Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente
Synopsis: The human race must prove it is sapient to a galactic counsel or be destroyed. The proof is done via a Eurovision-style music competition. Unfortunately, the galactic community has terrible taste in music.
Book Review: This is a book that would have received a drastically different review from me if I’d stopped before the last two chapters.
What I would have written is that Catherynne Valente is one of the most gifted writers of our generation, without reservation. And, as is well-known, gifted people often become bored with doing the same thing, regardless of how well they do it. So they are constantly exploring new territory, new styles, different methods, etc, to keep themselves interested in the work. Therefore, as much as those of us who have fallen in love with an artist’s earlier works want to see more in that vein, the artist inevitably will be trying new and different things. It is part of the nature of being outstanding.
Space Opera is written in the style of 80s British SF humor; and specifically in the style of Douglas Adams. It is impossible to read this and not immediately understand you are reading a spiritual child of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe (HHGG). It is dry witty humor absolutely drenched in absurdism. Even the cover is reminiscent of Restaurant at the End of the Universe. As far as I can tell, it does a good job of pulling this off. It reads just like HHGG did for me… which is to say I didn’t really like it.
I know I’m a heretic for saying this, but I never liked HHGG. I’m just not a fan of British humor in most cases. And in particular, I don’t like reading it. Every single thing that is described must be described for paragraphs, sometimes for PAGES, because it’s important to keep heaping absurdity upon absurdity in a spiraling comedic typhoon. I just find that tedious. And the fact that nothing is ever really taken seriously irks me. It makes it feel like nothing in the story matters. Anything can be waved away with “C’mon, it’s part of the absurdist joke!” and if everything can be overlooked, why bother paying attention?
Of course it seems churlish to complain about a genius author writing in a style I don’t personally care for, because that comes with the territory of being a genius author. To ask for this sort of thing not to happen is to ask for the author to not be so gifted in the first place, which is just shooting yourself in the face. You have to take both.
I would have also said that what kept me reading all the way through anyway is that sometimes Valente’s signature style shines through. Not despite the brit-humor, but alongside it, beautiful gems of emotional writing that snare your heart and pull it up into your throat. Passages like this:
In order to create a pop band, the whole apparatus of civilization must be up and running and tapping its toe to the beat. Electricity, poetry, mathematics, sound amplification, textiles, arena architecture, efficient mimetic exchange, dramaturgy, industry, marketing, the bureaucratic classes, cultural critics, audiovisual transmission, special effects, music theory, symbology, metaphor, transportation, banking, enough leisure and excess calories to do anything beyond hunt, all of it, everything
Well, even that is not quite enough.
Are you kind enough, on your little planet, not to shut that rhythm down? Not to crush underfoot the singers of songs and tellers of tales and wearers of silk? Because it’s monsters who do that. Who extinguish art. Who burn books. Who ban music. Who yell at anyone with ears to turn off that racket. Who cannot see outside themselves clearly enough to sing their truth to the heavens. Do you have enough goodness in your world to let the music play?
Do you have soul?
Which, first of all, that first part is a great distillation of the idea that a pop band is an artifact that proves the existence of a species with a culture. And the second part is just an achingly beautiful distillation of what it is to be human. There are amazing things like this throughout the book, which remind me why I love Valente, and kept me going. But, ultimately, I would have conceded that there’s a lot of silliness that doesn’t do anything except be silly, and you have to read through a looooot of it to get to those scattered gems, and one is probably better off reading one of her other works and passing by this one if one doesn’t have an abundance of time. I would have said “Good if you like Douglas Adams, but for people similar to me, Not Recommended.”
Except… I DID get to the last two chapters. And oh my god. At the end there, Valente steps out of the glamorous rhinestone-studded leathers of brit-humor and screams a full-throated Glitterpunk anthem of pure Catherine Valente into the glare of a hundred spotlights. I will give no spoilers. But it is raw. It is bleeding regret and pathos and perseverance. The undiluted struggle of being a flawed human in a broken world smashes into your soul and rips you bodily through this wrenching emotion. It is glorious.
And afterwards, it’s impossible — for me at least — not to have everything that came before it suddenly tinted with rosey light and silvered edges. Because that was the journey that brought me to this place. I may not have cared for it at the time, but man, that payoff! That made all the build-up worth it. It’s all much better in my memory, in retrospect.
So yes, yes — absolutely Recommended!
Book Club Review: Reception varied widely at my book club, which surprised me! Since I’m in the minority of not liking HHGG, I expected everyone else to be much more bullish on the bulk of the novel. But one of the HHGG fans made the observation that absurdist humor of the Adams style must be somewhat simplistic. It has to be easy and fast to read, a literary equivalent of a cartoon. Valente is simply too eloquent. She uses sentences that are a step too complex, words that are a step too big, and doesn’t keep it light and fast. It isn’t all just bold lines and solid colors. I found that to be a very interesting observation. Unfortunately it had been so long since I read HHGG that I couldn’t compare, but I certainly concede that Valente demands a higher level of reader engagement than average. A couple readers found it tiring/tedious and it didn’t hold their attention enough to finish.
Nonetheless, there were a great deal of interesting things to talk about, which is always my primary measure of whether a book is good for a book club. There were several memorable scenes that were replayed at the table, akin to when people alternate recreating lines of the “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government” scene. There was discussion of the choices the characters made, and of course of the ending. And, in a delightful turn, several of us reflected on how the book would have been different if written for our generations. To explain, the book is written for the 80s glamrock generation, and a lot of the truly good artists of the era (like Bowie) are name-dropped as people who weren’t chosen to compete, since the aliens have terrible taste in music. In my personal case, it would’ve been written for the grunge generation. Everyone would be shocked that the aliens wouldn’t take Alice in Chains or Nirvana, and instead ended up taking Nickleback. XD
Anyway, also Recommended for book clubs!
British humor is an acquired taste (I suppose unless you’re British in which case you just presumably grow up with it). But it is a taste well worth acquiring. It has the potential to be very funny and it ahs an internal logic. It’s not the case that everything is a joke and nothing counts. Some things are jokes and some things are serious and once you get it, it’s very obvious which is which and then it won’t cause any difficulty reading or any inability to be moved by the serious bits.
By analogy, Japanese animation has its own set of visual languages, by which some things that we see actually happen in world, and some things we see do not.
A: The protagonists eyes just became very large and bugged out of his head before returning to normal size. Did his eyes really do that?
B: No. No physical transformation occurred. It just conveys to the viewer that the protagonist saw someone whom they would regard as very attractive.
A: That guys hand just became very large and punched through a door normal size. Did his hands really do that?
B: Yes, he is fighting with the GreatFist technique and his hands become giant while he uses that power.
A: But how can I tell which is which?
When you’ve watched a decent amount you can tell. Likewise when reading British humor.
That’s a good point! I don’t really have the time/interest right now to cultivate this taste, but perhaps I’ll acquire it in time. :) Maybe if I find a few more friends who really love it and steepe me within it.