this review because I have to watch so many videos, you know, for research. I take my job SERIOUSLY, OK? I watched “Rise Like a Phoenix” three times FOR YOU. I watched the Babushkas from Russia because of my WORK ETHIC because that’s the kind of person I am!

Should Earth come in last, humans will be summarily wiped from existence. The stakes are high. To the confusion of everyone, including Decibel Jones, the aliens insist that Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes represent Earth. Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros used to be hot shit but now the drummer, Mira, is dead and the keyboardist, Oort, is a single dad living in the suburbs. Decibel Jones himself (the lead singer) spends most of his time passed out. Is all lost? It does not look good for Earth, since not only is the band very much not back together but also, as Decibel puts it:

As far as quality housemates to be found on Planet Earth, it goes: dolphins, elephants, orangutans, octopi, then every single spider, then Joan of Arc, the Dalai Lama, Mr. Rogers, Freddie Mercury, my nan, all the scorpions, German measles, a dented recycling bin, and then maybe some of the rest of us.

There isn’t a lot of plot in this book, which, to be clear, is not a romance. It turns out that assassinating one’s competitors is allowed, so that livens things up. Mostly, it’s a string of wonderful quotes about the music of various species, and about fashion, and family, and friendships made and broken as Decibel and Oort and Oort’s cat go to a distant planet and get ready to rock, so to speak, while they suffer horrifying writer’s block.

This is a love it or hate it book, highly reminiscent of Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) if you put it in a blender with a lot of late 1970’s Rolling Stone Issues and a pinch of LSD and served it in a pint glass with glitter sprinkled all over the top. Either that description intrigues you or the threat of that much whimsy causes you to flee for the hills. It’s really all atmosphere and not that much story – they find out they have to perform, they go to the place, and either they show up at the mega-concert and save Earth or they don’t. I must not say.

As it happens, I loved the book and would gleefully quote it all day. It made me feel happy and bubbly. It celebrated art of all kinds, even (possibly especially) shitty art. It made me feel hopeful and it made me laugh, and I love the message with which it begins and ends:

Life is beautiful and life is stupid. As long as you keep that in mind, and never give more weight to one than the other, the history of the galaxy, the history of a planet, the history of a person is a simple tune with lyrics flashed on-screen and a helpful, friendly bouncing disco ball of glittering, occasionally peaceful light to help you follow along. Cue the music. Cue the dancers. Cue tomorrow.

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