By: Catherynne M. Valente
A century ago, the Sentience Wars tore the galaxy apart and nearly ended all 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 civilizations gather for the Metagalactic Grand Prix – a competition where song, dance, and performance art reign supreme and every race accepted by the galactic government competes against a new, untested species. That untested species is humanity, and they’re fucked.
With only a washed-up, glam rock band called Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes to represent Earth, the fate of humanity lies in the band’s ability to ooze glitter from every pore, wear overly tight leather pants, and rock their absolute hearts out. That is, if they can make it to the stage without being assassinated first.
Space Opera is not my first encounter with Catherynne Valente as I originally thought. In researching her other works, I discovered she was an author for several of the Mass Effect Andromeda books including the novel Mass Effect: Annihilation and the Mass Effect Andromeda Art Book. For those of you who are fans of my blog, you already know I’m a huge mark for anything and everything Mass Effect, so she gets major points from me being associated with that franchise.
In this standalone novel, she did not disappoint. From the first line of the introduction, my geeky heart was laughing and already hooked.
“Once upon a time on a small, watery, excitable planet called Earth, in a small, watery, excitable country called Italy, a soft-spoken, rather nice-looking gentleman by the name of Enrico Fermi was born into a family so overprotective that he felt compelled to invent the atomic bomb.”
The story relies heavily on run-on sentences blending with eccentric descriptions before abruptly concluding in an unexpected punchline. Any style that relies heavily on run-on sentences can’t help but possess some clarity issues. However, I can tell that this was a stylistic choice as compared a byproduct of poor writing. I got the sense that the reader isn’t meant to remember every detail as much as “get the gist” while wading through the absurdity. It’s meant to be stupid, and that’s why it’s funny.
My only real complaint from the story was how difficult it was to keep the various alien species straight since the information for each was presented as a comedic info dump. I didn’t feel connected with any of the species because the “get to know them” sections were individually brief and yet collectively took up about half of the book. Again, the descriptions were designed to be that way and they were, regardless of stylistic choice, incredibly entertaining.
Space Opera is the perfect example of what a book like The Buried Giant could have been. Not every novel needs to be funny, but no one can deny that comedy is an effective tool for relaying morals and information. For such a slapstick, ridiculous, and incredibly implausible premise for a story, I found the morals within about the nature of humanity both poignant and truthful. It’s a scathing assessment of humanity packed into an absurdist future that tries to remind us what it means to be human and the impact we have on others and our planet. I liked what Catherynne Valente had to say and think she’s what Margaret Atwood would have been if Margaret Atwood decided to do stand-up.
Also, before anyone starts commenting, yes, I recognize the eerie similarity between the premise of this story and the narrative of the Rick and Morty episode “Get Schwifty.” Space Opera was published in 2018 a full three years after the episode aired. It’s entirely possible that Rick and Morty inspired the premise and humor for this novel, and I’m all for it. I love that show and frankly would love to see more books like this one.
Overall rating: 4.5