Review: Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

Space Opera started as a joke. How else? Cat Valente was livetweeting the Eurovision Song Contest, Charles Tan made a joke about “you should write a Eurovision SF novel”, and Navah Wolfe immediately offered to buy the novel before a word had been written.  From these hilarious, humble beginnings came… well.

Take the combined aesthetics of David Bowie, Lady Gaga, Jem and the Holograms, and the Diva Plavalaguna and crush them into a glittery powder.  Now smash Douglas Adams and Hunter S. Thompson together in a transporter accident, and have the resulting author-golem snort an entire noseful of the aforementioned powder and then rewrite “Encounter at Farpoint” as a pop-song competition with humanity’s survival at stake.  That’s almost what Space Opera is like.

Almost, but not quite, because I still haven’t figured out how to describe the raw, beating heart and soul of the book.  The absurd descriptions of the aliens and their technology and culture, and the improbable appearances of certain Earthly avatars seven thousand lightyears away, are certainly due at least in part to Adams’ influence – but he never examined the failures and faults of humanity with such anguish.  The aliens’ gonzo music scene and the variety of neurochemical alterations needed to fully grok it, as well as the unflinching descriptions of humanity at its shittiest, are also somewhat reminiscent of Thompson’s work – but he never contemplated the human condition with such compassion.

In the end, comparisons to other authors and artists fall short.  The heart of this book is Catherynne Valente’s own, as is the variety of startling and revelatory imagery she employs, and they’re the same things that keep me coming back to every new book she writes.  Humanity, like all life across the galaxy, is beautiful and stupid.  We fuck things up all the time but we keep trying, and Valente loves us all for it, but that doesn’t mean we’re getting off easy.  Beneath all the glitter and glam, Space Opera reminds us that we’re capable of so much beauty, if we could just stop being assholes to each other for long enough.

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