Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera gets compared to Douglas Adams a lot. That’s not because it’s an Adams pastiche. Space Opera and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy have different agendas and preoccupations, and are written in different styles to fit. Hitchhiker’s has the polite, straight faced, reassuring voice of a travel guide. Space Opera is extravagantly glittery, with sentences you can get lost in carrying you through unexpected scenic routes. The one similarity is that both have plenty of phrases that make you imagine something vividly or see it in a new way, Space Opera having at least one per page as good as Adams’s “hung in the sky like bricks don’t.” “Watching a kebab slowly revolve in front of a space heater like a sweaty meat planet,” say, or “mumble-crooning artificial grit,” which is as good a description of a currently popular style of folk-rock as I’ve ever seen.
The reason for the Adams comparison is that Space Opera is absurdist space opera. Adams is the best known example of that subgenre, though there’s also Robert Sheckley, and Stanislaw Lem’s The Star Diaries and The Cyberiad. The comedy isn’t the point of the exercise. It’s an excuse to go full Jonathan Swift. These books can have aliens who embody human failings and foibles, and wild ideas that wouldn’t fit logically world-built, internally consistent universes whose realities refuse to be rubbery or loopy. Space Opera has, for instance, a viral strain of space-zombie gentrifiers and a planet of screw-ups that becomes an important trading hub because wormholes are alive and feed off regret.
There’s real political and philosophical scaffolding under the humor. These books use their license to be weird to play with serious ideas and some on the less jokey end approach Borges or Calvino territory. The best ones–Space Opera included–are grounded enough to deal with real emotion. Unlike Duck Dodgers’ 24th-and-a-half century, you can imagine living in these worlds.
Science fiction on the Adams-to-Borges spectrum is an under-appreciated and underserved subgenre. Space Opera is the best addition in years.
The disastrous Sentience Wars are over. Now the galactic community settles its differences with the Metagalactic Grand Prix, a Eurovision-style song contest. It’s time for Earth to enter, or else. See, the Great Octave judges new species’ sentience on whether they can cooperate well enough to pull off a decent musical number. If humans place last on their first attempt the Octave will declare us non-sentient and render us extinct so Earth can evolve someone cooler. Due to the vagaries of alien taste, Earth’s least implausible representatives are the two surviving members of glam one-hit-wonder Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes: Decibel himself, a has-been with the aesthetic of early David Bowie but not the talent; and Oort St. Ultraviolet, an undramatic session musician with two kids, a cat, and a divorce. Unfortunately Mira Wonderful Star, the deceased member of the trio, was the one who kept them working together.
Space Opera is a celebration of music and theatre and glamor. A couple of passages have been repeatedly approvingly quoted online and it’s easy to get the impression they sum up the book’s Message. First, the end of the chapter explaining the galactic community’s justification for the Grand Prix:
Are you kind enough, on your little planet, not to shut that rhythm down? Not to crush underfoot the singers of songs and tellers of tales and wearers of silk? Because it’s monsters who do that…. Do you have enough goodness in your world to let the music play?
Do you have soul?
And Decibel’s philosophy as stated in an argument with Oort:
“Because the opposite of fascism isn’t anarchy, it’s theater. When the world is fucked, you go to the theater, you go to the shine, and when the bad men come, all there is left to do is sing them down.”
And if this were really all this book were saying, it would merely be self-congratulations for smug hipsters. But Space Opera is more complicated and ambiguous than that. Yes, Valente is sincere in celebrating music and theatre and glamor, and why not? They’re genuinely wonderful. But it celebrates music and theatre for the wonderful things they really are, without ascribing to them superpowers they don’t posess. Glamor isn’t everything. And music isn’t the only thing the book celebrates.
The first thing you notice about the Esca, the big blue bird who makes first contact with Earth, is that it looks like the Roadrunner. Y’know, the one the Coyote is after. One of the first things we learn about Decibel is that, as a serious young person, he was frustrated by his grandmother’s insistence that Dess’ “serious and meaningful” science fiction films were not as good as Looney Tunes: “mine is bright and happy and makes a colorful noise, so I put it on top of yours that is droopy and leaky and makes a noise like the dishwasher.”
Which is interesting. Both pop music and Looney Tunes are “bright and happy and [make] a colorful noise” but they’re otherwise opposites. Pop music is cool and glamorous. Looney Tunes are goofy and corny, descended from vaudeville and slapstick. Their mascot is Porky Pig, who is the exact opposite of cool; you feel for him because he tries so hard but he’ll never not be awkward.
Space Opera loves goofy cartoons as fiercely as Eurovision. Decibel wants to be David Bowie, but he’s really the Coyote, chasing things he never catches and not noticing the cliff until he’s already over it. Not that this is a problem; SF is glutted with super-competent heroes and we need more books about awkward, mediocre people (who are, after all, us). Anyway, it might not be a problem if he’d just embrace it:
“That is what Mira and Oort forgot, having been, if not popular, always cool. No matter how mad, bad, and dangerous to know a civilization gets, unto every generation are born the lonely and the uncool, destined to forever stare into the candy-store window of their culture, and loneliness is the mother of ascension. Only the uncool have the requisite alone time to advance their species.”
