Putting the ‘fun’ in science fiction, Space Opera hits all the right notes

Gautham Shenoy March 2, 2019 8 min

“Life is beautiful and life is stupid. This is, in fact, widely regarded as a universal rule not less inviolable than the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the Uncertainty Principle, and No Post on Sundays. As long as you keep that in mind, and never give more weight to one than the other, the history of the galaxy is a simple tune with lyrics flashed on-screen and a helpful, friendly bouncing disco ball of all-annihilating flames to help you follow along.”

One great tragedy of the SF genre is comedy. Or rather the lack of it. Very few attempt it, fewer still manage to pull it off well – like the great Terry Pratchett with his Discworld series, or his collaborative novel with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens, in recent times John Scalzi’s Redshirts and of course the gold standard in science fiction comedy – that classic trilogy (in five parts) by Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. After what seems like ages, now there’s another novel that I can confidently add to this illustrious list: Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera, a book that comes as a breath of fresh air at a time when contemporary SF seems to be all gloomy. In contrast, Space Opera is all glam, glitter and guffaws. Space Opera is that fiery, friendly, shiny disco ball.

So, what’s Space Opera all about? The short answer: Eurovision in space.

Here’s the slightly long answer: Humanity discovers that it’s not alone in this universe. A bird-like creature known as the Esca arrives one fine day – as an alien envoy of a now-happy and prosperous intergalactic civilisation to make first contact with Earth – not asking to be taken to our leader (or a librarian) but instead speaking individually to every person on the planet, in a voice and through a form that would help each specific individual cope with the enormity of it all. “Everyone cried when the creature first spoke to them. No, not cried. They wept. They wept like the cavemen of Lascaux suddenly transported into the Sistine Chapel just in time for a live performance of Phantom of the Opera as sung by Tolkien’s elves.”

But this first contact is not all song and dance, there’s a catch. Like a client who sends a brief about an ‘important project’ to an advertising agency, but generous enough to give the agency a fighting chance, just enough time to scramble around, bend over backwards and pull pangolins out of an old hat to deliver on the job that’ll ensure it gets to keep the client and die another day, the interstellar society has discovered humanity and contacted it just in time for Homo Sapiens to prove that it’s sentient and sapient – by way of an intergalactic music competition whose purpose is to decide if a newly-discovered species is worthy of being a part of said intergalactic civilisation.

Well, as it does turn out, this first contact is all about song and dance, for that is what the survival of this species depends upon. Song and dance.

Also read: Set phasers to fun: John Scalzi boldly goes where no Trekkie has gone before, with ‘Redshirts’

Left: Catherynne M. Valente, author of Space Opera. Right: The cover of Space Opera (from Saga Press)
Left: Catherynne M. Valente, author of Space Opera. Right: The cover of Space Opera (from Saga Press)

Following the devastating Sentient Wars, all the species that survived – by the skin of their mandibles or otherwise – decided that there must be an easier, less destructive and more practical way to decide who gets to live long and prosper, and who doesn’t. That way turned out to be the Metagalactic Grand Prix – a pop music competition (yes, a Eurovision in space; see above) held once every cycle in which Earth must now participate through a chosen musical ambassador. And to continue to do whatever humanity does, all that the artist representing Earth has to do is ensure that we don’t come dead last. Coming second-to-last ensures we get to continue whatever it is that we’re doing, while being a part of a galaxy-wide society, while finishing last means that humanity will get wiped out – all the memory of our collective existence archived (lovingly), all of Earth’s resources extracted (tenderly) and our species annihilated (totally). But to look on the bright side of life, the aliens promise to reincorporate our organic material into earth’s biosphere and the planet left in peace and given a chance, a million or so years later, to participate once again in the Metagalactic Grand Prix, with dolphins or something.

The competition is tough. And the stress is not just on the music, but also the theatrics of the performance. For example, the species that won the Metagalactic Grand Prix three cycles ago, The Trillion Kingdoms of Yüz won it with an earworm called, ‘Love Means Forgiving the Sins of Our Colonial Expansion Phase’ and when the bass dropped, their entire proletariat became a flaming comet.

That’s why to give Earth a fighting chance, the alien envoy has come with a handy list of artists who they think can best represent – and save – Earth. A list that includes Yoko Ono, Kraftwerk, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tangerine Dream, Brian Slade (of Velvet Goldmine), Spice Girls, Insane Clown Posse, Björk, Skrillex, Grace Jones, RuPaul, Jefferson Starship, Nicki Minaj, Hüsker Dü, Courtney Love, Donna Summer and Richard Harris.

And right at the bottom of that list is the down-on-his-luck, washed-up Decibel Jones (born Danesh Jalo), inventor of the entire electro-funk glamgrind genre and for a while (half a minute, give or take) the biggest rock star in the world once upon a time. Needless to say, it now falls upon Decibel Jones to save Earth and all the humans on it. Needless to say, the alien envoy doesn’t give earth much of a chance, given we’re still a planet that still uses Auto-Tune.

ALSO READ: Science fiction you can listen to: The New Worlds Weekly Playlist – Vol II

So it is comes to be that Decibel Jones – with his backing band, The Absolute Zeroes which now is technically The Absolute Zero, Oort St. Ultraviolet (born Omar Çalışkan) with the other member who made it a plural having passed away – travels to participate in the 100th Metagalactic Grand Prix being held on Litost, the Klavaret homeworld, on the ruins of Vlimeux where the Sentient Wars ended.

A good, enjoyable science fiction comedy, Space Opera is Catherynne Valente in top form, not just as an SF writer but also as a fan of science fiction and pop music with nods to classics of both these forms of art popping up more often than not. Descriptive to say the least, over-the-top at times and filled with adjectives, metaphors and similes that strangely make sense, and non-sequiturs, Valente’s glittering prose is purple and the long-drawn sentences meander languidly, but once you get into its rhythm, the going is groovy. The dénouement is abrupt, but it’s the journey – and not the destination – that makes Space Opera a good read, as the reader is treated to descriptions of not a few alien species (including postcapitalist glass balloons filled with sentient gases, all called Ursula) and the history of past editions of the Metagalactic Grand Prix. And all along the way, Catherynne Valente doesn’t miss any opportunity to make trenchant observations about our culture & habits and gently upend many a science fiction trope, all to great comic effect. And here we must thank Twitter for being because Space Opera is a novel born out of a dare on twitter.

A laugh-a-minute read, Space Opera literally puts the ‘opera’ in space opera (the genre) and is recommended for anyone who enjoys a fun read (SF or otherwise) and surely for anyone who wants to read science fiction that’s not dystopian. A note of caution: People are advised not to read Space Opera on an Indian Railways train late into the night. As this reader discovered, sleeping co-passengers find people laughing a lot more irritating and objectionable than people playing a succession of tik tok videos on high volume or men snoring loudly and atrociously out of tune.

Speaking of tunes, it’s now time for the New Worlds Weekly giveaway, and this time you stand a chance to win a copy of – you guessed it! – Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera.

All you have to do is tell us – assuming you were contacted by an alien envoy right now and tasked with deciding Earth’s nomination for the Metagalactic Grand Prix – which living artist/musician/band would you nominate and why? Tell us your answers by way of a tweet with the hashtag #NWWonFD, or with the same tag on Facebook or as a comment below. Yes, answers, plural, because you can submit up to 3 entries. Just make sure you send in your entries on or before the midnight of Saturday, 9th March (IST). All entries that qualify will go into a lucky draw and the winner announced on the 10th. All the best. And as always, Live Long and Prosper!


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