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“Space Opera” by Catherynne M. Valente

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I was lucky enough to meet Catherynne M. Valente at a convention, where she talked a bit about how her novel Space Opera came to be. She had posted an idea for a book—“Eurovision in space”—on Twitter, and her agent pre-accepted it. Which, of course, meant she now had to write it. The resulting novel tells the story of a has-been frontman for a glamrock band who finds himself competing in an interstellar competition to determine whether humanity will be allowed to take its place among the starfaring species of the galaxy.

Fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will love Space Opera, as the tone and voice are reminiscent of that book. However, by comparing it to a story known for its humor, I don’t mean to say that Space Opera doesn’t deal with any serious subjects. The perennial sci-fi question of how to determine an entity’s sentience is a key part of the book, as is the issue of how to build a functioning society comprised of species that are radically different from one another. The human characters also deal with broken friendships, guilt, and feelings of professional inadequacy.

The full range of Valente’s imagination is on display in the description of the various aliens Decibel Jones encounters in his journey. Because this is a short book, we don’t get as much time to explore these cultures as I might prefer, but Valente does an excellent job of making each one feel unique. The climax provides a lovely “sensawunda” moment, but it’s more than that. Like the best SFF stories, it speaks to something fundamental about the human condition.

I’ve heard Space Opera described as a “marmite” book, one that readers either love or hate. While I don’t think it was perfect, I’m definitely more towards the “love” end of the spectrum. Writing a story that’s humorous almost to the point of absurdity, while still saying something important, is a difficult balancing act to manage, but Valente pulls it off well.

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