I’m not sure what Catherynne Valente has been smoking, but it must have been a lot of fun. This is one crazy roller coaster ride of a novel, and I don’t mean in the dramatic emotional sense, but in the glittering, disco ball one. Ever since I read Radiance (2015), I am very curious about Valente’s writing, because she is incredibly talented, very versatile and with clearly a large ready vocabulary. She reads like she’s born to be a writer. In Space Opera, she sounds a bit like a Douglas Adams adept, rambling in a stream of consciousness or vomiting a shiny rainbow of words on the page, while still making jokes that span chapters to set up.
So, Space Opera. Perhaps you are familiar with the Rick & Morty episode in which a giant floating head kidnaps Rick and Morty to be the representatives of planet Earth in an intergalactic Eurovision song contest? It’s a bit like that. The story starts off with Valente telling us about life in the universe, much like Douglas Adams’ start of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and that between the galactic couch pillows of the universe there are many strange alien civilizations and they never get along, and so invented a universal song contest to settle their differences.
Back on planet Earth, the has-been rock band Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes is ready for something new. Here, Valente took inspiration from the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, by showing a similarly daft, washed-up artist. Alien flamingos come by to say hello and invite us to prove our sentience by participating the Metagalactic Grand Prix, and Decibel Jones is on their list of promising human artists.
So, this is all told by an omniscient narrator, telling us in alternating chapters about Decibel Jones and about the universe in general, much like Douglas Adams did. For a while, this feels ok, but gets to be a bit much long before we reach the end. Valente is often very funny and clever in this novel, and has some very imaginative ideas about aliens and wormholes, but we lose some of the comedic effect through sheer exhaustion. Here’s a sample:
Litost’s crowning evolutionary achievement is the Klavaret, a species of large, intellectually gifted patches of seafaring pastel flowers, something of a three-way hybrid of roses, tulips, and doilies. They have all the natural defenses of a pillow in a tiger enclosure. At least twice, the planet escaped being overrun by the aforementioned neighbors after the invaders grew exhausted with having to explain, slowly, patiently, and using large, friendly diagrams, charts, and illustrations, the concept of war to a field of flowers, giving up halfway through a run of supplementary comic books starring Sebastian, the Conflict Marshmallow.
It’s more than 250 pages of this, without there being a story. Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at least moved around and experienced things, but Space Opera is all background. In addition, the text is in constant danger of being overwritten. There are so many asides and run-on sentences going on in each paragraph that I sometimes lose track of what she’s talking about. There are narrative tricks to make the text funnier, like giving lists and oddball comparisons, that she uses in every single paragraph until I am feeling force-fed.
It’s as if Catherynne Valente jumped through my window with a ghetto-blaster and a bucket of live Chinese fireworks, and after the apocalypse passed she asked sheepishly: “that was too much, wasn’t it?” And all I can do is nod.
It just pains me to say this, but it was a struggle to get through this, even though there are nuggets of gold in there. I think if she had exercised a little bit more restraint and a little bit more storytelling, it would have been better.