RogerBW's Blog

Space Opera, Catherynne M. Valente 22 June 2019

2018 science fiction. When the aliens arrive on Earth, it turns out that they have a standard process for determining whether a race is truly sentient. So now, to save humanity, Decibel Jones, has-been glam-rock star, has to avoid coming last in Space Eurovision.

This is the last of the Hugo-nominated novels for me, and one that I nearly didn't read at all. I've not enjoyed either of the things by Valente I've previously read, and a friend bounced hard off this one.

Any attempt at describing Muntun's dominant species is probably best kept simple and direct—one word, if possible, and that word is "knifeasaurus."

But very much to my surprise what I got was not the earnest drudgery of Six-Gun Snow White or The Future is Blue but an effective pastiche of the early Douglas Adams, back when he still had to think for a living because he wasn't surrounded by people willing to pay for his laundry lists.

Yet most galactic citizens remained nervous about visiting Fenek itself, despite the thriving theater scene and delightful nightlife. While love and peace may come to exist between wildly disparate members of different kingdoms, orders, and phyla, very few are willing to meet up with a walking, talking syphilis infection for coffee, even the best coffee in the universe, unless it's in a public place close to their own flat with lots of friends around and easy exits.

It's very lightly plotted (if you can't work out from the first few chapters the broad outline of what's going to happen, you aren't trying); and it's thoroughly overwritten, taking that basic plot skeleton and some frankly minimal characters and wrapping them in largely-irrelevant descriptive prose until its 80,000 words come to feel like twice that much. (And the Earthbound parts of the book are set in the sort of England that Americans tend to write when they haven't lived here; it's just wrong in little distracting details, as wrong as I'd be if I set a novel in New York.)

Oort was mostly straight and hardworking, Mira was mostly monogamous and militantly cynical, and Decibel was mostly none of those things, except when he thought they'd look good with a paisley coat.

And yet, for me, it works. It's not superb, but it holds together; it doesn't really go anywhere, but it sits and sparkles with great exuberance and a sense of fun that's entirely missing from, say, The Calculating Stars or Spinning Silver or Trail of Lightning, while being at least as socially aware as all of those.

"You wouldn't enroll a wolf in a preschool for the gifted and advanced just because it learned how to sit and speak and shake a paw, now, would you? That's obvious. It would be a slaughterhouse. With juice boxes."

This is about as soft as SF can get and still remain science fiction rather than a space fantasy like Star Wars: the dividing line for me is not whether you have big zoomy spaceships, but whether you're prepared to engage with the real world as well as telling an enjoyable story. These aliens, while spending a lot of their time looking cool, are also desperately trying to make their multi-species civilisation work and not have another massively destructive war.

"Well, we are Slekke⁵, lead singers of the Alunizar ultra-indie drip-hop nucleo-vinyl lounge band Better Than You. We're… uh… between labels right now—"

Much like The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, there's an "as below, so above" feeling here; just as the problems facing Arthur Dent in space are the problems he was facing on Earth writ larger and more surreal, so it is here.

This is clearly not for everyone; if you don't love the first chapters, don't bother, because it won't change style later. But if you do, there's a great deal of fun to be had.

(This work was nominated for the 2019 Hugo Awards. My voting order now looks like:

  • Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton / Harper Voyager)
  • Revenant Gun, by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
  • Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente (Saga/Corsair)
  • Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga)
  • The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
  • Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik (Del Rey / Macmillan)

There's only one I really loved, one I liked well, and one I liked; I didn't get on with any of the last three, though in each case I can see how they might work for other people. There have definitely been stronger Best Novel slates by my lights – in 2017, for example – but out of this lot I'd be happy with any of my top three winning and that's as good as most years get.)

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