Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Review of Space Opera by Catherynne Valente

I own two books titled Space Opera.  The first is Brian Aldiss’ 1974 anthology of bite-sized space drama from the 50s, 60s, and 70s.  The second is Jack Vance’s literal take: a 1965 novel about a musical troupe touring the Milky Way and the inter-cultural troubles they have on the way.  I now have a third to add to the group, Catherynne Valente’s 2018 Space Opera.  But how the hell to boil it down to such a simple summary?  “Wile E. Coyote” in space?  No… Universe's Got Talent?  No…  Glitterglam saves humanity?  No…

A combination of Aldiss’ figurative and Vance’s literal, Valente’s Space Opera is the story of the glitterpunk glamrock wonderboy Decibel Jones and his call to redeem humanity through song and save it from complete annihilation.  Decibel competing in the Megagalactic Grand Prix talent show alongside many other alien species, whoever comes in last will have their species wiped from their planet, the local biosphere left to rebuild itself.

If that sounds over the top, it is intentionally so.  As a premise, Space Opera is never intended to be taken seriously.  Capitalizing on the absurdity the novel mines the Western music scene and good ol’ alien conflict (i.e. space opera) for humor every step of the way.  From puns on popular songs to exaggerated alien species, clever similes to tongue-in-cheek one liners, everything that could make such a scenario funny is evoked, the spirits of Terry Pratchett and Jack Vance offering helpful advice from the wings.

Not simply a throw away novel for humor’s sake, however, Space Opera is intended to be taken seriously in other ways.  Valente possessing a huge amount of social, cultural, and political savvy, not to call the novel ‘satire’ would be a mistake.  For as absurd as humanity flying in a magical space ship to compete in an intergalactic version of Universe Idol is, the reasons the universe doubts humanity’s sentience, i.e. ability to act civilized, are all too realistic.  We bomb and kill, we destroy the environment we live in, we limit the availability of basic health care to all, we have an insatiable appetite for violence in our entertainment, we hoarde resources while others starve, we erect walls between ourselves, we…  In short, despite humanity’s advances in knowledge, technology, etc., our animality continually rears its ugly head in a manner we have yet to subdue for the collective good of everyone on Earth.  Which leads to Looney Tunes, yes, Looney of the Tunes.

A perpetual metaphor of Space Opera is the Roadrunner cartoon.  At first used innocently enough, it soon enough becomes clear that Valente is using the the picaresque duo allegorically: the roadrunner occupies a space where humanity should be, i.e. always one step ahead in clever fashion, and Wile E. Coyote where humanity actually is, i.e. always one step behind, failing to learn its lessons, and getting in painful trouble at major turns.  Both funny and sad, the book’s position as satire could never be expressed as lovingly as legs pedaling madly over empty air.

Readers who have encountered Valente’s work before know that she can be very… fluvial in her prose.  Sometimes the gush of words fits the story being told, sometimes not.  Thus, the absurdity of Space Opera’s premise would seem an opportunity to let Valente’s style shine.  And it does, perhaps better than any of her previous works.  Where Valente’s flights of wordsmithery can sometimes be obtrusive, in Space Opera it enhances tone and atmosphere.  There are a couple metaphors taken too far, and a few jokes stretched a bit too thin, but overall the Willy Wonka chocolate factory of verbiage is laugh out loud funny, razor sharp in observation, delightfully eccentric, or colorfully—neon colorfully—world-spinning.  I can understand how some might consider Valente’s prose purple, but Space Opera is the medium in which it grows and flourishes. 

Lastly, Space Opera feels like one of those novels whose writing came effortlessly.  Many people consider Midnight Tides the best of the Steven Erikson’s Malazan books, and in interviews he states that it was the book (of ten in the series) which came easiest, most naturally.  The premise and setting were clear, and the story just flowed from there (something that cannot be said of all the Malazan books).  Space Opera, though the opposite pole on the disco ball of fiction, feels the same.  It’s clear Valente had a huge amount of fun while writing, the joy of which translates to the reader to their benefit.  I doubt it will win any novel of the year awards, but in terms of sheer originality, color, cultural saavy, humor, and sobering truths it contains, Space Opera is fully deserving of a read and worth an ACME crate of the real space opera being published these days. 

*Note: A check of isfdb indicates that Valente’s Space Opera is the eighteenth novel, anthology, short story, or poem—poem!!—to have the title.  Eighteen.


  1. The basic plot (a galactic talent competition of which the loser's planet gets obliterated) seems to be stolen from the 'Get Swifty' episode in s2 of Rick & Morty. Briliant tv show, highly recommended, it plays with lots of SF tropes. One needs to give it 2 to 3 episodes before it fully kicks into gear.

    1. With the flood of sf & fantasy on the market these days, not to mention a centuries worth of stories, it's almost impossible to tell a story without stepping on the toes of peers and predecessors, unfortunately...

      I have seen two episodes of Rick & Morty, and I loved them in a weird way. The only thing that has prevented me from watching more episodes is too many things going on in my life...

      Thanks for stopping by.