Page Turners

Space Opera and the Soul



In this age of digital books it’s easy to amass a large library of books that you kind of can’t remember why you bought them. At least I do. I’m always on the look for quality stories, and when I hear someone recommend a book it’s easy to just nab it and stick it into my library, potentially forgetting why I bought it in the first place. Now that we live in a world where people are encouraged to spread their opinions about pop culture it’s incredibly easy to build yourself a network of folks whose opinions you trust, and find cool things you possibly would have missed out on otherwise. Which is how I came across Catherynne M Valente’s new novel, Space Opera. I had originally pre-ordered the novel based on a recommendation from someone I trusted, without fully understanding what the novel was about. But, after finishing Christopher Moore’s Noir I figured I needed something really different, and checked into what this Space Opera book I’d gotten was actually about. And, to put it succinctly, it’s what would happen if Douglas Adams wrote a novel about Eurovision. Which, is a log-line that’s incredibly up my alley. And, wonderfully, it lives up to that promise, and more. This novel is a hell of a time, and I highly recommend checking it out.

Space Opera tells the tale of humanities first encounter with intelligent life from other planets. But, unlike so many other tales, this isn’t a violent encounter. Well, not entirely. Because the galactic community kind of already got that out of their system. Humanity missed out on a massive, inter-galactic war that almost destroyed all sentient life, all fought over some misunderstandings involving wormholes. And, after seeing all life in the galaxy almost snuffed out, the galactic civilizations decided to handle their disputes in a different manner. Every year (a loosely defined amount of time) they host a massive musical competition, figuring that the true sign of sentience isn’t technology or science based, but art. They also use this metric to accept new civilizations into their fold, assuming that if a civilization isn’t able to deliver a quality piece of music they won’t fit into the larger society, and will thus be destroyed. All they have to do is not come in last place. Which is the position that humanity finds itself in when a race of aquatic bird-like creatures called the Esca appear to every human being on Earth to tell them about the contest they’ve been unwillingly entered into.

But, they aren’t just pushing humanity blindly into the most intimidating contest they’ve ever been a part of. They come up with a list of potential artists that they think could preform well. Unfortunately, the only artists on the list who are actually still alive are a one-album wonder glam-rock band called Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes. So, the flamboyant lead singer Decibel Jones and the stoic virtuoso Oort St. Ultraviolet find themselves flying across the cosmos with some Esca and a time-travelling alien that resembles a red panda, ready to preform for the first time together in years, with the very fate of humanity on the line. They haven’t really spoken since the band broke up after the death of their drummer, and heart of the band, Mira Wonderful Star, and are forced to quickly write the best song in human history, because when they land on the planet hosting this year’s Grand Prix they’re going to be singing for their lives, and the lives of every person on Earth. They have some allies, but find themselves in a position where they have to mingle with, and out-scheme, a society of alien civilizations that are wary of this new, volatile species, and jockeying to become the dominant songwriters in the galaxy. It’s not an easy task, and they find themselves put in positions where they easily can be tricked into destroying their planet. But, in the end and with a little help from some time-travelling shenanigans and a bit of inter-species breeding, they pull it off, and end up saving the Earth and welcoming them into a universal society, all thanks to the power of song.

This novel is an absolute delight. I see that it’s a pretty common thing to compare this story to the works of Douglas Adams, and that’s no faint praise. Adams is essentially synonymous with the idea of satiric sci-fi, and he’s the gold standard for this specific genre of story. And Valente comes the closest to reaching those peaks that I’ve ever read. Her prose is hilarious, full of musical references, puns, and a thrilling structure that leads you through the story at a breakneck pace.  She found a way to fill the book with all the necessary world building that’s needed to tell a story in this complex a story, and do it in a way that feels natural. The backstory of the universe, fun stories about the various species, and the specific on the structure of the competition, all while delivering a really emotional story about a group of artists who have found themselves unable to create, even though that creation is the most important thing in the history of Earth.

Which was the aspect of the novel that really fascinated me. It’s a funny book, ful of great characters and a fascinating world that I wouldn’t mind jumping into again someday, but the central premise of the novel is what most clicked for me. Space Opera posits a reality where the most important thing in the universe is the ability to make art. And, while music isn’t something I really talk about here on the site, the general idea is something that really resonates with me. Science and technology are massively important to human society, but the ability to tell stories, the decision to make art and improve someone else’s life, is something that means a lot to me. It’s a beautiful passion, bringing art into the world, and the idea that that would end up becoming the most important thing in human history is a great idea. This is a society that managed to largely put war and violence aside, and focus on the beautiful things they can create. And that’s amazing.


Space Opera was written by Catherynne M Valente, 2018.

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