This kind of bright happiness requires a willingness to risk looking stupid, a vulnerability that’s incompatible with cool but sometimes necessary if you want to be open to new experiences or new people. One of Space Opera’s refrains is “Life is beautiful and life is stupid.” If you can’t be beautiful being the Coyote kind of stupid is nothing to be ashamed of.
Douglas Adams wrote a lot of jokes, but one of his sharpest was the Golgafrincham B Ark.
One day the leaders of the Golgafrincham announced their world was doomed. So they built three big arks. The A Ark would take the leaders and scientists and artists. The C Ark would take the workers, the people who do and make things. And the B ark would take the people in the middle: account executives, security guards, management consultants, telephone sanitizers. And the B Ark would go first, because it was important for morale that the new world be well managed. As the B Ark warped away, the A and C Golgafrincham shared a laugh and congratulated themselves on getting rid of their useless middlemen. Although not for long, as the whole species was shortly wiped out by a disease spread by unsanitized telephones.
It’s an ingenious bit of sleight-of-hand. When you read comedy you assume it and you are on the same side, sharing the jokes. So you laugh at the clever trick the Golgafrincham pulled on their consultants and middle managers and ambiguously useful tradespeople. Aren’t those people annoying? Don’t you wish you could just launch them into space? And Adams is making fun of them; most of the B Ark people are in what David Graeber calls “Bullshit Jobs” and the ones we meet are “useless bloody loonies.” But once you’re lulled into your smug sense of superiority, Adams drops the real punch line. The Golgafrincham are all dead, because bullshit jobs are a real phenomenon but you’re probably not as good as you think you are at identifying them, and there sure as hell aren’t any useless people. Incidentally, the B Ark people are the ancestors of the whole human race, you included.
This is an unexpectedly angry joke, and all along the target was you. What Adams is really doing here is asking you to consider whether you might be an asshole.
Pay attention when Hitchhiker’s fans bring up the B Ark, and it’s amazing how often they miss the point of the joke.
Some background on Eurovision is in order. Every year, every European country submits a new pop song. They’re all performed on live television, and the audience votes for their favorite. It started in the 1950s, around the time international live television broadcasts first became practical. At the time Europe was still recovering from World War Two and Eurovision was meant to bring Europe together and promote international understanding.
There’s one important difference between Eurovision and the Metagalactic Grand Prix. The Metagalactic Grand Prix is how the galaxy distributes “communally held Galactic Resources.” Even if you’ve passed the entrance exam coming in last does a number on your economy, and it’s a very low number. And according to the rules, “If a performer fails to show up on the night, they shall be automatically disqualified, ranked last, and their share of communal Galactic Resources forfeited for the year.”
Which explains why the minute Decibel and Oort step out onto this year’s host planet someone shoots at them.
The fundamental question every war is asking, according to Space Opera, is “Which of us are people and which of us are meat?” Eurovision was created to encourage Europeans to see each other as people. The Metagalactic Grand Prix is a different way to sort out who’s the meat. The participants maneuver and strategize. They try to knock out the competition, usually not fatally. They downvote planets they don’t like to mess with their economies. The dodgy backstage deals certain people offer Decibel and Oort are deliberate tests, to see if the humans will betray each other. But meanwhile the established species are scheming for real.
Music, here, is war by other means. And Earth might be a casualty, because just before he has to go on a Smaragdin gives Decibel a potentially terminal case of laryngitis.
“I never did say we were good; just sentient,” apologizes the Smaragdin.
Which raises the question of what sentience is, exactly. The Great Octave has exterminated a few species. The one we learn about in detail is Flus. You can understand why they offed this one, actually; it’s legitimately self-defense. Flus is a totalitarian hive mind that assimilates other life forms like the Borg.
The same chapter introduces us to the Voorpreet, sentient Galactic Family members in good standing, who are… um, a zombie virus that assimilates other life forms like the Borg. Who everyone bends over backwards to accommodate as best they can while still staying safe, or safe-ish. Space Opera introduces Flus and the Voorpreet together and explicitly asks “how different was a Flus infection from a Voorpret infection?”
The Voorpreet are cool. They’re the creative class, wealthy Silicon Valley gentrifiers: “Yes, yes, they obliterated the natural biodiversity of any region they touched, but wherever their infection took hold, they opened a lot of delightful bistros and shops and start-up tech companies with whimsically casual workplace environments and fusion food trucks and artisanal blacksmithing co-ops and performance-art spaces.”
The lyrics to the one song Flus knows go like this: “It is awesome to be Flus / If you are not Flus, you are not awesome / and will promptly be consumed / also your children and pets.”
The difference between Flus and the Voorpreet is that Flus says the quiet parts loud.
