The New Sound

Catherynne Valente – Space Opera (Corsair, 2018)

For a while now I’ve been saying that the “s.f. / fantasy” section of Waterstones should be renamed to the “interesting premises” section. The rest of the literature shelves can then be renamed to “depression and divorces” accordingly.

Premises don’t come any more interesting than Catherynne Valente’s Space Opera. Earth makes first contact, only to discover that the universe is recovering from a terrible galactic civil war. The remaining empires are now governed by a bureaucratic coalition similar to the EU.

To avoid being destroyed by this galactic megacoalition, races must prove their sentience through the ultimate cultural challenge; a singing contest.

The stage is then set for an intergalactic fusion of Eurovision and Wacky Races, with contestants preparing for their time in the spotlight by trying to kill each prior to first rehearsal.

The novel is firmly in the comic tradition of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. However, Valente’s frenetic, scattershot approach to exposition simultaneously elevates her above comedy and, at times, threatens to undermine the simple pleasures of laughter altogether.

The protagonist of the novel, Decibel Jones of the Absolute Zeroes, is picked as humanity’s representative despite being thoroughly washed up. Aliens, Valente assures us, love theatricality, and being the last surviving glam rocker, Jones is their chosen performer.

When Jones is the focus, Valente’s prose heats up to a rolling psychedelic boil, mixing jive talk, camp posturing and wild similes in a way that is more than just funny: it’s funky! You can hear the music behind it; thudding, thumping and grinding.

Meanwhile, Valente lays out an impressively believable scenario wherein galactic civil war lead to a singing contest becoming the universe’s measure of sentience. Valente’s writing here is careful and concise. Her reasoning is logical enough that you almost start to agree. Maybe theatrical rock is the only true measure of civilization?

It is in the breaks between action and exposition where Valente’s writing falls short. She overuses the comedic allegory such that I found myself quietly skipping any sentence resembling “x is like silly thing y”. In a movie of the book, these would be the sections moving us between key scenes.

Valente heroically tries to make such sections funny, but often falls short. Still, this feels like a cult work – and what is a cult work without its lovable flaws?

Indeed, the cinematic nature of Valente’s novel extends to its structure. She introduces the premise quickly, gives us all the exposition we need and then concludes with the performance itself. One can easily imagine this as a Will Ferrell/Ben Stiller type comedy or even a British underdog movie like Brassed Off or The Commitments.

Herein, I believe, lies the root of some of the novel’s problems; the pacing. The majority of the book is the journey to the contest which, cinematically, might have worked. However, considered in terms of page count – the journey constitutes a solid 100-page chunk right in the middle – one wonders if Valente should have just got us straight to the contest itself.

The start and end are tremendous, and more than make up for the slacknesses in between.

Despite the dip in the middle, Space Opera is a still a fresh, funny and very funky book. Its literary experimentation lends it a cerebral credibility that standard space-comedy fare could only aspire to, and the exciting novelty of its premise can pull you through the weak moments, as you remember, with gratitude, how rare it is to find a novel that is truly exploring something new.

Frenetic, energetic, madcap, kooky… Valente’s novel might not appeal to everyone, but to those rare few readers who enjoy their screwball capers with post-postmodernist linguist experiment, Space Opera is one not to be missed.

– Joe Darlington