The musical/theater troupe is an uncommon trope of science fiction (despite such noteworthy examples as Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentines Castle or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven). The sleekness of spaceships and the void of space seem to leave little room for singing, music, colorful troubadours and trilling sopranos. Taking the term literally, Jack Vance’s 1965 Space Opera bucks the trend and puts an opera troupe through the rigors of inter-planetary travel—in highly amusing fashion.
Among other things, Vance is known for his singular voice. No, not singing voice, rather his intentionally over-the-top baroque style that nods once or twice to P.G. Woodehouse; a good portion of the enjoyment of reading Vance are the thrusts and parries of dialogue. Space Opera featuring a pompous patron of the arts at odds with a stuffy ship captain and sharp-tongued young woman, the medium would seem an opportunity for Vance’s style to shine. It does.
The patron, the stubborn Dame Isabel Grayce, gets the idea in her head to repay a group of aliens who visited Earth by taking her opera troupe on their own galactic tour. And nothing can stop her. Her slow-witted nephew Roger, the girl he gets engaged to after knowing her only two days, backwater planetary civil servants, and indecipherable aliens—nobody has an answer for her. Alien cultures outlaid as only Vance can (the ‘zants, for example, who each live in their own hole, are a delight, as is the Johnny Cash/Folsom Prison concert), the novel is not only a tour of Vance’s imagination, but also a representation of his thoughts on music, music snobbery, and the meaning of being open-minded towards other forms of culture. Vance traveled extensively while writing, and this is one of his strongest novels wherein the tolerance and appreciation for other ways of life really shine through.
Space Opera is light Vance, but enjoyable Vance. It's something of a gimmick, but Vance makes it work. His style blossoming, the reader will have a continual stitch in their side reading of the bumbling Roger and his tight-laced aunt Dame Isabel as their ship bounces from one Vancean alien backwater to another, getting the least expected reactions to Earth’s ‘high form’ of art. Some light jabs taken at the self-aggrandizement of sophisticated music, the little guy and his proverbial homemade banjo are ultimately what win the day through. Taking the concept of space opera literally is something of a gimmick, but the novel remains tighter than Vance’s earlier work, and sees the author getting comfortable with the voice that would become his signature. “The Moon Moth” remains Vance’s go-to piece for musical ‘extrapolation,’ but Space Opera plays a strong second violin. (Sorry for the bad joke. Vance’s are better.)