The 2019 Hugo Awards have recently wrapped, and this week I am going to review a finalist for this year's Best Novel. We here at Fiction Unbound love Catherynne M. Valente's style and have reviewed her novels Radiance and The Refrigerator Monologues in the past. We love recommending her work. I was expecting great things from her latest, a science fiction novel about a Eurovision contest on steroids, and I was not disappointed. Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente is a wacky, hilarious, insane ride of epically nonsensical proportions and you should read it right now.
It begins with an explanation. You see, life is everywhere. In Space Opera's universe, "Life wants to happen. It can't stand not happening." And all this intergalactic life has run into each other and made a bit of a mess of things. A recent Sentience War has resulted in a shaky peace between all the major civilizations across the galaxy. That peace relies on a spectacular demonstration every year in the form of a song contest, the Metagalactic Grand Prix. Yes, all sentient and petitioning sentient beings must participate in a song contest every year. If a petitioner species doesn't get last place, they are welcomed into intergalactic civilization. Any beings petitioning for sentience who fall into last place are exterminated.
Those are some pretty big stakes to set up at the start of our story, and Valente, in her characteristic style, does so beautifully. Enter our protagonist, the "ethereal glamtrash satyr" Decibel Jones. A former rock star, Decibel used to be frontman to rock trio Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros. Tragedy struck in the form of the loss of one band member, Mira Wonderful Star, and the band hasn't been together since. At least, not until aliens came to Earth.
It turns out, new species petitioning for sentience don't really have a choice in the matter. Once intergalactic civilization finds you, you must sing. Singing, as it turns out, is the best way to gauge if you are sentient or not. If you deserve a place at the table or if you don't. It's kind of a beautiful premise. Valente presents this insanity in such a sane way, you can't help but wonder if somewhere out there in space, there really might just be an intergalactic Eurovision contest playing out between all the other forms of life.
Earth isn't given a choice in representatives either. Decibel Jones and the one remaining Absolute Zero are chosen for us to sing for our sentience. The other acts are no joke. Some species literally feed their hearts to the audience, some throw interdimensional travel into their act, and others can vibrate stamens to the tunes of every single individual audience member's best childhood memories. Decibel Jones is in trouble. How in the galaxy will humanity survive?
I won't spoil the ending for you, but I do want to talk some story specifics. Here is your official spoiler-ish warning.
If you are ever in need of understanding what a strong narrative voice is, just pick up Space Opera and read any page, any sentence. The way each description runs on and on, every detail more amusing and more revealing than the last, is pure narrative magic. I got chills reading some of these depictions, they're so good. Let me demonstrate. I am going to open the book to any page and take a description from it. Here goes, page 124:
Wow. Right? Every page is stuffed to the gills with this fantastic, mind-boggling prose. The especially entertaining parts come in when Valente describes, as in the quote above, one of the alien species that populate Space Opera's galaxy. Ursulas, for example, are a hive mind species that all have the same name, and are floating glass bubbles of sentient gas. The depictions of previous Metagalactic Grand Prix acts, winners, and events are also highlights of the novel.
Unfortunately, Space Opera's greatest strength was also where it fell apart a little, at least for me. I loved being immersed in this story, but I also got a little lost a few times. A few alien species I remember, but a great deal of them I do not. And when it came to Decibel and Oort St. Ultraviolet (his living bandmate) finally meeting the other alien contestants during some sort of critical cocktail hour where they could be assassinated at any moment, I could not remember who was who or what I was supposed to be picturing. I had to go back and re-read a lot of parts simply because I could not keep what alien was what straight in my head.
I also had a little trouble with the overarching plot. The premise is so insane and fresh, I was expecting more to happen when our poor, dear, in-way-over-their-heads, rock stars got to the competition. I figured there would be some scenes of them putting their act together (something happens at the cocktail hour involving seeds growing their costumes, but I didn't quite get it). I figured there would be more happening with the rule where other contestants could knock each other off before the big show to improve their rankings. Besides a very ill-advised sexcapade Decibel takes that does not end well for him and puts the entire act in jeopardy, not much else happens. Other characters offer to help our protagonists by offing other contestants, but I can't figure out if it was part of the sentience test or just something they don't take their friends up on. If it was meant to be part of the sentience test (would I kill someone to save my species? – um, yes, especially since they tried to kill me first), how does that factor into the Metagalactic Grand Prix? Color me confused.
I also wanted more interactions with the aliens. I wanted more with Des and Oort in the competition. It didn't make sense to me that they wouldn't have more time to put something together to compete. Why wouldn't they be given more resources to put on a good show? Why not spend a little more time on the hosting planet with the competitors to see what the Earthlings could really do? Why wouldn't the audience (of billions watching the live stream from their respective worlds) want to see more before the big show? More than half the novel takes place before Des and Oort even arrive at the hosting planet.
The thing is, the prose is so good, I wanted to be able to get my hands around it a little bit better. Still, Valente's frantic, jumbled pace serves a purpose. The novel mimics a Eurovision contest in more than just its plot elements. She initially thought up the concept because a follower on Twitter dared her to write a sci-fi version of Eurovision. Every aspect of Space Opera serves that original premise. In that way, Valente is brilliant. Pretty good stuff for a Twitter dare.
Sometimes, especially with setups as huge as the one in Space Opera, the ending comes off a bit lame. How can an ending possibly do a story like this justice? What does Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros (minus a Zero) do to save humanity? Or is humanity exterminated? All possibilities loomed as I read the novel. I could not guess where Valente would take it. I am incredibly pleased to say that the ending is surprising, endearing, and perfect. It does the story justice, and I was thrilled with where it all went.
If you are anything like me, you'll be wondering how you have never before seen Eurovision, and will immediately look it up. Valente did. In the acknowledgments she says that after learning about Eurovision, she became an evangelist - "Have you heard the good news? Eurovision exists!" After reading Space Opera, I became an evangelist myself. Have you heard the good news? Space Opera exists! And Valente is working on a sequel. How wonderful. Point to Nani indeed.