Space Opera, by Catherynne Valente
Having recently watched the surprisingly good Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga on Netflix, I’ve been thinking a lot about Catherynne Valente’s novel Space Opera. The book is in the same vein as the movie – funny, weird, occasionally touching – but being that its competition takes place across the galaxy rather than across a continent, it also is often just plain bizarre. Take Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and mash it up with the Eurovision hype and spectacle, and you have the gist of Valente’s story – and it’s a huge amount of fun.
In much the same manner that the Eurovision Song Contest 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 a 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 as 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 being dead) is Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros, a glam rock band far past its fleeting shelf life. Glitter, lipstick, spandex, bawdy swagger and electric guitars may be familiar enough to band members Decibel Jones and Oort St. Ultraviolet, 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, which is something we all desperately need in these times. Crack it open, and like the best pop music on Earth, this book will transport you to a whole ‘nother place and time, and leave you feeling like anything might be possible.
A voracious reader who loves to share her thoughts on all things wordy, Sharon Browning has been a contributor at LitStack for eight years, including penning the weekly feature Gimbling in the Wabe from 2012 to 2017. She is happiest when sitting on her porch in Minneapolis, Minnesota with a good book in hand, a cup of coffee nearby and her golden retriever at her feet.