‘Everything in the universe has rhythm. Everything pulses to a beat laid down by the Big Bang. Everything feels the drumline of creation from star to sex to song.’
How do you determine if a species is sentient? Do you go running and hiding behind René Descartes when asked? Rig-up some kind of ad-hoc test to see if they are capable of a subjective, private point of view? Or are you of the mind that if critters have feelings, that should be good enough?
In Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera, the criteria for sentience is one that perhaps goes a little understudied, shall we say? As it turns out – within the greater galaxy – sentience is not based on one’s ability just to think, or feel, or self actualise, but on a much more complex criteria instead – the ability to put together and apreciacte a good pop anthem. And as strange as this may seem, it’s a criterion that works – it’s done wonders for preventing intergalactic war.
The whole world learns that we are not alone in the universe when a blue, flamingo-like creature called Esca suddenly appears in front of every individual on the planet and gives them the low down. If humanity wants to be invited to join the greater galactic civilisation, they’re going to have to get their best talent show skills on and perform in the Megagalactic Grand Prix. Scrape by with enough votes, and the galaxy will accept that humanity truly is made up of critters with feelings – Douze Points! But should we end up on the bottom of the ladder, then that’s curtains for everyone. All life on Earth will be is expunged, and the planet reseeded – so when they next interplanetary fly-by occurs, something a little more worthy will have hopefully evolved to take our place.
With odds like that, you would expect that virtually no band would be putting their hands up to play like an over-excited Australia at Eurovision. However, that’s a non-issue because Esca chooses for us – the band best suited for ensuring our survival is the British Glam rock dandies Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros. This is a surprise to everyone, most of all Decibel Jones (Danesh Jalo) and the one remaining Zero, Oort St. Ultraviolet (Omar Çalışkan). Third member, Mira Wonderful Star is, in Danesh’s words ‘tough to get ahold of these days’, leaving the band incomplete, and with a hole in their heart.
There will be no Blues Brothers style road trip for Danesh and Omar. Instead, they have to endure eleven days together in a spaceship, trying to belt out the song that saves humanity, while working through their relationship. Should they fail at either of those things, it’s too bad for us – we’re cactus.
Space Opera is a mad-cap mix of both Eurovision and A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s a fabulously light-hearted, fun read, full of pop culture references. And not only is Catherynne M. Valente very witty, she also does an excellent job channelling Douglas Adams. But sometimes she ended up doing this a little too well; the book frequently spins-off into amusing, Adams-esque tangents that may or may not be relevant to the greater plot at hand, which made keeping track of the plot a bit of a slippery business.
But I also discovered the problem might as well have been me as much as the book. I had started reading it on my commutes, and picking up snatches of it here and turned out to be the wrong way to approach it. What worked better, I found, was finding time to sit and read it in peace, and let the whole thing sort of wash over me. So if you pick it up, I wouldn’t worry about the plot too much – it’s just window dressing for the delightful zaniness of life in the rest of the galaxy.
(I ended up parking myself on the beach to read this. That did the trick.)
What also surprised me is that underneath all of the space parodies and the Space Oddities, Space Opera is an unexpectedly warm story that will leave you feeling hopeful after you put the book down.
‘Life is beautiful, and life is stupid’, indeed.
It’s a celebration of the slightly trashy, slightly campy media that we might refer to as our guilty pleasures. And what’s not to love about that?
I’m popping this under Summer Read on my bingo card, because what is more summer than reading a light-hearted novel while lying on a beach in August?
I also need to give my thanks for the organisers of the Hugo Awards voters packet for this one.