Comedian Martin Mull famously quipped “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” This is something of a problem for Catherine Valente’s Hugo-nominated novel, Space Opera, seeing as though the story is about a Eurovision-style Galactic Grand Prix music contest. Earth is home to one of the latest discovered species and must thus prove their sentience by competing in the Grand Prix. Of course, if they come in last place, they face sudden and complete extermination. The Galaxy helpfully provides a list of Earth musicians who could perhaps stand a chance, but the only living musician on the list is one Decibel Jones, a washed-up David Bowie wannabe glam rock act.
If this all sounds rather stupid, well, that’s because it is. Valente herself proclaims it to be so during the opening of the novel while unceremoniously doing away with the Fermi Paradox by claiming that “…life is the opposite of rare and precious. It’s everywhere; it’s wet and sticky; it has all the restraint of a toddler left too long at day care without a juice box. And life, it all its infinite and tender intergalactic variety, would have gravely disappointed poor gentle-eyed Enrico Fermi had he lived only a little longer, for it is deeply, profoundly, execrably stupid.” The refrain that “Life is beautiful. And life is stupid.” is frequently bandied about, and I suppose its meant to inoculate the novel from its mostly dumb premises (Narrator: It does not.) This is the sort of thing best used with restraint, and tends to collapse when used to prop up an entire novel. The prose is written with an unearned confidence and contempt that gets old real fast, and ultimately makes no sense (she takes lots of potshots and what I’m sure she deems easy targets, and it comes off smarmy at best). Of course, it’s all meant to be comedy, and there are some nice turns of phrase and I maybe chuckled a few times, but this comes nowhere near the heights of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett (while being indebted to both authors).
The plot isn’t even particularly original. In particular, the same basic premise was used in a Rick and Morty episode from a few years ago… and it didn’t even particularly work well in that case. You could thus say that it’s a ripe premise to steal and do it right this time, I guess, but that didn’t particularly happen here either. The plot is paper thin, besotted with nonsensical and uninteresting tangents, and the characters are childish and unlikable. Unoriginality isn’t necessarily a death blow; look no further than this year’s nominated Spinning Silver, which is clearly based on well-known European folklore, but manages to spin and add to its influences in original ways. Space Opera has no such redeeming qualities when it comes to its derivative ideas.
So no, I did not like this book. But! I can kinda see why it’s nominated. The plot and the characters are uninspired, to be sure, but the prose does sometimes, er, sing. To be sure, there’s a fine line between interminable run-on sentences and Pynchon-esque panache, and for me it was much more the former than the latter, but I can see how some would cotton to the style and think it worthy of a nomination. Take, for instance, this quick digression:
You might think that Musmar the Night Manager could not possibly have known about the regional human holiday known as Halloween, but by one of those many curious coincidences that comprise the only real evidence for a divine and wobbling hand in the design of the universe, some variant of Halloween is celebrated by every sentient species in the galaxy. There is, it would appear, something about the achievement of sentience that immediately fills the afflicted with the longing to become something else, something brighter, something wilder and more fearsome and morbid and covered in felt and glue and glitter, to escape into the mask of some other impossible life, and to afterward consume vast quantities of sweets.
As a big fan of Halloween, I rather liked that bit… but as mentioned earlier, this sort of thing gets old fast. Your mileage may vary, but this does seem like the sort of thing where a small but devoted coterie of readers loved this so much that they got it onto the ballot, while the masses aren’t really willing to put up with this sort of style over substance. I can see and respect the stylistic flair here, but only on an intellectual level. Mostly I just don’t get it. It’s all just dancing about architecture.
As you can no doubt tell, this will be at or near the bottom of my ballot. Interestingly, I suspect that this will do well in the first round of voting (the Hugos use an Instant Runoff Voting system), but drop off a cliff once the second round commences. Spinning Silver will be getting my number one vote at this point, with Revenant Gun and Trail of Lightning taking the number two and three spots respectively (I go back and forth on ranking these two though), followed by Record of a Spaceborn Few, and finally Space Opera and The Calculating Stars bringing up the rear. This wraps up the Hugo Best Novel finalists. I may find some time to do novellas and/or novelettes, but I’ve got plenty of other stuff to read at this point, so who knows?