Book Review: Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

Space Opera generated a lot of buzz when it was published last year.  This year, it got nominated for the 2019 Hugo Award for the best novel.  And rightfully so.  This is one of the funniest books published in recent years.  It is uproariously funny, unpretentious and unapologetic about reusing tropes that should have died a long time ago, and so well crafted that many readers won’t even notice these tropes.  It is a story of impending annihilation of humanity, which can only be prevented by Yoko Ono…

One day in a not so distant future, people wake up to the sight of a giant flamingo standing in their room.  The same flamingo appears to all people in the world.  After telepathically scanning the individual people and deciding which voice to use, it tells them in its best motherly tone that the galactic community finally decided to give humanity a chance to prove its sentience.  If they fail to do so, they’ll be destroyed.

So how does one prove sentience?  Well, that’s easy: by singing.  You see, the galaxy is full of such diverse life that what one species may consider to be a virus (a zombie virus at that), another species (in particular the said virus) may believe it to be a pinnacle of civilization.  One thing are common for all sentient species, though: arts, especially with ridiculous amounts of showmanship.  So, after a devastating galactic war, it was decided that a song contest would be held every year instead.  And new species have only one goal: not to end dead last, in which case they are deemed non-sentient and destroyed.

The flamingos were admitted among the other galactic races relatively recently, so they sympathize with the Earthlings.  Their representative brought a list of artists who might pull off the nearly impossible task of saving humanity.  On top of the lists sits the artist that is most respected by other species: Yoko Ono.  Unfortunately, the list is somewhat outdated, and nearly every artist on it is dead.  Except one: Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros, a three-member Glamrock band with two members still alive.  Decibel is first reluctant to believe that what he sees and hears are not effects of his latest drinking binge, but later agrees to put the band, or what’s left of it, back together and head to a distant planet to take part in the next galactic Eurovision contest.

Before reaching the finals, Decibel Jones and his band mate Oort St. Ultraviolet have a few adventures with the aliens, often in regards of a certain rule, which Earth-based Eurovision contests don’t have: it is permissible to eliminate opponents before they have their chance to present their song.  At the end, they manage to get on the stage: incomplete band, with Decibel having his voice taken away and Oort still traumatized from his last singing performance when he was a little boy.  Humanity is doomed…

The story itself is rather brief, but it is secondary to the real content of the book: very inventive and often hilarious descriptions of various alien civilizations and past song contests.  It is evident that Valente had the time of her life coming up with all the background stories.  Her skillful twisting of the English language is superb, making the aliens, song contests and the little satire of current affairs even more funny.  The book has been compared to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and with merit.  Even though it lacks its subtlety, there were just as many moments, if not more, when I was laughing so much the people on the bus looked at me with worry.

That is not to say there aren’t subtleties.  As a Eurovision aficionado, I appreciated the references to past winners and songs.  There were plenty of other references to current affairs and society, and I’m sure I didn’t get them all.  Then, there was in-your-face humor, which I didn’t mind, either.  Most notably, the book replaces the Hitchiker’s Guide with a list of Unkillable Facts, universal truths that nobody disputes, written by someone I picture as the chain-smoking woman from Kung Fu Hustle.

(As a side note for non-European readers: Eurovision song contest is held once per year, and all European countries, plus a few outside of Europe, may send an artist to compete.  In the past, the contest drew serious new talent, and a few well-known artists experienced their breakthroughs here, in particular Bucks Fizz, Celine Dion and ABBA.  In the recent decade or so, however, people have been taking the piss out of the contest.  Ireland, the leader in the number of wins, recently sent a turkey hand puppet to participate.  Recent winners include a bearded lady and a heavy metal band that performs in full-head latex masks of demons.  Still, though, the contest is spectacular.  It features the latest in sound stage technology, and even though the songs leave much to be desired, the showmanship is superb.)

Unfortunately, being the nit-picker that I am, I had four issues with this title.  The most obvious one is the writing style.  Reading the book is an exhausting process.  Valente’s sentences are often paragraph-long, and sometimes I had to go several pages without a moment’s respite.  The pacing tended to be very hectic at times.  Second, the book presents a huge logical fallacy in its main storyline.  The gap in logic is intentional; without it the main characters would lack the emotional baggage to make them interesting, and the sudden jump in logic was necessary for the book’s conclusion.  I found this a little cynical from the author, as if she thought that as long as she’s funny, the story was not interesting to its readers.  Third, as I mentioned in the beginning, the story contains some really old tropes.  The one I personally feel should have died a long time ago is about humanity deserving to be wiped out because we are a violent species who were observed killing each other in large quantities.  This is just a personal dislike of mine; others may be able to digest this part of the book.  Finally, the book is heavily drawing on current affairs and a song contest that is known to a relatively small percentage of the world’s population (and liked by even fewer).  I didn’t mind, but I expect that because of this, the story will age way too fast, and in forty years it won’t be as relevant as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy is today.

All in all, this is a very entertaining read, but it’s not for everyone.  Readers should be aware that the book is very dense, and reading it will take longer than what they’d expect from the page count.  Some may be put off by the slow progress.  Those who stick with it will be rewarded with one of the funniest stories, told with great enthusiasm and love of the written word.  Hugos sorely lack funny books among its winners (we don’t talk about Redshirts here), and especially after the depressing previous five years I wouldn’t be too disappointed if this title got the award.

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