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Hugh Likes Fiction: Space Opera

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Space Opera
Written by Catherynne M. Valente
Published by Saga Press

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The Skinny: In this farcical and inventive Sci-fi novel, aliens arrive on Earth to welcome Humanity to the galaxy. There’s only one catch: They’ll have to prove themselves in the Metagalactic Grand Prix, the universe’s greatest song contest.

I was a big fan of Star Trek growing up, but there was one thing that always bothered me about the show. Everyone was obsessed with historical Earth culture. From reading Shakespeare to playing baseball to Bach recitals to so much Sherlock Holmes, it’s all Earth, all the time. And everything was nice and public domain, of course.
This did make sense, from a certain perspective. It connects the viewer to the characters through shared culture, and makes the unfamiliar setting of an interstellar spaceship that much more human. But I always wanted to know a bit more than than the show let on about the alien cultures. What would an alien world’s culture really be like? Further more, what would their POP culture be like? Catherynne M. Valente’s newest novel, Space Opera, makes that question its central premise.
Once, Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros were once the biggest band in the world. They’ve broken up, and their a bit washed up these days, but none of that matter when aliens invade Earth, looking for the greatest musicians on the planet to represent Earth in the galaxy’s greatest song contest, The Metagalactic Grand Prix. Decibel and remaining band mate Oort St. Ultraviolet get the nod, by virtue of being the only band on short list that’s still alive. Invitation to the Grand Prix is a great honor, and will give humanity the stars. But if they come in last, the Earth will be destroyed. So, no pressure.
Equal parts Douglas Adams and FM radio count down, Space Opera hilarious, tragic, and breathtakingly intelligent. Valente’s novel examines the utopian science fiction trope of the society that is not merely scientifically advanced but culturally advanced, and twists it to great effect. Continuing her style from previous work like Radiance and The Refrigerator Monologs, She once again has invented entire pop cultures out of whole cloth to both satirize and celebrate parts of our own. In this case, it is the Eurovision song contest, a post-War signing competition that functions much like the Olympics but run by record labels. As someone who likes the idea of Eurovision more than the actual glitzy performances, I expected to be lost in a sea of references, but that was not the case. Outside of a few section quotes and an explanation in the acknowledgements, there is little actual mention, and you don’t need previous experience going in.
Valente structures her novel in her own instantly recognizable style, shifting between the history of the contest and the competing alien cultures and the story of the Absolutes Zeros from their first show to the intergalactic stage. She does more telling than showing, and the non-linear style can be disorienting if that isn’t your thing, but she pays it all off beautifully in the end.
Space Opera is a glittering cavalcade of brilliantly conceived big-idea science fiction, winking satire, and bold, unflinching cultural criticism. It is very well executed, and you should probably be reading it right now. It’s available from the usual suspects.

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Hugh Likes Fiction: Radiance

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Radiance
Written by Cathryne M. Valente
Published by Tor
Radiance
Where does cinema end and the real world begin?  Can a camera really film the truth?  And which is more real?  Life, or the film that captures it?  These are the questions that overshadow the life of documentary filmmaker Severin Unck.  Filmed from the moment she appeared as a baby in a basket on the doorstep of Gothic director Percival Unck, she has constantly rejected his brand of fantasy in favor of the truth.  Living in an alternate reality where movies never advanced past black-and-white silent films and every planet and moon in the solar system is both habitable and welcoming, she documents food riots on Mars, end of the world parties on Neptune, and of course, her own larger than life childhood.  But when Severin disappears on an ill-fated voyage to document the destruction of a Venusian settlement, the truth may be the one thing that is indistinguishable.
Compiled from witness interviews, abandoned film treatments, and radio transcripts, Radiance is an ambitious and strange epistolary novel about the life of a realist documentarian in a fabulist universe.  The novel rarely follows a conventional prose format, and when it does, the authenticity of these sections is explicitly suspect.  But the fascinating worlds that Valente creates make sifting through the story puzzle she creates a sheer delight.  The walls between the events of Severin and her associates’ lives, and that of their film counterparts jumble together in an epic spanning a night flower-carpeted Pluto to a tropical Venus that is home to the Callowhales, island-sized aquatic creatures whose milk is essential for long-term survival in space.  But of course, they aren’t really whales, and their milk isn’t really milk.
In this novel, Valente invites us into an editing booth and lays out all these pieces in a lush, fantastic sci-fi mystery.  Like Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, It leaves the challenge of constructing a linear narrative to the reader, and leaves the reader not with the satisfaction of a completed story, but the wonder of a messy, complicated, and beautiful life.  This novel is not to be missed.

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