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

Priests in Space

Jim Clarke – Science Fiction and Catholicism (Gylphi, 2019)

With a subtitle like “the Rise and Fall of the Robot Papacy,” Jim Clarke’s new book promises fantastic adventures from its very cover.

Dealing seriously with such questions as, “can Jesus save aliens?”, “what does the Vatican think about robots?” and, “if Priests could time travel, where would they go?”; the monograph is a mind-bending journey through the broadest reaches of sci-fi, theology and the politics of religion.

Clarke’s book is, in the first instance, a clear case of writing against. The narrative of science vs religion that predominates in Anglophone sci-fi takes for granted a narrative in which sci-fi’s forerunners are the proto-scientists of the Enlightenment and, before them, the Protestant reformers.

Such a history, Clarke writes, owes as much to Protestant pamphleteering as it does to any true analysis of Catholic “superstition”. He reminds us that Catholics had long separated science and spirituality in the form of Thomism, and that Jesuits are still among the foremost thinkers on the ethics of exoplanetary exploration.

The uncritical support for technocracy celebrated by the first sci-fi novelists, particularly H.G. Wells, are shown to have inherited a tradition of anti-Catholicism. It is a tradition that lingers on even after the genre’s faith in scientific positivism dwindles.

The majority of Clarke’s readings are, for this reason, examples of Catholicism as a villain. The Church is the foremost anti-science force in sci-fi. It comes to stand in as a representative of all religious faith; the rational, the irrational and the superstitious.

What interested me, however, more than the critique of Catholicism-as-bogeyman, was the many instances Clarke finds in which Catholicism plays a more positive, or at least ambiguous role.

Patricia Anthony’s 1997 novel God’s Fires, for example, is set during the Spanish Inquisition. A spaceship abducts a girl from a Spanish peasant village and impregnates her, leading to rumours of a virgin birth. Inquisitors are dispatched, one immediately believing this to be the devil’s work. Another, our protagonist, is of a more searching and (pardon the pun) inquisitive mindset.

The novel serves as perfect food for Clarke’s conflicted thoughts. It is at once a typical case of Anglophones writing about evil Catholics, but it is also a defence of Catholicism in the form of a rational Jesuit (the scientific Jesuit is a recurring character, particularly in religious dystopias).

The way that Anthony thrashes out the conflict between dogmatic and liberal faith is typical of sci-fi’s refusal to ever quite let go of the Roman Church that intrigues them so much.

Other points of insight include Clarke’s analysis of the sci-fi New Wave which, occurring simultaneously to the liberalising Second Vatican Council, leads to a number of strange holy alliances including robot popes, computer popes, a robot saint and devils in the form of algorythms.

Historical moments also serve to enlighten our reading. Clarke recounts the journey of Minoru Asada, chief robotics engineer at Honda, who went to consult the Vatican over the ethics of building humanoid robots. Creating sentient life is typically presented as sinful in Christian myth, Clarke reminds us. Nevertheless, after much contemplation, the Vatican ruled that, if Asada was a good man, then his robotics work must also be good.

Clarke is clearly underwhelmed by this answer.

More nuanced is the Vatican’s approach to “exotheology”: the theological implications of life on other planets. The Vatican observatory has hosted over a dozen conferences on extraterrestrial intelligence. The wide variety of conclusions drawn by exotheologists provide Clarke with a bold new set of theories against which to read his primary texts.

There are certainly a lot of primary texts too. If Clarke fails to convince in his close readings (which is unlikely, as they’re both well-chosen and well-argues), the sheer mass of science fiction writing that deals with Catholicism makes a case for this being an obsession of the genre in itself.

Science Fiction and Catholicism is one of those liminal-sounding books that, once you get stuck into it, you realise is going to impact your thinking in major ways. It obviously recommends itself to sci-fi fans and those with theological interests, but I’d guardedly suggest that it might recommend itself to outsiders even more.

Clarke’s prose is clear and concise, his use of theory is lightly done and always relevant, and Gylphi have done a great job with the book design, making the book a pleasure to read.

A perfect book for the space priest on the go.

– Joe Darlington