REVIEW: ‘Space Opera’ by Catherynne M. Valente

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‘It can’t stand not happening’

Space Opera is a book about the end of everything for a time when we are very preoccupied with the end of everything. It would not seem out of place in the science-fiction boom of the Cold War, if it weren’t for the hyper-contemporary referentiality. Valente clearly holds no nostalgia for Microsoft’s Clippy, for example, declaring it to be a ‘c*nt’ in a particularly memorable passage. It is a totally serious book in the clothing of an absolute farce, and therein lies its genius. It messes with gender, it ponders philosophy, it is deeply concerned with the nature of love, and it does it all in technicolor. There are elements of bureaucratic nightmare – ‘How are we going to put ‘gendersplat’ on a personnel intake form?’ – amidst laments to lost love. I was left with the kind of headache more akin to brain-freeze, like I’d just devoured a slush drink with great enthusiasm.

The concept is simple: humanity must sing for its continued existence in competition with other representative species across the universe, or risk total annihilation. If you follow Valente based on her previous works, I advise you to walk into the upcoming Space Opera, due out on April 10th, holding those works close to your chest, preparing to have all your expectations thoroughly quashed. If Deathless – imbibed with Russian folklore – was her zig, Space Opera is her zag. There does remain a fairytale-like quality to Space Opera, and the physical melodrama of Space Opera can be found in the girl riding a pestle and mortar across an expanse of snow, but this book is camp, pure camp, in its excess to its Eurovision references, with Conchita Wurst’s ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’ and Loreen’s ‘Euphoria’ both quoted with love.

“Space Opera is a book about the end of everything for a time when we are very preoccupied with the end of everything.”

Space Opera goes at a million light-years a minute. Every sentence is both a joke and a pop culture reference. It is jam-packed with, well, everything. Sitting in a post-Hawking, post-Adams, post-Bowie world – on occasion there are what appear to be odes to Le Guin – Valente proves how close pop culture is to the center of all our most agonizing questions, all our existential blues. Much like the parties at which Decibel Jones, our protagonist, finds himself mingling with the universe’s boldest and slimiest, Valente shows nihilism brushing shoulders with Looney Tunes, the culture wars making small talk with glam rock, and sexual politics sharing finger food with slapstick comedy. It’s an exhilarating medley of flavors and sounds, as confusing as it is delectable.

space-opera-9781481497497_hrValente writes ‘The story of the galaxy is the story of a single person in it.’ but Space Opera is not an especially character-driven plot. At times, the protagonist feels like an afterthought, a vehicle for more interesting ruminations. The book is description-heavy, and delves extensively into the history of various planets, but the prose remains amusing and endearing enough that this extended delving doesn’t put you off. Things move quickly, and genres are interwoven with great skill. One chapter involving a cocktail bar reads like a verbal slapstick Monty Python sketch; in another one character poignantly lights her cigarette on a votive candle of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. This is not hard science fiction, it is a transgressive ode. There is, in criticism, a term called ‘Star Trek science’, The Original Series always left things just vague enough that it didn’t really matter that the science wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny, there was never enough hard science involved for the show to be properly scrutinized at all. Valente, on the other hand, does away with Star Trek science and revels in glorious nonsensical specificity. Lush, science nonsense, every sentence jam-packed with delicious combinations of words.

‘Life wants to happen. It can’t stand not happening,’ Space Opera insists. It is clear from Space Opera’s fast-paced, rollicking prose that neither can Valente. •


Space Opera is out April 10th 2018 from Saga Press. You can preorder it here.



Kat Sinclair is a student, musician, and poet flitting between Brighton and Southampton, UK. You can find her on Twitter. Her collection Pendant:During is available here.

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