As you know, sometimes when I write about a book that’s new to the library, I’m writing a preview and not a review. Often when that happens, it’s a book that I want to read but haven’t had a chance to read yet. Which sometimes leads to a bit of a dilemma: when I do actually read the book, should I write about it again, because now I know more about it than the publisher’s description gave me, or are there so many other books I should be bringing to people’s attention that it’s wrong to write twice about the same book? I usually resolve this by doing a review if the book in question is more amazing, more fun, or just wildly different from what it seemed to be when it first came out.
In the case of Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente, the description of the book pre-publication was accurate as far as it went, but it didn’t nearly go far enough, which is why I feel compelled to tell you what a fabulous, funny, inventive and just plain wonderful book it is, to encourage as many people with similar senses of humor to mine (and there must be some of you out there, right?) to check this book out and enjoy it.
I’m a big fan of Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, at least the first three books of the series (he lost some steam after Life, the Universe and Everything, in my opinion), and, having cut my teeth on that warped humor, I’m always looking for someone who can write with as much verve and wit as Adams had. Space Opera, I’m pleased to announce, is a worthy successor to the Hitchhiker’s Guide, and I can hardly come up with higher praise than that.
The initial alien encounter is nothing like anything you’ve seen in the movies or in other books; as the author dryly observes, it’s much more like the work of Sir Looney of the Tunes than Sir Ridley of the Scott (quoting from Decibel’s beloved Nana). It’s weird, it’s funny, and it sets the tone for the book quite nicely. I started laughing at that part and didn’t stop until the end, even reading some of the funnier lines out loud to anyone who would listen.
Humanity has to compete in the Metagalactic Grand Prix, but the aliens who first encounter us have a list of the potential performers who might, just possibly, if miracles occur, keep the human race from being destroyed. Unfortunately for us, most of the performers on the list (including Yoko Ono — does that give you an idea of the aliens’ taste?) are dead, so they are left with Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, two thirds of whom are in fact still alive, even if they’re not performing together, or even performing at all, anymore.
The aliens are varied and wonderful. They are far from humanoid, and Valente seems to delight in creating different kinds of aliens and imagining what their cultures might be like, what their ideas of musical performance might be like, even what their ideas of sex are like (my personal favorite is the alien race whose idea of sex is brushing hair and sharing feelings, which doesn’t exactly mean what you and I think it means). We get to see previous Grand Prix performances from various winners and near-winners, and, like Decibel himself, we can easily see that the chances of humans being able to keep from placing dead last in the competition are nearly nonexistent.
Of course, this being the kind of book it is, you’re pretty sure from the outset that humanity is not going to be destroyed by the aliens, which means that somehow there’s going to be a “victory”, which just means Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes don’t actually come in dead last. The suspense in the book comes from not knowing exactly how this miracle is going to be pulled off, especially when we discover that cheating is not only allowed but encouraged, and one way some of the alien races manage to succeed in the competition is by hobbling other performers. Humans being both newcomers and ridiculously soft and easy to manipulate, there are all kinds of characters out to sabotage our protagonists before they even set foot on the stage.
The book is light and hysterically funny. Valente bounces cheerfully back and forth, from tales of the Sentience Wars and their immediate aftermath to depictions of previous Grand Prixes to the background of Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes. It’s a wild ride and a vastly entertaining one. If the world is getting you down and you desperately need a break, I highly recommend Space Opera.