Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

Source of book: I own this.

This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. Space Opera was nominated by my wife, and won the vote this month. I was not really aware of this book, but was familiar with the author, who wrote a series of imaginative fairy tales for kids, starting with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland. Space Opera has some similarities, but is rather a different sort of book. 

 As the author explains in the “Liner Notes” at the end, she was introduced to Eurovision in 2012, and thought it was a fantastic idea. Birthed in the aftermath of two catastrophic world wars, it aimed to provide a more positive outlet for national rivalries than warfare - and became a deliciously campy, over-the-top spectacle that is like nothing else. Valente started live-tweeting the contest; then one year, a fan joked that she should write a science fiction Eurovision novel...so she did. 

The basic premise of the novel is this: due to a wormhole incident (one yawned - they are like giant pandas in spacetime), tempers flared among the galactic civilizations, and catastrophic war resulted. After much was reduced to rubble, the survivors decided that they needed a better option for competition than intra-galactic war. So, they established a song contest to be held yearly (based on a rather longer year - hey, planets differ!) This contest would determine how the galactic resources were divided for the next period. Oh, and if any planets with potentially sentient life were discovered, they would have to participate as well...and if they came in last, they were annihilated as non-sentient. 

At the beginning of the book, then, Earth is discovered, and finds to its horror that they face the end of everything if they can’t manage to score at least next-to-last in a contest they have never heard of, involving forms of life with far greater resources to draw on. 

And, the galactic powers that be have already selected the musicians to represent them: has-been “glitterpunk” glam-rock group Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros. Never mind that they broke up years ago, and that one member of the trio is dead. The aliens are, well, a bit behind the times, and every other group on the list is dead, so the last group left standing gets the nod. 

Space Opera clearly draws a lot of inspiration from Douglas Adams, both in the inspired zaniness and the tendency to go off on rabbit trails about different civilizations or events. However, unlike Adams, Valente actually uses a plot, and the satire is more focused and less scattershot. This is both good and bad. One of the great things about Adams is that, at his best, his work feels like pure escapism, and you don’t really see the zingers coming. The satire is unexpected most of the time, and there is no plot or “point” to worry about. In contrast, Valente definitely has an underlying theme: the problem of sentience and xenophobia, particularly in our Trumpian age. After all, is a species which has spent its entire history at war with itself - often trying to annihilate slightly different humans - really sentient? Or is it more like an existential threat to other civilizations? 

The book got mixed reviews from our club, in large part because of the long digressions. Valente’s tendency to string adjectives together also made it a bit difficult to follow - particularly on audiobook. (I am trying to imagine how impossible Henry James would be on audiobook, with his page-long sentences…) In fact, I would say that those who read the book in print or electronic form liked it better than those who tried the audiobook - and that is despite the narrator sounding a bit like Douglas Adams himself. I thought the book was good fun, laughed at the satire, and considered it a fun escape from our currently trying times. 

I think I probably appreciated some of the jokes more having watched enough Eurovision (after the fact) to understand how over-the-top it is. (Valente isn’t exaggerating that much, shall we say.) I also “cheated” and read the “Liner Notes” early in the book, so I knew, for example, that the chapter names were all actual titles from Eurovision winners and runners-up. And that the names of the various alien races were taken from words in languages spoken by Eurovision nations. (Great examples: the Flus, a race of identical genocidal narcissists which fail to make the cut, come from the Maltese word for money. Voorpret is Dutch for Anticipation. Utorak is Tuesday in Slavic.) Looking this stuff up is easier when you can put the book down and grab a computing device. Also, since I could take notes, I jotted down some good lines for later. 

Here is one satirical zinger. The Esca (Italian for bait) are the race chosen to make contact with earth, using billions of holographic communication somethings to manifest and speak to all humans at the same time. As the emissary explains, this saves time:

I can’t wait for your monarchs to decide to hide it, lose control of the narrative, deny the evidence, call me a weather balloon, confess and resign, and finally leak a half-redacted version of what I tried to say to a newspaper friendly to one faction or another. Who has the time? 

I snorted really hard at this one. While it is a fairly universal characteristic of rulers, it is so very Trumpian you can’t miss it. Except for the resignation. Trump will have to be dragged from the White House by force someday - unless he dies choking on his own narcissism first. 

The Esca go on to explain the need for the contest:

Here’s the catch, kitten: whenever evidence of a new species with significant potential for expansion is discovered, we all get very nervous. Sometimes, the new kids are clearly on the up-and-up, bright scaled and bushy tailed sensitive sweeties who really have their shit together. But not everyone cleans up nice for company. Not everyone can be trusted to play nicely with all the other children. Sometimes, a species gins up the technology necessary to well and truly muck things up for the rest of us before they develop anything like self-awareness or complex reasoning or radical empathic perspective, before their philosophical digestive tract can handle something spicier than malice aforethought or semibenign neglect. 

