REVIEW: Space Opera – Catherynne M. Valente


Author: Catherynne M. Valente (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: Corsair

Genre: Sci-fi, humour, EUROVISION


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 Galactivision – 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.

I had actually heard of Catherynne Valente a lot longer ago than I had realised. I started following her on twitter in May this year when I discovered we both shared a love for the absolute glitter-covered nonsense that is Eurovision, and then I found out that she had written a book about Eurovision, but in SPACE, and frankly that is a concept that falls very firmly into my preferred personal aesthetic. It was only later that I realised that she had written a book I heard about years ago, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making. This book was famous as one she self-published and then got a traditional publishing deal for, and frankly I always adored the title. It was a book that had always been on my “I want to read that someday” list, but having read Space Opera, it’s moved very firmly onto the TBR.

One thing that reviewers are often tempted to do is compare books to other writers within the genre, particularly to the greats. But when I say there is a bit of Douglas Adams to be found here, I mean it in both tone and joke structure. Adams and Valente both share the knack of taking the mundane and making it funny, both in the context of humanity, and in the context of taking very boring and bizarre human traits and applying them to alien races. Think the Vogons and their bureaucracy. Valente does this perfectly, but also manages to take a scathing look at international politics and human colonialism and brutality, and address it not just directly through the humans but indirectly through pastiches of intergalactic politics.

There are two things I particularly love about Eurovision. The first is glitter and nonsense. The second is that, even though it claims to not be political at all, it patently is and there’s nothing you can do to stop that. Two recent favourite moments were all the Nordic countries giving Russian points which meant “We’ve seen your nuclear subs in our waters, please don’t blow us up”; and Russia throwing their toys out of the pram when the Ukraine won with a song that was about Russia invading and killing everyone, that was allegedly about the first Crimean war, but was very definitely about the most recent Crimean incursion. Also the measure of how pissed off Ireland is with the UK with how begrudging they are with points. And also the rest of Europe for that matter.

Valente gets Eurovision. It’s a running joke on Tumblr that one night a year Americans find themselves utterly perplexed by Europe (and Australia) flooding the internet with the most inexplicable nonsense, and the look of absolute bafflement on Justin Timberlake’s face when he came to do the interval performance was frankly poetic. But Valente is a Eurovision enthusiast, and she gets it utterly spot on in Space Opera. She also adds an extra round to the semi-finals – rather than just re-staging all the songs and filtering out all the good ones (RIP all the really nuts songs that don’t make it to the finals), in Space Opera the semis are one night where the competition all try to nobble each other because whoever doesn’t show up automatically finishes last. It adds a certain delightful Hunger Games element to an already delightfully over-competitive show.

The wonderful thing about this book is that, all the way down, it’s about people, and the relationships they have, and the mistakes they make. Valente has kept the plot constrained, and easy to follow, because really the plot isn’t the important thing here. The important thing is how Decibel Jones and Oort St. Ultraviolet have lived and loved and fallen out, and how they have in their own ways tried to chase their dreams and failed and reassessed. And how this relationship formed and changed when their third string died, leaving them without the necessary balance to their two opposing natures, and how they deal with having to work together again without her, and when the stakes are so high. But it’s also about the fantastic panopoly of weird and wonderful alien races which Valente has clearly had a lot of fun creating.

Each planet contains a new and entirely different bestiary, and she has let herself really go wild with non-carbon lifeforms, with different evolutionary requirements based on different planetary environments. There’s something utterly gleeful about each one, and she has also managed to throw in so many nods to classic sci-fi culture. Mostly Predator, to be honest, but she does make a very good point – if they’re a race entirely concerned with just murdering people, who spends the time inventing space travel? Just like Adams, Valente has brought us a giant menagerie of different races, but each one has all the delightful mundanity and nonsense of humanity. This planet is well known for its artisanal coffees, this other one for being really good at archiving things. I particularly enjoyed all the wonderful digs at the UK and its Eurovision woes through the guise of one particular alien race, because they were absolutely spot on. Valente gets that the things which connect all races, and the things which make us funny, are the small, bizarre, habits and irritants which make up our daily life in between the grand stories.

Another great twist was her ability to be able to weave pop culture seamlessly into the story, and having the aliens understand it and even make the references themselves. Why? Because they’ve been watching us, researching us, trying to work out if we’re worth the effort. They’ve trawled back through our history to decide if humans are inherently worth the risk, and discovered that they’re really into Yoko Ono. Unable to get anyone else on their list of suitable entrants, we are introduced to Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, a British glam-electro-glitter rock group that flared bright and quickly out. Decibel, mixed-raced, grandson of an immigrant Pakistani Muslim, is a genderqueer, pansexual glitter sensation. Oort St. Ultraviolet is the son of a Turkish immigrant, gravely concerned with being seen as an outsider, as not British enough. Mira Wonderful Star came to the country as a child, Japanese but British by adoption. Valente has created a band comprised of all the outsiders within a microcosm of society (i.e. the perceived lack of ‘Britishness’, which is thinly-veiled code for ‘white’), something which is definitely mentioned early in the book, and made them Earth’s saviours – because it’s not about one specific microcosm, it’s about the whole wonderful, colourful mess of humanity. It’s beautiful, meaningful, and quite poetic, woven intrinsically into the DNA of the book.

Every detail in this book has been carefully considered, everything crafted artfully. With mentions of sentient wormholes, different timelines, atmospheres filled with happy drugs, and intergalactic squabbles. It’s heartwarming, a story of how everyone, everywhere, is a little bit messy and that’s okay. That’s beautiful in its own way, and that’s innately part of being alive and sentient. Celebrate the mess, celebrate the differences, and use it to make beautiful things.


  • A love letter to the messy bits of humanity and also to Eurovision, while also being extremely clear that there are a lot of shit bits of humanity that maybe we should work on? Overall, though, it’s an uplifting and joyous book.
  • I’ve heard Will Ferrell is making a Eurovision movie for Netflix and while I’m interested because, Eurovision, I’m also cautious because Will Ferrell. I find it hard to believe that people involved in that film will get Eurovision in the way Valente does.
  • While this is a humour book, there’s something almost literary in the way it’s constructed. It’s a love letter to Sci Fi, to people, and to all the weirdness in the world. A hugely positive experience to read.
  • I loved Decibel’s Nani, she was amazing, and I would have liked 300% more of her, but she was used in just the perfect way.

Rating: 5/5 – my next goal is to start working my way through the rest of Valente’s novels. I can’t wait, tbh.

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