Catherynne M. Valente has penned a range of works and won numerous awards and accolades. Her 2018 novel, Space Opera, channels some version of Douglas Adams in a twisted tale of an interstellar song competition—with the future of humanity in the balance.
Universal has purchased the movie rights, and the book has been nominated for a 2019 Hugo.
Does it measure up to the hype?
Title: Space Opera
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
First published: 2018
For reasons related to a past interstellar war, the assembled sentient species gather regularly for the Metagalactic Grand Prix, a musical competition. First-time competitors must not place last—or they will be eradicated, all traces of their civilization will be erased, and their bodies will seed their planet, in the hopes that the other species living their might do better should they ever evolve into something claiming sentience.
Guess which allegedly sentient species has to prove itself noteworthy this time around?
Our champions? The surviving members of a has-been glam-rock band.
Valente orchestrates this strange pop-SF symphony with wordplay, absurd situations, and jokes; inevitably, even the most discordant reader has to find something funny. And the talking cat? That should have been a derivative disasters. Instead, the “enormous four-year-old Maine Coon-Angora-somebody’s-barn-cat-possibly-a-stray-albino-panther mix” who is “entirely unbothered by suddenly achieving the ability to speak” proves largely irrelevant—and one of the best things about the book. The cat’s a grade-A-a-hole, and I suspect I would have preferred a story about its adventures in space.
I found the story, for all its labyrinthine sentences, bizarre extraterrestrials, and digressions into past Metagalatic competitions, takes a remarkably straightforward route to a variation of the ending most readers will expect.
Originality: 4/6 For all of its obvious inspirations, this book features a bizarre premise and some truly oddball aliens.
Imagery: 6/6 Valente excels at bizarre and vivid imagery, and we get a surfeit of it. This writer, like Life, “loves nothing more than showing off. Give it the jankiest glob of fungus on the tiniest flake of dried comet-vomit wheeling drunkenly around the most underachieving star in the middle of the most depressing urban blight the cosmos has to offer, and in a few billion years, give or take, you’ll have a teeming society of telekinetic mushroom people worshipping the Great Chanterelle and zipping around their local points of interest in the tastiest of light browned rocket ships” (3).
Characterization: 4/6 While Decibel Jones, a hedonist has-been variation of Bowie at peak Ziggy, has a contextually credible background (and the cat feels credible), most of the characters don’t rise to the level of those simplified but memorable beings who inhabit Valente’s acknowledged inspiration, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Emotional Response: 3/6 Years ago, when a certain Voltaire-and-Vonnegut-reading, Kubrick-and-Python -watching teenage smartass first encountered Hitchhiker’s Guide, I thought I had found the Holy Grail, in moulded plastic. A much older me who occasionally posts at an obscure site called “Bureau42” really wanted to like this book. And I had a few laughs. But honestly, the shorter works of Valente’s I’ve read impressed me a good deal more.
Overall score: 4/6 I can’t dispute Valente’s gifts and potential as a writer. I just don’t share the fannish enthusiasm and Hugo-love over this particular book.
In total, Space Opera receives 30/42