In our own reality, it is pretty clear that the Hitlers and Trumps of our species do not meet this requirement - they (and their followers) are characterized by a pathological lack of empathy that cannot imagine the level of self-awareness, complex reasoning, or ability to see things from the perspective of other groups necessary to play nicely in the sandbox. They end up starting wars, trying to exterminate people groups, and obsess about keeping “those people” out. Which is, of course, why we need to be more careful to keep people like that out of power and way from the technology that allows them to muck things up for the rest of us. 

Valente also gets a good dig in at the way that humans love to think that they and those like them are “superior” because they happened to have access to resources others didn’t. In the book, the Aluzinar happened to be closest to the wormholes, and thus controlled space travel. This is certainly been the story of humanity. Those with the guns, germs, and steel, so to speak, can slaughter and enslave those without, and then use their religion to claim god loves them more. 

In the early days of the universe, whether or not a habitable planet happened to have a wormhole nearby was as consequential to the eventual political map as whether or not a particular group of humans happened to be born on a continent with domesticable animals on tap or on an island the size of a doorknob where the only source of reliable protein was a semipoisonous tuber. Wormhole or no wormhole had just as little to do with the inherent superiority and/or possibly divine mandate of the smirking bastards who won the cosmic draw as cow or no cow, and yet, everyone everywhere will do, say, and stab nearly anything if it means they get to believe that they are blessed and their neighbors are basically toad-people. 

Yep. And Christ had a lot of harsh things to say about that too, which it is so ironic that most of his supposed followers say the complete opposite to what Christ taught…

I wish I could quote ALL of chapter 13, which essentially explains how the test for sentience works. After rejecting cities, self-awareness, tools, problem solving, love, language, object permanence and other tests - which some animals can pass - before settling on this:

Do you have enough empathy and yearning and desperation to connect to others outside yourself and scream into the void in four-part harmony? Enough brainpower and fine motor control and aesthetic ideation to look at feathers and stones and stuff that comes out of a worm’s more unpleasant holes and see gowns, veils, platform heels? Enough sheer style and excess energy to do something that provides no direct, material benefit to your personal survival, that might even mark you out from the pack as shiny, glittery prey, to do it for no other reason than that it rocks?

And not just that, but also:

Are you kind enough, on your little planet, not to shut that rhythm down? Not to crush underfoot the singers of songs and tellers of tales and wearers of silk? Because it’s monsters who do that. Who extinguish art. Who burn books. Who ban music. Who yell at anyone with ears to turn off that racket. Who cannot see outside themselves clearly enough to sing their truth to the heavens. Do you have enough goodness in your world to let the music play? 
Do you have soul? 

It is no accident that autocrats the world over, from Hitler to Stalin to...well everyone...crack down on the arts. The arts are not primarily “entertainment” - they are our prophets. (Hey, read the Prophets in the Old Testament - it’s great poetry!) It’s also why the United States has had such a love-hate relationship with popular music. Our unique contribution to art derives not from the dominant white people, but from the African American experience. Cult leaders like Bill Gothard, therefore, had to paint music with an “African” origin as demonic, insisting on the superiority of European art forms. It’s very much political, as all art is. It is the same reason that the GOP has targeted the National Endowment for the Arts for decades. While they like to parade out a few controversial artists, most of that money doesn’t go to controversy, but to a wide variety of programs which make art available to the non-moneyed classes. And that, of course, is anathema, because people who experience the prophecy and power of art have a transcendent experience they can share that is outside the pale imitation offered as “patriotism” by those in power. (I really need to write a post about this sometime. But for now, just read up on composers like Shostakovich and his subversion of Soviet politics.) 

As an alien later observes, “[T]he opposite of fascism isn’t anarchy, it’s theater. When the world is fucked, you go to the theater, you go to the shine, and when the bad men come, all there is left to do is sing them down.” 

I am reminded of two incidents here. The first is the way that facist-enabler Mike Pence got called out when attending a performance of Hamilton. The reeking hypocrisy of someone who stands for persecution of LGBTQ people and immigrants attending a play full of gay actors celebrating the life of an immigrant is foul indeed, and good for the cast for stating the obvious. 

The second is this: while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, Olivier Messaien composed (and performed with other prisoners), an amazing work, Quartet for the End of Time, which in essence raised a middle finger to the Nazis, reminding them that judgment was coming for them when justice is done at the end of the world. 

Here is another way to look at art:

No matter how mad, bad, and dangerous to know a civilization gets, unto every generation are born the lonely and the uncool, destined to forever stare into the candy-store window of their culture, and loneliness is the mother of ascension. Only the uncool have the requisite alone time to advance their species. 

