This is the kind of review I always dread writing — so many people loved Space Opera (2018), either becoming brand-new Catherynne M. Valente fans or cementing their appreciation of her talent. I can see why they would like it, I really can. The novel bears all the hallmarks of a Valente project: an overabundance of whimsy and wonder, intricately wordy sentences that sometimes become whole paragraphs, an aggressively manic-cute species, and much more. And there’s the acknowledged, heavy debt owed to Douglas Adams’ ground-breaking novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; much of your personal enjoyment of Space Opera will hinge on your reaction to that work.
For my own part, I had extremely high hopes for the enjoyment factor of Space Opera, especially as the opening chapters set up what this whole space-flavored Eurovision, the Metagalactic Grand Prix, is about. A long time ago, there were Sentience Wars amongst the near-totality of sentient space-faring life in the galaxy; the survivors felt that having a recurring battle of pop-songs was probably a better way to resolve differences and recognize sentience among newly-emerging civilizations; failure to perform adequately results in the annihilation of said sentient species in order to avoid complications. And now it’s humanity’s turn to offer up a hit song on the galactic stage, or else. (See also: “Get Schwifty,” Rick and Morty, season 2, episode 5.)
Earth is visited by the Esca, a hoopy frood of a species which looks remarkably like beautiful blue flamingoes, and who informs every human simultaneously via psychic linkup that they are not alone in the galaxy, the Metagalactic Grand Prix is about to commence, and humanity is expected to send a representative pop star. Quite a lot of the preferred choices are long since deceased, however, and at the very bottom of the list are Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros, who haven’t been popular in a very long time (and whose trio is, technically, a member irretrievably short). Decibel Jones and Oort St. Ultraviolet, the singer/lyricist/glam-god and “man of a thousand instruments,” respectively, are zoomed away on a custom-built spaceship shared by a time-traveling creature called a Keshet which looks a lot like a red panda and verbal-vomits sentences like this:
I have already scrambledclimbedwiggled back and forth through every interaction we have ever had or ever will never have but might, every permutation of our mutual sympatheticemotionalempathicintellectualsnuggle experience, every outcomewinlosedrawnuclearannihilation of the Grand Prix, of your band, of your marriage, of every cell that makes up you and me and the future and the past.
If you’re not in the right mood for a fire hose of paradoxical whimsy right in the face, it quickly becomes tiresome.
Had Space Opera been a novella about Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros on a fabulous mission to (possibly) save humanity and, at the same time, (possibly) give the best show of their lives, I think it would have been a much stronger and more compelling effort. But Valente intersperses Jones’ chapters with entries about other species, other civilizations, random planets, and historical bits that read far too much like slightly-altered snippets from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy drenched in glitter and liquid GHB. A few introductory chapters setting up the history of the Grand Prix and the Sentience Wars would have been welcome, but the sheer number of them prevented any momentum from forming in the Decibel Jones storyline, ultimately both over-stretching and unbalancing the narrative, which proceeds in a herky-jerky fashion across just a few hundred pages.
With a little more room to breathe, or perhaps a little more focus, Decibel and Oort (and their late bandmate Mira Wonderful Star) would have been quite compelling, and their grand mission to save humanity with a really kick-ass pop song — along with the accompanying absurd-yet-profound message that “life is beautiful and life is stupid” would have carried quite an emotional heft. I couldn’t connect with Space Opera, but from conversations I’ve had with friends who adored it and friends who haven’t read it yet but are excited to, I think this was mainly a case of me not being the right audience for this book.
It took me nearly two months to read this Eurovision in space/Hitchhiker’s Guide mashup, start to finish. My journey began with Anticipation, shifted to Befuddlement and Boredom, passed through Dismay, flirted with DNF, picked up again a few weeks later with Resolution, and ended with an overdose of Whimsy and Zaniness.
Oort St. Ultraviolet and his old bandmate Decibel Jones, the two remaining members of a defunct glam rock band called Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, are tapped on the shoulders by a seven-foot-tall ultramarine roadrunner-type alien to represent humanity in the periodic Metagalactic Grand Prix, a musical contest that the various races of the galaxy have settled on as an alternative to their massively destructive Sentience Wars. Newly space-faring races ― like humanity ― are required to participate in the Grand Prix to prove their sentience. If they come in last place in the contest, the entire race will be promptly and summarily executed, perhaps by a passing Vogon ship.
Even though all they have to do is not come in last, the odds are against humanity and the Absolute Zeroes. Jungle rules apply to the Grand Prix contest and, frankly, the Absolute Zeroes are out of practice, out of inspiration, and missing the third member of their group, Mira Wonderful Star, who was the glue that held the group together and made it function. Still, there’s nothing for Decibel to do but try to write a new song, and perhaps enjoy a little partying and alien strange along the way.
Space Opera had its moments, and parts of it really did tickle my funny bone. Catherynne M. Valente slings a lot of humor around, and some of it is bound to stick. I think my favorite bits were about Capo, Oort’s cat who for no particular reason (the way most events in this novel occur) accompanies the two humans on their trip through space on an interstellar ship called Cake in the Rain, to the planet where the Grand Prix event will be held. The roadrunner alien gives Capo the power of speech (“Just a little strobe lighting in the hippocampus”) to prove to the humans that speech isn’t the determining factor in proving sentience. But Capo still thinks and acts pretty much like most cats do.
Nico and Siouxsie Caliskan’s enormous four-year-old Maine Coon-Angora-somebody’s-barn-cat-possibly-a-stray-albino-panther mix was entirely unbothered by suddenly achieving the ability to speak rather posh English. Oh, certainly it had been alarming at first. But adjusting to sudden changes in your circumstances was easy when you didn’t really care about anything. As far as she was concerned, she’d always talked. By some miracle, everyone else had recently achieved the ability to listen properly. She was over the novelty within half an hour…
The key to a happy life, Capo devoutly believed, was never giving much of a damn what happened in any given day so long as you got in a nap, a kill, and a snuggle, and the snuggle was optional.
I frequently came across parts like this that made me snicker or even laugh out loud. But the slight plot of Space Opera is surrounded by just SO MUCH glitter and wordplay and absurd humor and wandering off on tangents and then meandering casually back again, that it’s hard not to get lost in the forest of fanciful details. Pretty much every single sentence includes some kind of in-joke or off-beat humor or just plain silliness. After a while it just became mentally exhausting to wade through.
I’m a lifelong fan of the HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY series, and Space Opera has a marked similarity to Douglas Adams’s work, both in the abundance of screwball, often deadpan humor and in the slightness of the plot. But Space Opera just didn’t create the same magic for me. In particular, as Jana noted, its length works against it, especially with all of the distracting, at most semi-relevant, digressions. I also agree with Jana, though, that this is clearly one of those “your mileage may vary” books. If you adore Douglas Adams, Eurovision and/or glam rock, there’s a fairly good chance you’ll like Space Opera.