Book Review: Space Opera by Catherynne Valente

Disclaimer: I would like the thank Wunderkind PR for providing a copy of Space Opera for review. This did not in any way affect my opinion of the book.

I have been really looking forward to reading Space Opera by Catherynne Valente because ‘Eurovision in space’. I mean, who wouldn’t want to read a book about a flashy intergalactic pop song contest? The glam! The glitz! The weird and wacky alien species!

Summary:

A century ago, the Sentience Wars tore the galaxy apart and nearly ended the entire concept of intelligent space-faring life. In the aftermath, a curious tradition was so-coverinvented-something to cheer up everyone who was left and bring the shattered worlds together in the spirit of peace, unity, and understanding.

Once every cycle, the civilizations gather for the Metagalactic Grand Prix – part gladiatorial contest, part beauty pageant, part concert extravaganza, and part continuation of the wars of the past. Instead of competing in orbital combat, the powerful species that survived face off in a competition of song, dance, or whatever can be physically performed in an intergalactic talent show. The stakes are high for this new game, and everyone is forced to compete.

This year, though, humankind has discovered the enormous universe. And while they expected to discover a grand drama of diplomacy, gunships, wormholes, and stoic councils of aliens, they have instead found glitter, lipstick and electric guitars. Mankind will not get to fight for its destiny – they must sing.

A one-hit-wonder band of human musicians, dancers and roadies from London – Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes – have been chosen to represent Earth on the greatest stage in the galaxy. And the fate of their species lies in their ability to rock.

Thoughts:

First off, that cover. The giant disco ball pretty much sums up the tone of the book. It starts off with a simple reminder that ‘life is beautiful and life is stupid’ which is a reoccurring theme throughout the book. Also, I felt like the writing style itself was almost a character in the book–some of those paragraphs of run on sentences might as well be disco balls because they were so full of fun and the best kind of cheesy glamour. The humor in this book was great and it made me laugh out loud several times.

I liked the way the characters’ story in the present was interwoven with the story of Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, their history as a band and their relationships with one another. I absolutely loved Dess. He’s everything glitzy rock and roll has to offer. He’s seemingly carefree while on the inside he’s actually an absolute mess of a person. Dess has been pushing his hurt down for so long that everything’s become an act for him–he doesn’t really know how to relate to others anymore and this is evident in his interactions with his former band mate, Oort, as well as several of the aliens he tries to make small talk with once they arrive at the contest. I also loved the aliens characters as well. The ‘Roadrunner’ alien, a flamingo looking fish thing? Uh, what? Hilarious and interesting. The other one traveling with them to the contest who looked like a red panda and repeated words in some sort of time travel stutter was really fun too.

I think part of my enjoyment of this book was ruined a bit by my expectations. I expected a lot more of the song contest, but the contest itself is pretty far into the book. I rather hoped to get to that bit a lot sooner but instead we get a detailed history about the various aliens, their home worlds, how the song contest started and the how the various species were recognized as ‘sentient’. Those parts were all written with a great deal of humor but as they didn’t have much to do with furthering the main characters or their journey, I’ll admit those sections in the middle kind of bored me. Later in the book as we get closer to the contest happening the pace picks back up again. BUT. I will say that some of the information about the aliens does become relevant later on in the book.

This book made me think a lot more than I thought it would. When trying to figure out what exactly it’s about….it’s actually about a lot of things. It’s about Dess, of course, and his story arc is great. It’s not as if he goes through some huge amount of character growth, but he’s forced to confront his past and come to terms with it, which I really loved. But through Dess’ story we’re also confronted with what it means to be human. And why does humanity deserve to survive when, admittedly, humanity has done a lot of stupid shit? We’re also forced to confront our own past as a species.

Despite my struggles with parts of the book, I really loved the ending of Space Opera. I mean I REALLY LOVED the ending. It pretty much redeemed the slow parts in the middle for me. Never forget, life is beautiful and life is stupid and sometimes it can totally surprise you. 4/5 stars.

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