Wednesday, June 02, 2021

Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

I've just spent a few minutes checking to see whether Blogger allows a two-column layout (it doesn't, not natively), entirely because my thoughts about Space Opera, Catherynne M. Valente's 2018 YA Eurovision-in-space novel, refuse to settle down into a single track. It's all !!! but also ?#&@!, and what I want to do is run those two trains of thought right next to each other.

I can't, though. So, instead, it will all go here, in something like a single consistent track. I may keep point and counterpoint in roman and italic type, though I reserve the right not to, and to delete this sentence if it turns out to be a stupid idea.

Space Opera has energy and zip and verve and style to spare. It is fizzy and smart and endlessly quotable; Valente's prose is sparkling and lovely and I find it hard to believe I'm going to limit myself to only quoting three things from it, because it is so quotable. Her narrative voice is awesome and assured and every single page of this book is a joy to read. Her universe-building is cacklingly funny a lot of the time, in a clearly and lovingly post-Douglas Adams style. This book is a hoot to read, and I recommend it to anyone who likes energy and narrative voice and humor and zippy writing. (And, if you dislike all of those things, you must be a pretty dull reader, I have to say.)

Space Opera runs on smoother rails than the Shanghai Maglev; it's main characters do, almost literally, nothing in the course of the book, which entirely happens to them. The only actions they take are those they are forced into - not because they're obstreperous or recalcitrant but purely because they never have a chance to make a decision or choice. Three quarters of the way through the book, the plot can be entirely described as "two has-been musicians are taken by aliens to a faraway planet, and are about to attend a party." Sure, there's some background - Valente's background is detailed and textured and interesting and wonderful - but the people this story is supposed to be about are just there in the middle of it, while things happen to them.

OK, look, here's the setup: there was a massive galactic war, around a hundred years ago. (WWII in space! Valente may perhaps be sailing a wee bit too close to her Eurovision model here.) All of the surviving species decided to sublimate all future competitive impulses into one big contest - this is the Jack-Vancean bit, or the every-SF-novel bit, where the One Thing explains Everything - that happens at whatever passes for annually for a galactic civilization.

Every year, each sapient species sends one band - they get to pick, note, and this will be important later - to the contest, and they each play one song, and there's some kind of voting mechanism that Valente either smartly or sneakily does not describe. (No sapient can vote for their own species: we know that. But does each race get the equivalent of one vote? Or does each "individual" in each species have a vote? How do we define "individual" if some species are hive-minds of one kind or another? How is that vote determined? Is it a first-past-the-post, or instant-runoff, or something even more exotic? It's not even all that clear how many species there actually are competing.)

The vote, however those votes are actually determined, decides how the equivalent of Galactic Tax Revenue will be allocated for the next Galactic Year-Equivalent. This is banana crackers but plausible in its nuttiness, and by no means the most stupid funding-determination mechanism in either real life or fiction, so my beef is not here.

If there's a new species - and I have to stick a very large pin in "new," since Space Opera makes it clear that Galactic Society both has enjoyed Earth culture since the invention of radio and is considering humans "new" right this moment - then that species also gets to participate!


The new species, though, has an entirely different set of possible outcomes. If the new species' song comes dead last, that proves this species is not actually sapient, and so Galactic Civilization will lovingly murder every single one of them pretty much immediately. And, regrettably, most of the time a new species' song will come dead last, for not-knowing-your-audience reasons if nothing else. (And there is much else.)

Oh! And! The new species does not get to choose its act: some friendly Galactic species will choose for them, inform them of the choice, and take away the entrants immediately for the event happening in a few days for which the rest of the galaxy has been preparing for the last year-equivalent.

So, to sum up, here's how it's presented to humanity:

  • Aliens have been watching for generations
  • We are forced to compete in this year's Metagalactic Grand Prix
    • It is happening in a few days
    • Humanity must present a brand-new song
      • Good luck writing it on a spaceship en route to the venue!
    • One batch of aliens have a short-list of potential entrants
      • All but one of which are dead
      • And that last one is actually one-third dead, since it was a trio
      • Sorry, no input from actual humans is wanted or allowed
  • Aliens kidnap the remnants of Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros
    • When they inevitably fail, humanity will be genocided
    • Too bad, so sad.
      • Should have tried harder to be glam!
  • Oh, and did we mention that cheating is encouraged?
    • The other bands will try to hobble the humans
      • I will say that actual murder is mostly frowned on
        • Though there's no real penalty for doing so
    • Again, they've had time to research humans
    • Humans have no defenses, no research, and are suddenly left unguarded by their supposed protector species right when hobbling becomes possible
      • How surprising!
(There is an obvious twelve-book Baen series in the same premise, with the plucky humans somehow taking over the alien planet-murderer ship and going on to wreak havok on those pointy-headed Galactics who couldn't leave well enough alone. I probably would enjoy that series vastly less than I did Space Opera, but it would have affected my blood pressure much less severely.)

Even for a book being published as YA, that is a wildly stacked deck. The fact that we all know that humanity will survive does not change the fact that it's a massively stupid fucking stacked deck. Add that on top of main characters - the aforementioned Decibel Jones and the single surviving Absolute Zero, one Oort St. Ultraviolet - who exist primarily for the alien characters to tell them things and have their clothing and surprised reactions to things described, and one starts to realize that Space Opera does not have a plot in more than the notional sense.

Look, this book is a lot of fun. The words chime, the sentences sing, and the paragraphs strum power chords. But you have to turn off a hell of of a lot of logical thinking to enjoy it, and I want to warn you about that.

Yes, DB and the AZs do rock out in the end, as they must. (I'm not super-clear if they actually follow the rules of the contest; it seems to me that what they play couldn't possibly be considered a new song.) And Valente has some odd hints that the whole genocide thing might be at least partially a shakedown attempt, except that the narrative voice is also super-clear that it is absolutely true and completely necessary for a functioning galaxy to have all new species able to make glamrock music on a moment's notice, because otherwise they are meat and you can just kill meat. (The narrative voice gets really strident on the people/meat dichotomy, frankly, and it worries me.)

Putting my ex-editor hat on, my guess is that this was written really quickly, and that everyone involved thought it was too much of a soufflĂ© for any serious editing or rewriting to be useful and/or helpful and/or possible. Given its debt to Douglas Adams, those flaws start to look like features, too - Space Opera is maddening and rail-driven, but you can not actually hear the flight attendant tell passengers to stow their laptops for final approach to LAX, as you can in one Adams novel.

So...I recommend it? Basically? If you have a worse heart condition than mine, though, maybe not. Particularly if the stuff I obsessed about above bothers you as well.

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