There are really no words to describe Space Opera, Catherynne Valente's new novel. Know why? Because she used them all in writing it. I can say that it is square-ish. Made of wood pulp. Composed mostly of sentences. I can say that it's a wicked-fast read (if you can handle the whiplash and the pure, 12-gauge crazy-pants nonsense of it all) and enjoyable at speeds unsafe for upright mammals. But if I tell you that it's about Earth — and in particular one has-been Brit-pop glam-rock band called Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes — having to compete for its collective life in an intergalactic version of the Eurovision Song Contest in order to prove that humans are, in fact, sentient and not just horrible sticky monsters which might (someday) constitute a threat to the greater universal neighborhood, you wouldn't believe me at all because that's just ridiculous.
No, no. You're right. Absolutely. It is ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. It is also absolutely the hook on which Valente has chosen to hang her narrative — a Space Opera, literally. Lots of aliens. Lots of spaceships. Lots of songs about death and regret. And so much eyeshadow and lipstick that reading the thing is kinda like dropping four hits of acid, breaking into your local department store and rolling around in everything displayed behind the MAC cosmetics counter while the Queen soundtrack to Flash Gordon plays at full volume.
Still don't believe me? Check it out. Here's Valente riffing on wormholes, faster-than-light travel and the importance of cows to human developmental history:
"The Sentience Wars began and ended at a public bus stop," she begins.
"In the early days of the universe, whether or not a habitable planet happened to have a wormhole nearby was as consequential to the eventual political map as whether or not a particular group of humans happened to be born on a continent with domesticable animals on tap or on an island the size of a doorknob where the only source of reliable protein was a semi-poisonous tuber. Wormhole or no wormhole had just as little to do with the inherent superiority and/or possibly divine mandate of the smirking bastards who won the cosmic draw as cow or no cow, and yet, everyone everywhere will do, say, and stab nearly anything if it means they get to believe that they are blessed and their neighbors are basically toad-people."
This then goes on for eight more pages. Eight pages of beautiful, weird, funny and stupid stories about cows, pandas, wormholes, the Sex Pistols and the intergalactic Sentience Wars which very nearly (but not quite) destroyed the civilized universe very recently. She describes the life-cycle of wormholes (because they're alive, of course), and how they came to be, does a little bit on the Big Bang, and the brief, yawning awakening of one wormhole in particular which, quite accidentally, led to the Sentience Wars and, thereby, spawned the Metagalactic Grand Prix in which all new species get to prove their sentience by singing one song and singing it better than at least one of the other species also trying to compete.
Then she takes a breath.
Then things get really weird.
Look, I'm not gonna convince you to read a book where alien invasion looks like billions of identical, electric blue flamingoes appearing before every human on earth simultaneously and explaining to them (in the beloved voices of dead parents or half-remembered children's cartoon characters) about the Metagalactic Grand Prix. I'm not going to convince you to read a story about how one omnisexual and gender-fluid former glitter-punk messiah (plus his former bandmate, Oort St. Ultraviolet) saves the world with song. That has to either be your cup of tea or not, you know? You gotta want something that is pure, un-cut brain cocaine adulterated only with a smattering of proper nouns; that is a non-stop amusement park ride made of clever things done with the English language. Seriously, I wanted to prove it by opening Space Opera to a random page and just pulling out the first line that caught my eye. This was that line:
"Goguenar Gorecannon's Unkillable Facts contains 99.9 percent pure reliable and comprehensive laws of the universe as observed by an under-achieving socially anxious mutant murderhippo and is considered to be as essential to a healthy, balanced childhood as hugs, night-lights and cellular division."
Yeah. You gotta be down for that kind of thing — for a line like that making perfect, inarguable, even tender sense — in order to dive into this one. The plot is basic. The action is predictable (once you get past the telepathic flamingoes and FTL travel). It starts with a bad day and ends with a song.
But in between? In between it's all big ideas written in glitter. It's surprising tenderness on a galactic scale. It's about loneliness and nerdliness and acceptance and making fun of the old, frowsy powers that be. Valente offers up a universe in which the only thing of true value is rhythm. Not guns, not bombs, not money, not power, but sex and love and pop songs.
And also wormholes, as we previously established.
But mostly rhythm. Just the ability to sing a song and make people (or space flamingoes or murderhippos or giant balls of sentient gas) sing along with you.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.