Space Opera by Catherynne M Valente

Subjective Chaos category – Science Fiction       

Publisher – Corsair

Published – Out Now

Price - £7.99 Kindle £8.99 paperback

In space everyone can hear you sing

A century ago, intelligent space-faring life was nearly destroyed during the Sentience wars. To bring the shattered worlds together in the spirit of peace, unity and understanding, the Metagalactic Grand Prix was created. Part concert, part contest, all extravaganza, species far and wide gather to compete in feats of song, dance and/or whatever facsimile of these can be performed by various creatures who may or may not possess, in the traditional sense, feet mouths, larynxes or faces.

This year humankind has discovered that it must fight for its destiny not with diplomacy, gunships and stoic councils – but with glitter, lipstick and electric guitars.

A washed-up glam rock trio from London, Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, has been chosen to represent humanity on the greatest stage in the galaxy. The fate of Earth lies in their ability to ROCK

A longstanding UK tradition is to watch the Eurovision Song Contest. It is a deeply weird set of many countries doing unusual pop songs to unusual backing sets and dancers.  It is finely balanced kitsch, fun and a tiny bit of geo-political analysis. Now with the power of twitter it is an even more glorious spectacle.  Catherynne M Valente who has also fallen for the charms of this tournament gives us a novel where the concept is now on a galactic stage and aims to give the reader something very different on the SF stage.  Its certainly an unforgettable experience but I think enjoyment levels will vary with your particular sense of humour.

The main plot focuses on humanity finally getting noticed by the rest of the galaxy and they’re understandably a bit worried about us. Over time the galaxy has seen lots of would be civilisations get to the stars and then try to take over the universe for ultimate power over the rest.  This led to many conflicts so now its simple once identified your planet takes part in a singing contest and prove to the rest of the universe, you’re not a waste of space.  But if you’re last your world will be obliterated. Having carefully studied our planet they have identified music that is likely to appeal to e wider word, unfortunately in this universe Yoko Ono has passed away so the band still alive is a former glam rock group named Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes – sadly one member now deceased and the other two parted company on bad terms. Decibel Jones the lead singer now living the life of all former pop stars with ever declining fan bases and Oort Ultraviolet now a session musician for any tune going. Despite all the protests of governments and music critics everywhere the universe has spoken, and the remaining two thirds of the band are whisked into space for preparation. The universe by the way does allow people to cheat and try to get the band not able to perform….

This is an amazingly inventive novel. Valente alternates chapters between the developing story of the band and earth’s ultimate peril with chapters giving us the history of the Grand Prix and the races that took part in it. On the one hand aliens are amazingly varied and unusual (always an advantage of a novel over TV) so we have the parallel universe crossing Keshet (like a red panda); the plant like Klavaret or the ultra-black so black they take in all light Elakh. Each very different and has a tale of how they did or did not find their ways into the wider universe.  In turns funny; sad and satirical. Its clearly a labour of love creating this eclectic set of aliens and you can see the love for Eurovision in all its glam and style pouring through.

My issue though was this possibly felt too much and the inserts got in the way of the main story. There are some lovely character moments  - we see Decibel as Danesh working out what he wanted to do against all his family pressure to stay in a normal profession and with Oort we see someone who has a lot of family love and just wants to be an everyday person even when he is clearly not. You do want these two to find a way to play again but for me there wasn’t too much time allowed for the main plot to bleed. Instead we get so many interludes that it becomes wearing and the reading for me threw me out of the story a lot.  Each on their own works but the combined effect is relentless - for me Eurovision is an immersive event, and this didn’t work.  Part of this was the chosen style goes for the extravagant so everything is overly described and if an analogy is chosen then another two will follow.  The rule of three in comedy is for me again over-used and endless repetition wore me down. I wanted a little more humanity over style.

I don’t think Space Opera is a bad book at all. I think it is clearly paying homage to Douglas Adamas with its meandering interludes and I found them a lot more entertaining for the modern audience than I do with Hitchhikers but ultimately humour is very subjective and this one isn’t to my tastes. If you love your comedy more on the absurd than the satirical then I think this may be just the book you are looking for but from a Subjective Chaos viewpoint not what I would be wanting in my own type of SF.