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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: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

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The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
Written by Becky Chambers
Published by Harper Voyager

Sometimes the best Science Fiction is quiet and thoughtful. The genre is often buttressed by “Big Ideas” and zap-gun adventure, but my favorite stories are the slower, more character-focused novels. These are novels like Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, or Nathan Lowell’s Quarter Share. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is squarely in this sub-genre, and it excels.
Rosemary Harper is a privileged girl from the upper crust of Martian society. When she decides to escape her past and society, she takes a job as a clerk on a long-haul wormhole boring ship, The Wayfarer. The misfit crew of the ship is completely different from her former life.
While the story is framed by Rosemary’s story, it is a picaresque novel following the misadventures of the small, tightly knit crew. And the book shines in this respect. The crew of The Wayfarer are efficiently constructed, and for the most part, incredibly likable characters. From Dr. Chef, one of the last survivors of an alien species that destroyed itself in a ceaseless civil war, to Kizzy, the wild-child engineer, this book is filled with unforgettable, engaging characters that treat each other like family rather than coworkers. The upcoming Star Trek series will be lucky to be half so charming.
Chambers’ galaxy is also well presented and engaging. The places that The Wayfarer travels are all detailed and iconic. She also creates a galaxy where humans aren’t top dogs. Having poisoned our home planet and settled into a pair of bickering factions, Humanity is a minor player in galactic politics. This is always a refreshing position to take in Sci Fi, and it works really well here.
This book may not be for everyone. Chambers skips past a lot of the things traditional SF banks on. We hear about massive space battles and galactic discourse in the same way the characters do: Through news and rumors, with small hints at chewier, bigger plot elements throughout the book. This is a small, personal story, and Chambers tells it well. But if you go in expecting Senate hearings or military pomp and blaster fire, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is available from Amazon and other online booksellers, or from your local bookstore.

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