Flus is a group mind–not a species so much as a single threatening individual–so this chapter doesn’t deal with the fundamental problem with the idea of destroying an entire species–humans, say–for their cruelty. You are by definition destroying the victims with their oppressors. The inherent cruelty of some humans is proven by what they do, and the inherent cruelty of the rest is proven by the things the first group did to them. It’s in the tradition of destroying the village in order to save it, or, more recently, freeing Iraqis by bombing the hell out of them.
You get the impression the Octave is looking out for opportunities to just flat out take somebody’s stuff, like the fine old human tradition of liberating nations that coincidentally happen to have something you want. On first contact, the Esca assures Earth that if humans must be exterminated, “all memory of your collective existence will be lovingly collated and archived, your planetary resources tenderly extracted.”
When the Esca entered their first Grand Prix they called their song “Please Don’t Incinerate Us, We’ll Be Good from Now On, We Promise.”
Being declared non-sentient is a lot like being declared a rogue state, or part of an Axis of Evil. It’s not that these places are not at least sometimes genuinely dangerous. But our condemnations are arbitrary: Pinochet was cool, Saddam Hussein was not. We talk about protecting freedom and democracy, but in practice a lot of American foreign policy is just about keeping the oil flowing.
The galactic community is the Nixon/Reagan/Bush/Trump U.S.A., splashed across the heavens and wearing a shallow dusting of glam. Space Opera’s aliens embody our own human failings; they’re us. If any readers actually thought the Metagalactic Grand Prix was a great idea, or that theater was incompatible with fascism, they may have missed the point.
“But galactic society is still… well, society. And society is rubbish,” says the Smaragdin. “Good lord, the Grand Prix is the best thing we’ve ever done, the utter best, and it’s just a bit of song and dance, isn’t it?”
If you read the premise way back in section 2, you might think you have some idea how this story is going to go. The unlikely misfit who overcomes all odds to become a celebrity is one of Hollywood’s standard narratives. Decibel and Oort will settle their differences at the last minute, give a kick-ass performance that also symbolically resolves their emotional arcs, and prove humans can rock, right?
Oh, hell, no. Decibel can’t even pull himself together enough to manage the minimal obligation of writing a song. Also, the laryngitis. The Absolute Zeroes manage not to lose, but the reason is more interesting than just having talent.
What saves Earth is that Decibel has a mutually agreeable one-night-stand with an Esca. (Yes, this is a novel where the Coyote sleeps with the Roadrunner.) And that Oort meets an alien who resembles a hyperactive red panda and forms a real friendship. And on the night of the Grand Prix their actions bring about a pair of miracles that elevate their performance from a disaster to… well, not a disaster, anyway.
What proves Decibel and Oort’s sentience–and in this they’re considerably more sentient than most humans and most of the Extended Galactic Family–is that they don’t divide people into people and meat. They don’t divide people into those like us, the special shiny people and the other ones, who we can do what we want with. Strangers and foreigners are not threats, not prey, not lesser beings they can steal from or forcibly remake into versions of themselves. Decibel and Oort can look at people nothing like themselves and see them as people. They open up to people who are utterly strange to them and risk admitting they’re not starmen at all, just stupid useless bloody loony tunes like everyone else. Acknowledging your own non-specialness and uncoolness–your inner Coyote or your Porky nature–is the first step towards accepting strangers as equals, or even friends. The friends Dess and Oort are able to make help them create a performance they couldn’t manage on their own.
At this point it’s relevant that Decibel was born Danesh Jalo and Oort was once Omar Calișkan and the Absolute Zeroes are the children of immigrants in a long-past-Brexit England. Xenophobia and fascism are constant threats running through the background of Space Opera. After yet another wrong government comes to power, Mira’s Uncle Takumi dies in a racist riot and Dess’s grandmother, the one who tried to show him the beauty in a cartoon rabbit, is deported. This is a near future in which we have not learned much of anything.
On the whole, it’s just as well the best representatives Earth could come up with were two thirds of a one-hit-wonder glam pop trio.
The real test of a civilization isn’t how it treats its musicians. It’s how it treats its Others–more precisely, whether it even has Others. Foreigners, immigrants, asylum seekers. The real test of sentience isn’t whether you’re shutting someone’s rhythm down, it’s whether you’re keeping children in cages.
It’s tough to say what the long-term critical perspective will be on a book that’s only been out a year, but my guess is that Space Opera will become a classic. It has something in common with most great comedy: underneath the jokes, it’s angry.
On the fantasy end, Terry Pratchett and Ursula Vernon/T. Kingfisher are close cousins. ↩
i.e. some of Lem’s work, or Ursula K. Le Guin’s Changing Planes. ↩
Not something Adams is especially associated with, but I find much of his work–Marvin’s death in So Long and Thanks for All the Fish is one example–genuinely affecting. ↩
What happens if the Octave finds a species that doesn’t even have a sense of hearing? Will they be allowed to be sentient? ↩
This is a smart move; a straightforward mass murder would have made a mess of the novel’s tone. ↩