Valente, Catherynne M. Space Opera. Corsair, 2018.
“If he lost everything else, pride, priapism, and producer credit, Decibel Jones would never, never give up his swagger.”
― Catherynne M. Valente,
From the publisher, “IN SPACE EVERYONE CAN HEAR YOU SING
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 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. Instead of competing in orbital combat, the powerful species that survived face off in a competition of song, dance, or whatever can be physically performed in an intergalactic talent show. The stakes are high for this new game, and everyone is forced to compete.
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.
A one-hit-wonder band of human musicians, dancers, and roadies from London – Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes – have been chosen to represent Earth on the greatest stage in the galaxy. And the fate of their species lies in their ability to rock.”
“I’ll put this in words you can understand: humans are hideous, pain-guzzling, pollution-spouting space monsters who might threaten our way of life. Now, how does that usually pan out in the movies, kitten? At least we let you try to convince us we’re wrong. I doubt you asked the dodo birds what they thought about it before you blasted the last one in the face with a blunderbuss.”
I had really high hopes for this story. Valente is a much-beloved author with a whole slew of awards under her belt and rightly so. But, this story was akin to a firehose to the face with details. There were complete chapters I scanned instead of reading because the details were unimportant to the main thrust of the story. Even then, it took me a month to finish this. It reminded me quite a bit of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, but with more details thrown in and less about the main characters.
The main story protagonists are Decibel Jones and his former bandmate Oort St. Ultraviolet, who have the best musician names ever. Former bandmates of Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros are human “has been” musical stars. Who was taken from Earth and thrust into this contest that decides the fate of all humans and human history? The characters are fun to read. Valete has a great way of describing the absurdity of her protagonists. Decibal Jones reminds me of a cross between David Bowie and David Hasselhoff. Other main players in this novel include a time-traveling red panda who speaks like this, “iamtalkingaboutstuff,” and a giant blue roadrunner alien that is their go-between at the Grand-Prix. The Grand-Prix is an opportunity for many sentient species to send their best singers and compete for fame and fortune. Also, with a little bit of Hunger Games like play to take out the competition. This applies for all competitors except for a newly discovered species, in this case, Earthlings who are competing to save themselves from annihilation.
There was a lot of great humor thrown into the story. Villette has a knack for writing about the absurd and whimsical. One of the main highlights of the story was Oort’s cat, Capo. Capo is given the power of speech by roadrunner alien as a welcome present to the band members. A cat with the power of speech is a horrifying thought. We learn how if cats were not so lazy they would roll throughout the universe causing mayhem and destruction. Totally true!
“Compared to you,” said the Klavar soprano, “humans are joyful rosebushes bouncing through the stars. If you ever stopped napping long enough to escape Earth, you would sweep across this galaxy like nothing before, an endless wave of carnage. You would hunt our worlds one by one and ruin everything we’ve built. Only your laziness protects us.” Capo hopped down off the railing. She lifted her tail in the air haughtily and glanced back over her furry shoulder. “Most likely,” she purred. “Best keep mum, don’t you think? Wouldn’t want to wake us up”
― Catherynne M. Valente,
The hard part about this particular story is that you get a funny run of dialog, then six pages of an absurd backstory about different aliens or past wars fought over a teacup or something. It gets exhausting and befuddling. The entire pacing is off because the reader is sent on wild and tangential streams of thought. If Valente took the bare bones of this story and turned it into a novella, then added in the extra historical history stuff as icing on a cake, it would be an utterly fantastic read.
Too much of a good thing. Too many adjectives, descriptors, and backstory. Too many details that don’t mean anything to the reader unless you have solid characters. Which we really didn’t. It was like reading a stream of conscious story. Which is fine, if that is what you’re aiming for. But Catherynne M. Valente was aiming for a whimsical space opera story with a nod to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Don’t get me wrong, this is a very polarizing book. Many, many people love it! Give it a try, especially if you love some of Valente’s other work. You will know within the first twenty pages if this story is for you.