Valente has the talent to convey human yearning and halt all the madness of alien species and worlds where the clouds rain diamonds.
Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera tells the story of Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, a band of “glam-rock gutter-glitz punks” that served as Earth’s last defense against hordes of alien races mulling whether to bring about doomsday. The hordes had just discovered humans and, as per protocol, invited the people of Earth to compete in the Metagalactic Grand Prix, a singing competition that all the great races of the cosmos agreed to at the end of their last great Sentience War. It is the Yalta Conference as Eurovision, and, to keep the universe at peace, newly discovered species are brought in to compete to prove their sentience. All the new race has to do to survive is not come in last. There is no set of steak knives. Last means total annihilation for the now determined non-sentient race.
There are a great many new faces, flora, phylum and higher beings to meet as a possibly sentient contestant of a competition of this magnitude, so to make things fairer, the newbies get a sponsor to chaperone them through the experience. The Esca, a race of giant, blue flamingos, drew the humans, and its emissary projected herself to all the humans of the planet simultaneously to explain the stakes. It had a list of possible bands to represent the Earth in its time of need, but by the telling of this tale most of the list was dead. All except Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes.
Valente states that “The story of the galaxy is the story of a single person in it. A cover version, overproduced, remastered, with the volume cranked up way past eleven and into the infinite,” but that isn’t quite right. While Decibel Jones, formerly Danesh Jalo, employs his garishness in the role of frontman, Space Opera is really the story of him and his bandmates, Oort St. Ultraviolet, aka Omar Calişkan, and Mira Wonderful Star. They found each other the way uncool kids with eyes for fashion, ears for lyrics and voices for song do. They had to be uncool because “only uncool kids have the requisite alone time to advance their species,” but they aren’t kids when the story opens.
When the Esca appear, Decibel Jones has faded about as far as a glam-rock gutter-glitz punk can. The Absolute Zeroes are no more and he is not cutting it as a solo artist who has just passed 40. As improbable saviors of humanity go, this Pakistani-Nigerian-Welsh-Swedish omnisexual has-been wants no part of this gig. He remembers the “it” that set him apart from the rest of us, but knows he has lost it and that he is just surviving on fans and nostalgia.
After the Zeroes, Omar settled down in the suburbs to raise his two girls and work as a studio musician. He and Decibel hadn’t spoken since the band ended and neither is looking for a reunion when the Esca arrive. Omar represents the musicianship of the band and Decibel its flash and glamour, but it’s still missing its soul. Mira might have been that, once. She certainly held them together, but she died in a car crash that Omar blames on Decibel. And the ghost of Mira Wonderful Star haunts the story like that of a real life rock star that was taken too soon. The three of them were their own society—lovers, friends and soulmates—and Omar, Decibel and the entirety of humanity are in peril without her.
One would not be incorrect to compare Space Opera to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. First, it’s very British and replete with a similar charm and wit as the Adams books. But, where Adams was certainly pointing out the foibles of society through Arthur Dent and his alien chum, Ford Prefect, he never deviated from a baseline cleverness as a defense against emotion. Valente has crafted the funniest book to be branded sci-fi since Adams, but has invested it with the gravitas of aging from youth to middle-age and all the nostalgia and regret that fill the midway of a life. The novel is at its most poignant when she sits with her three leads when fame seemed far away and they were forming a band over gelato. Valente has the talent to convey human yearning and halt all the madness of alien species and worlds where the clouds rain diamonds.
Early on, she has Decibel say of Omar, “Oort St. Ultraviolet shook loose all my combustibles. And every time we touched, it was an endless earthquake in a faultless land.” It is a beautiful sentiment and indicator that there will be so much more here than just laughs. In fact, Valente uses humor as a masking agent for the usual questions one asks of a book. There are hints of time from the list of dead rockers, some of whom are currently alive but terribly old in the real world. But, she holds off her reveal about when the book is set for devastating effect. Valente cast her story in the realm of now adjacent, a place filled with the kind of cruelties against immigrants that have been normalized in the world outside its pages.
But, as the author says, follow the bouncing disco ball. This is a story about music and its power to transform nothing kids into short-term rock gods and save whole civilizations. It is a pop romp about love, philosophy, imagination, the beauty of diversity, the possibilities inherent in the queer and the cruel restrictions of small minds. Space Opera is a 300-page book that plays as a three-minute song, building to a crescendo that does not disappoint, with Decibel, Omar and Mira as its hook. Hero’s journey? Yes. But with a twist like all things in this book.
It’s a gritty world, our Earth, but, as Decibel Jones might say: “The only thing left to do in all that dirt was to shine.” Space Opera does just that, shining so brightly you just might shed a tear or two, get the tune in your head and sing along.