Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera

It is difficult to describe how Catherynne M. Valente’s new book Space Opera manages to be so wonderfully resonant of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy yet so insistently, inimitably her own. And yet, that’s the challenge.

Valente’s skill manifests in a book that bounces right along, full of glorious, funny, wonderful, sparkly explosions of humor and wit that still, just as Adams always did, manages to say Insightful and Interesting Things about Human Nature. And it’s funny. Did I mention that this is a funny book? It’s the story of failing rock singer Decibel Jones and his dysfunctional band, the Absolute Zeroes, who have been chosen to represent their world in an interstellar challenge that determines whether or not the Earth will be destroyed.

But it’s more than an updated Adams. It’s a little deeper and a lot better about things like gender pronouns and interestingly diverse cast. It has much more fashion and quirky stylistic details than HHGG, with fabulous living starships that resemble coral reefs, so much music of so many kinds, and enough eyeball kicks on every page that one fears sometimes for the safety of one’s figurative vision.

The first two chapters are admittedly slow going. The book doesn’t really find its legs until a bit into chapter three, after we’ve finally been introduced to protagonist Jones “lying passed out on the floor of his flat in a vintage bronze-black McQueen bodysuit surrounded by kebab wrappers, four hundred copies of his last solo album, Auto-Erotic Transubstantiation, bought back from the studio for pennies on the pound, and half empty bottles of rosé.”

At this point the alien invasion that’s been textually hovering in the wings for a while hears its cue and manifests:

…in everyone’s rooms at once at two in the afternoon on a Thursday in late April. One minute the entire planet was planet-ing along, making the best of things, frying eggs or watching Countdown or playing repetitive endorphin-slurping games or whatnot on various devices, and the next there was a seven-foot-tall ultramarine half-flamingo, half-anglerfish thing standing awkwardly on the good rug. Crystal-crusted bones showed through its feathery chest, and a wet, gelatinous jade flower wobbled on its head like an old woman headed off to church. It stared at every person in the world, intimately and individually out of big, dark, fringed eyes sparkling with points of pale light, eyes as full of unnameable yearning and vulnerability as any Disney princess’s.

This passage demonstrates the clean virtuosity of Valente’s prose in Space Opera. I’ve loved her other works, particularly The Orphan’s Tales, but this is a very different style for her and it’s truly impressive to see her execute it with the same seemingly effortless grace. Omniscient point of view is handled beautifully, and shows how well suited it is to large scale works like this one.

Space Opera will delight Valente’s fans and undoubtedly bring a new crowd her way, because it’s just plain good and funny and wonderful. I can’t imagine what Valente will pick for her next project. At this point I’m convinced she could make a set of instructions for assembling an IKEA dresser beautiful and engrossing. And I’m looking forward to that read.

(Saga Press, 2018; available April 3)

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About Cat Rambo

I am a science fiction and fantasy writer and editor. My three collections of short stories are THE SURGEON'S TALE AND OTHER STORIES (with Jeff VanderMeer), EYES LIKE SKY AND COAL AND MOONLIGHT, and NEAR + FAR (forthcoming this September).
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