Litstack Recs: Selected Stories & Space Opera

Space Opera by Catherynne Valente

This one is going to be quick and easy – Space Opera by Catherynne Valente is one heckuva fun read.

Take Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and mash it up with Eurovision, and you have the gist of the story.

In much the same manner that the Eurovision Song Contest (originally called the Eurovision Grand Prix) was begun as a way to unify a war torn Europe in the 1950s by inviting countries to participate in a song competition and simultaneously broadcasting it t across all countries in the European Union, the Metagalactic Grand Prix is a musical competition that spans the galaxy struggling in the wake of the all engulfing Sentience War. Every cycle, the Grand Prix is simultaneously broadcast across the known universe to much fanfare and bombast.

There are a few key differences between the competitions, however (not including the otherworldly ways that wildly diverse sentient civilizations interpret and perform music). One is that the early rounds of the competition – before the “singing” even begins – includes plotting to take out, incapacitate or disable the competition (uh, non-fatally). Another key difference is that newly recognized sentient civilizations who are invited to join the competition must focus on not coming in last, for if they do, they will be instantly and utterly obliterated. Not just the team at the Grand Prix – the entire civilization.

And guess what? Earth just got its initial invitation. And the band that has been chosen by the Metagalactic Grand Prix Committee (by no means the first, or second…. or tenth choice; the Committee was dismayed to find out that Yoko Ono could not compete due to her being dead) is Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros, a glam rock band far past it’s fleeting shelf life. Glitter, lipstick, bawdy swagger and electric guitars may be something band members Decibel Jones and Oort St. Ultraviolet know, but can this never-really-had-been band rock hard enough to save mankind?

This book is wonderfully, cheekily written, channeling the best of Douglas Adams, with wry observations, hilarious asides and you-gotta-be-kidding-me/oh-you-aren’t depictions of other planets, other civilizations, and other ways of looking at what it means to be sentient. The level of imagination that went into Space Opera is turned up way past expectations (which is, actually, what one should expect from Catherynne Valente). But just when you wonder when the farcical pomposity might actually amount to something cataclysmic, Valente brings in something else so human, so humane, or so outrageously normal that it takes your breath away – not in spectacle, but in gut-wrenching familiarity.

It’s a wonderful, fun, amazing, silly, mind-bending, absolutely uproarious romp. And it’s not to be missed.

—Sharon Browning