These are kind of the heavier themes, but the book as a whole is more lighthearted. I mean, other than the “will earth survive?” thing hanging there. Just before the big showdown, there is an extended scene set in a re-creation of a hotel lounge where the mixer from hell is going on. Valente has clearly been stuck in one before, and gets the details right. Well, almost right. Because the aliens who re-create it for the comfort of the newest contestant don’t quite understand how humans work. So there are a lot of drinks available, but nobody knows how to make one that won’t poison a human. It is not unlike those old American oddity shows where they put fake Native Americans on display in “traditional” costumes. Only a white person would think it looked right. (Or, think billionaire James Dolan trying to play blues…) 

As part of this scene, the digital race, the 321, have to manifest as...something so that they can be seen. So, with limited knowledge of human culture - and what they have from the digital realm, they choose, of all things, Clippy. Yep, the highly annoying digital “assistant” from past versions of Microsoft Office. I think everyone on earth hates him. Did anyone like him? Anyone? The 321 are a bit pissed that this went poorly for them. 

Printing a high-capacity three-dimensional corporeal interface isn’t as easy for us, you know. We have almost transcended the need for gross physical storage. We can’t just conveniently roll out of bed in a nice wash-and-wear body like the rest of these gooey bastards. Inasmuch as we have any home, we live in the rich router clouds of asteroid archipelago

I can’t stop laughing at the reference to the default IP address for a router. 

There is one other chapter that would be great to quote at length, chapter 30, “Silence and So Many People.” (Portugal 1984) It brings up the idea of interspecies sex, and it is pretty hilarious. And also, realistically sex-positive, if that makes sense. It starts with “Everybody fucks. Well, almost everybody.” 

No force on this plane of reality can equal the drive to get a leg over, because it’s the nondimensional otherspace where all those nice, sophisticated fundamental forces meet and form a weird, wet, messy trashball: tension, friction, gravity, electromagnitism, thrust, torque, resistance, elasticity, drag, momentum, inertia, pressure, chemical reactivity, fusion, conservation of energy, self-loathing, humiliation, and loneliness.
Being ashamed of it makes about as much sense as being ashamed of the speed of light. 
Everybody is bizarre and disgusting and interesting and fixated on fetishes they wouldn’t admit to their grandmother on pain of vaporization and worthy of love. You are bizarre and disgusting and interesting and fixated on fetishes you wouldn’t admit to your grandmother on pain of vaporization and worthy of love. It’s a literal goddamned zoo out there, so this is the best I can offer you: don’t giggle when the other entity takes their clothes off, secure enthusiastic consent, don’t mix silicon and carbon without extensive decontamination protocols, tidy up your house if you expect to bring someone home, don’t expect anything you wouldn’t offer, remember that every person is an end in themselves and not a means to an end, don’t worry too much about what goes where and how many of them there are, don’t mistake fun for love, try your best, be kind, always make them breakfast, and use protection. Chromosomes are not nearly such picky eaters as you might think. 

That’s actually pretty decent advice, come to think of it. 

Finally, let’s talk about the songs. Well, there are actually two facets to the songs. First, the imaginary songs. Valente sprinkles band names and songs throughout the book, usually as part of the description of a species and how they make music. While there are some real groaners, I found some hilarious. Your mileage may vary. 

“I Can’t Get No Liquifaction” - sung by the viral species that creates zombies. 
“Gleams of Production” - by the Azdr (Armenian for “thigh”) who are locked in an oligarch/proletariat struggle.
“Abort, Retry, Fail” - by the 321 of course. (True story, every time I see that, I remember accidentally crashing a minor computer owned by the FAA as a kid while at work with my dad. Fortunately, the statute of limitations has long since run, no permanent damage occurred, and I was pretty young at the time.) 

And, my very favorite: “Clock Lobster” by Basstime Anomaly. Which is on my shortlist of best band names ever. 

Then, there are the real tunes. The ones the chapters take their names from. Most are available on YouTube, particularly if you translate the names. I’ve selected five to show the range. 

First, this one from 1969, back when Eurovision still had a live orchestra. The first chapter in the book uses this name. “Boom Bang A Bang”

Second, from Bosnia and Herzgovina in 2011, “Love In Rewind.” There is a lot to like about this - the old guy as frontman, the nostalgic instruments, the naive and earnest singing. I’d totally want to jam with this band. 

Third, from France in 1990, “White and Black Blues.” It is a reminder that France embraced African American musicians long before the United States let them stay in hotels and eat at restaurants and come in the front door of the theater. 

Fourth is a great example of how Eurovision has gotten completely over-the-top in recent years - and I mean that in the best way. Here is Austria’s Conchita Wurst with “Rise Like A Phoenix.” 

Last, in the category of Awesomely Campy is a song that is better than a lot of the pop I have heard on the radio lately, “Vampires Are Alive” - Switzerland 2007. 

These are just a few of the fun songs that the chapter titles will lead you to. Take the time and listen to each as you read….

No, it isn’t great literature. Yes, it can get wordy. But I had a fun time with it, and with taking a dive into the glitterpool that is Eurovision. Give it a shot.

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