If the elevator pitch “It’s like Eurovision, but in space!” just made you giggle with delight, you’ll want to read Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente.
I’m not really sure why I was so keen to pre-order this book. I don’t follow Eurovision, I’ve seen maybe a couple of videos on YouTube. I don’t watch any of our American music competitions, either. But despite that, the idea of a singing contest deciding the fate of humanity definitely tickled my fancy and I had to have it.
The story goes that a long time ago, many alien societies had an intergalactic war that was about as horrific as you might expect such a thing to be, all over deciding who was sentient and who was meat for the slaughter.
After all that they decided the only civilized way to decide on a species’ sentience was to have a televised music competition. Like you do.
Whenever a new, possibly-sentient species is discovered, they have to compete to prove their worth. If they opt out, or fail to impress the judges with their musicality, they will be summarily destroyed to make room for a new, possibly-sentient species to evolve on their planet.
Of course it turns out aliens have slightly different musical tastes than humans do, and aren’t too impressed by what we consider to be our best musical achievements. No, they’ve arrived with a list of who they think would be suitable for the contest, and every single person or group on that list is did.
Except for Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes.
Who are they? Just a washed-up glitterpunk band that broke up after their drummer died in a car accident. The two remaining band members have to overcome their differences and their complicated emotions about their musical career, and create a song that will prevent humanity from being wiped out.
While the recently-review Kill the Farm Boy wanted to be the spiritual successor to Terry Pratchett, Space Opera clearly draws its inspiration from Douglas Adams (and Valente includes a loving shout-out to him in the acknowledgements at the end).
I had a hard time sinking into this book at first, because the prose is… well I don’t think purple is exactly the right word for it. But there’s just a lot of words thrown at the reader at about 90mph. It has a sort of frenetic quality to it. I don’t know if it settled down at around the 50% mark or if I just got used to it, but I definitely enjoyed the second half of the book more than the first.
This is a story about rock and roll, and what it means to be sentient, and how to handle an overwhelming responsibility thrust on your shoulders when you feel like you’ve screwed up a lot of things in your life. It’s at turns funny, poignant, heartbreaking, and just plain weird.
I’ll admit I had some trouble keeping all the different alien races straight in my head. The author throws a lot at you in a short amount of time and you just kind of have to roll with it, just like Decibel Jones and Oort St. Ultraviolet have to.
One thing I appreciated was that while the author clearly drew inspiration from David Bowie and other glam rock icons, she didn’t give us a lily-white protagonist. Decibel Jones, Oort St Ultraviolet and the late great Mira Wonderful Star were each shaped by their unique cultural heritages, including being immigrants or the children of immigrants in the UK in our current era (and an imagined near future). There’s plenty of racial representation and LGBTQ+ representation (and the sexual and gender orientations go beyond our limited acronyms when we meet alien species).
Space Opera not going to be for everyone. I’m not even entirely sure it was for me, though the end certainly hit me in the feels and made me glad I read it.
Pros: A diverse cast with a range of genders, sexualities, and musical talents.
Cons: The author’s voice takes some getting used to.
Conclusion: Probably destined to be a cult hit among a certain subset of Eurovision-loving readers.
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