Travel Documents 42: Space Opera

Space Opera

Catherynne M. Valente
Genre: Noble-bright, LGBT, rockstar, far-future sf

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The Dust Cover Copy

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy meets the joy and glamour of Eurovision in bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente’s science fiction spectacle, where sentient races compete for glory in a galactic musical contest…and the stakes are as high as the fate of planet Earth.

A century ago, the Sentience Wars tore the galaxy apart and nearly ended the entire concept of intelligent space-faring life. In the aftermath, a curious tradition was invented—something to cheer up everyone who was left and bring the shattered worlds together in the spirit of peace, unity, and understanding.

Once every cycle, the great galactic civilizations gather for the Metagalactic Grand Prix—part gladiatorial contest, part beauty pageant, part concert extravaganza, and part continuation of the wars of the past. Species far and wide 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. And if a new species should wish to be counted among the high and the mighty, if a new planet has produced some savage group of animals, machines, or algae that claim to be, against all odds, sentient? Well, then they will have to compete. And if they fail? Sudden extermination for their entire species.

This year, though, humankind has discovered the enormous universe. And while they expected to discover a grand drama of diplomacy, gunships, wormholes, and stoic councils of aliens, they have instead found glitter, lipstick, and electric guitars. Mankind will not get to fight for its destiny—they must sing.

Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes have been chosen to represent their planet on the greatest stage in the galaxy. And the fate of Earth lies in their ability to rock.

The Deets

The Scene

Worldbuilding

Oh. My. Flipping gods turning cartwheels. This is my book. 
Oookay, now I got that out of my system, the world.  Or rather, the universe. All of it. In this universe, all intelligent life very nearly wiped itself out. In the smoking rubble of the universe, everyone decided that the best way to answer the question ‘who is people, and who is meat?’ with music. In this universe, teeth and claws and big, big guns aren’t the only answer to survival. Sometimes, being unbearably cute and fragile and setting off every maternal instinct in every species is the answer. Or being made out of stuff so inedible that nobody bothers is. Or, in the case of humanity, being very, very odd is.

And we are odd. And beautiful. And stupid. And so is the universe. 
The wild, playful and technicolor tale is a mix of the best concert you’ve ever been to, and that children’s book you remember even in your fifties. It’s told with endearing, cockeyed honesty and wonderful whimsy. In this glitter punk mix is a wonderful exploration of ethics, psychology, organic biology, the truth about colonialism, and all the possibilities of cultures that could come up if you started with, say, sea squirts. Or birds. Or viruses. And then let them evolve into something you could call a civilization. In a good light. If you squint.

It’s a drunken dream of the universe, and it’s adorably insane.

The Crowd

Characterization

Oh, these people. Mira Wonderful Star. Oort Saint Ultra Violet. And of course, Decibel Jones. They all invent themselves–Des started as Danesh Jalo–and they all do the best they can.  They make dreams. They make noise. They make a mess with sex, drugs and rock and roll. They make you fall in love and shake your head in patient, laughing dismay. They’re staring down the horrors of post-rock midlife crises. They’re drunk on Rose’. And they are us.

And that’s just the human characters. Then we hit the other species. The exploration of crazy Keshet time-travel logic, compassionate blue flamingos, wardrobes that read your mind and pompous, stuffy sea squirts whose culture is sooooo much better than yours wakes us up to basic humanity, empathy, and the true vulnerability that allows us to make art.

The Lingo

Writing Style

I already knew I liked Valente’s work after the Fairyland Series and the Orphan’s Tales. But in this book, Valente’s wondering, solemn whimsy has been allowed to grow up and use the F word, kiss (anybody you like!) open-mouthed and stay out among the stars past curfew. 
It is a sweet, screwy, wild, honest, and heartbreakingly beautiful story of what it means to be sentient, and what it means to be worthwhile in this universe.

The Moves

Plot

The plot is direct: sing, or die. But in that simple arc is packed a poem, a buzz ballad, and a dream. I’m not going to try to explain it to you. Go read it. But I am going to tell you that, strange as it is, it absolutely works.

Overall Rating

The best concert you’ve ever been to. Grab your seat. Cue the music.