Book review

Review: Space Opera (Space Opera #1) – Catherynne M. Valente

352 pages | Corsair | Read by Heath Miller for HighBridge Company| Science Fiction, Space Opera, Humour, SFF

I read this as part of 2019’s Space Opera September Readathon (TBR here).

The digest: Space Opera is a rather perplexing novel which sometimes reads more like an encyclopaedia than a fiction story. This is sometimes good, sometimes bad, but overall it’s a pretty enjoyable read with heaps of imagination and wackiness.

From the book’s Goodreads page:


A century ago, the Sentience Wars tore the galaxy apart and nearly ended the entire concept of intelligent space-faring life. In the aftermath, a curious tradition was invented-something to cheer up everyone who was left and bring the shattered worlds together in the spirit of peace, unity, and understanding.

Once every cycle, the civilizations gather for the Metagalactic Grand Prix – part gladiatorial contest, part beauty pageant, part concert extravaganza, and part continuation of the wars of the past. Instead of competing in orbital combat, the powerful species that survived face off in a competition of song, dance, or whatever can be physically performed in an intergalactic talent show. The stakes are high for this new game, and everyone is forced to compete.

This year, though, humankind has discovered the enormous universe. And while they expected to discover a grand drama of diplomacy, gunships, wormholes, and stoic councils of aliens, they have instead found glitter, lipstick and electric guitars. Mankind will not get to fight for its destiny – they must sing.

A one-hit-wonder band of human musicians, dancers and roadies from London – Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes – have been chosen to represent Earth on the greatest stage in the galaxy. And the fate of their species lies in their ability to rock.”


The good:

  • I listened to the audiobook version of this novel, read by Heath Miller, and wholeheartedly recommend that you do the same. Millers’ different voices took a little getting used to at the start of the novel but soon enough he had established a strong cast of various voices and species.
  • The concept is about as wacky as they come. Intergalactic Eurovision with murderous aliens ranging from time-travelling red panda things to parasitic clouds and somewhat telepathic beings that occasionally look like the Road Runner from Looney Tunes.
  • The worldbuilding is rather good and has a fair few memorable parts. Aside from the few species mentioned in the above point, it is worth noting that the author has clearly spent a long time creating and polishing her actual storyworld. The idea behind the novel itself is unusual, but Valente populates the pages of this book with reams and reams of information about previous wars, human philosophy and self-realization, builds on pop culture tropes familiar to all, and generally creates a romping good time. The focus on space and time travel is good enough for a pulpy novel (by which I mean entertainment-focused) and nothing takes itself too seriously. Don’t expect a scientific explanation for everything.
  • Over the top storytelling (love it). It’s rare that you read I book so outrageously un-serious that it catches my attention. The best examples of this are Pratchett’s Discworld books and the works of Douglas Adams, and Space Opera is certainly trying to put itself in the same category. For me, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the stories of these other two authors, but it makes a decent attempt and I’m glad that it did. The whole concept is a bit bonkers, and the general tone of the narrative is the same. Massive explosions, inter-species relations, mass destructions… the list goes on.
  • The main characters are quite well developed. Admittedly, our main protagonist is a bit of an A-hole; the secondary MC not too much better, but they are both quite well developed by the end of the novel (even if they aren’t too different from how they are first introduced to us). Their construction heavily relies on standard tropes and tragedies of real-life music stars. Drug and alcohol abuse, broken relationships, mental health struggles, the search for a real identity – all of these and more form our two main (human) characters, and for this reason they are easy to identify with.
    • The non-human cast is somewhat less developed as individuals, but alien species are thoroughly explored in quite some detail. This brings us to the main problem with Space Opera
  • I really enjoyed the character relationships here. These include human-human, human-alien, and alien-alien relationships; it is clear that Valente views her characters as more than just devices to move her story forward.


The bad:

  • This novel is heavy on its infodumping. We’re introduced an innumerable species by means of somewhat isolated chapter/sections amidst the main plot… and unfortunately, I can remember only two or three of them.
  • The pacing is not ideal at all. This is a polite way of saying that the actual plot of the novel is perhaps 15-20% of the book’s content at best. Feels like Valente had built up an awesome set of alien species and basically inserted Wikipedia articles about them at every opportunity.
    • Because of these two issues, I couldn’t keep up with all of the information thrown at me. Imagine reading a Wikipedia article once – that’s the level of comprehension I have with the majority of this novel. Unlike other books where I can clearly recall the vast majority of the information read (or at least major plot points and character relationships), when I think about Space Opera I’m at a loss. Yes, I remember what happens to our main characters (both past and present), but in the grand scheme of things, this plot is secondary to the sheer volume of seemingly random information throw at the readers.
    • Some more cynical readers may interpret the weighting of plot vs information as a thinly-veiled attempt to pad out a somewhat bog-standard story with a bit of wackiness thrown in. I am of the opinion that Valente instead just had too much going on in her head and struggled to choose exactly what to put down on the page, leaving us with Space Opera as it is. Either that or she really missed the mark when it came to crafting her writing style.
      • These issues, as distracting as they were, were clearly not bad enough to make me DNF the book, so keep that in mind.


Conclusion: An odd one, I didn’t love my time reading Space Opera by any stretch of the imagination, but I am keen to read its sequel (which Goodreads thinks is due out in 2021 though this could be just a holder). If you are looking for a break from more serious, dense novels then Space Opera might be just what you’re after. I recommend it to fans of the genre, but ultimately I know that it will rub some readers the wrong way. My rating is 3.25/5 (rounded to 3/5 where required).

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