This book was a mind-expanding, chortle-making, thought-provoking, memory-stirring, joy-producing experience from beginning to end.
It’s packed with wit, pyrotechnic sentences, infinite imagination, seasoned with potential genocide and diabolically devious competition and held together by compassion and empathy and a little hope. It’s kept human and relevant by focuses on some broken-but-not-yet-destroyed musicians and all the magic that music works for us.
The title is ironic but you only know that after you’ve read the book – yeah, it’s that kind of book – so confident of its own coolness it doesn’t care if you only get it in retrospect because that’s kinda cool too, you know? This isn’t about space battles and complex hardware. Think Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett falling in love the Eurovision Song Contest and going “what if that was pan-galactic and the stakes were WAY higher?”
I can’t believe that I’ve never read Catherynne Volente before. Where have I been all her life? I’m hooked now and I’ll definitely be reading more. Her kind of talent is rare. He voice lifts me up to who I’d like to be, lets me forgive myself for not being him (yet) and tells me that I (and you) am not alone.
“Space Opera” was my first Buddy Read, a process that was great fun and prompted me to record my experience of the book as I read it. I’ve given my unedited Buddy Read posts below.
Buddy Read Posts
Warning: Spoilers and quotes abound.
Advice: Go buy this book. Read it. Read this later when you’re wondering if you’re the only one who felt like that while reading it.
Reading progress update: I’ve read 12%. – remember Bowie’s Starman who’d like to come and meet us but he thinks he’d blow our minds? Well, I just met him and he was right
I’m three chapters into this book and I’m blown away. The style makes hyperbole seem like a restrained understatement. This book is so extrovert it makes my head hurt.
Take “Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” then double the speed and triple the volume. Replace the urbanity of “Don’t Panic” with the existential bluntness of “Life is beautiful. And life is stupid.” Then use four decades of contextually dense pop-culture references as rebar to allow the concrete of your narrative structure to rise rapidly from nothing to mind-blowing complexity that is almost disturbingly easy to grasp – like Wile E Coyote, you can run with these ideas as long as you don’t look down.
So, what are the ideas? Well
“Life is beautiful. And life is stupid.”
The stupid part means that sentient races fall into galactic war because we races are hardwired to ask:
Which of us are people and which of us are meat?
Once you decide that you are people and they are meat, attention turns, not to living in peace but to whether you:
“eat, enslave, shun, keep them as pets, or cleanly andquietly exterminate them all. “
A century after having ended the Sentience Wars, all races are agreed that this can never be allowed to happen again. Cue the invasion of Earth at this point.
Meanwhile, the focus is definitely on the personal, even if the person focused on is a burnt out ex-global rock star who is now decades away from mega-fame and has just had his third solo album fail.
Why the focus of on one person? Because:
“The story of the galaxy is the story of a single person in it. A cover version, overproduced, remastered, with the volume cranked up way past eleven and into the infinite.”
This is the kind of book I want to read in one sitting but can’t because:
1. My head would explode
2. I keep having to stop to take notes.
3. I don’t want this ride to end.
Reading progress update: I’ve read 22%. – I’m seeing this through an old man’s eyes
Most of the time, I forget how old I am. True, I great each day with an immediate awareness of minor aches and pains and a low level fatigue that nuzzles me like a loyal Labrador rather than springing awake and wondering what to do with the parts that spring the most, but that has all happened so slowly, I’m mostly able to ignore it and it’s not like it’s a surprise, just aging as advertised.
But for a long time, I thought that life inside my head, where I live for an unhealthily large proportion of the day, went on as it always did, with me being the same me I’ve always been, without the need to dress up or remember not to scratch where it itches.
This book, which, as you can see, has infected me with a fever for long, long, continuous stream of confused consciousness writing, has made me see that that belief is not so much a lie as a self-imposed blindness.
Have you ever moved out of a house and, as the furniture that has sat unmoved for decades, is carted away and the curtains are taken down and sunlight streams into places it hasn’t been able to reach in recent memory and then seen that the paint is faded, dustbunnies have formed civilizations complicated enought to be ready to make a break for the next room and the floorboards that haven’t had furniture crouching on them are scarred and tarnishe and ALL OF THIS is now so obvious that you cannot understand why you’ve never seen it before? That’s what reading and reflecting on this book has done to my perception of life inside my head.
It’s clear that, even inside my head, I’m really sixty-one Who knew? Not me, I’ve lived here for too long.
So what prompted this unlooked-for epiphany? Reading a couple of chapters in what, to my own younger eyes, might have seemed a silly but cool and wickedly bright book.
It is cool and wickedly bright. But it’s more than that. The author behind the curtains is not yet forty but she knows and wants us, old-enough-to-spot-it folks, to know, that behind the wit and the exuberance and the anarchic energy, lies the reality of hard choices, inevitable age and the ephemeral nature of ineffable music.
Chapter 3 is all about a cutely presented ultimatum from the alien races that humanity must pass a test or be obliterated. Once I’d have been amused at how this was done and impressed at the strength of the steel-fisted logic in the single white Michael Jackson glove. Now I find myself angry at the aliens because they can’t see that their own post-holocaust civilization is still built on the acceptance of the genocide as a necessary part of maintaining peace and that that kind of peace is too pricey to maintain. That might just be me being me but it’s probably me being a grumpy (but right) old guy.
Chapter 4 is all about the launch of the rock band “Decibel Jones and The Absolute Zeros”. This is nothing short of wonderful. It captures all the desperation and freedom and NEED for identity and terrifying fear of failure that bands live with. So what made me focus on being old? I suddenly realised that I AM the old guy running the open-mike pub in Brighton and watching Decibel Jones launch himself into the world like a baby bird falling from a tree. I’ve been listening to music since before the author was born. I love it but I see it’s scars and wrinkles more clearly now than I used to. So here’s how the venue owner reacted to the first performance of the band:
“He laughed and laughed in total silence while bright-eyed, ambitious Lila Poole patted his shoulder and tears streamed out from under his glasses, down his booze-blooming cheeks, and into the soft darkness of his smoke hole, seeping toward the last part of him that remembered what it was like when he was young and everything in the world sounded just like that.
He wept into his single pint.”
See what I mean?
Reading progress update: I’ve read 42% The Real Test, Who Do I Want To Be and DJ Bobo
This book is starting to consume me. The more I read the more I need to read.
I started off thinking Douglas Adams on speed but now I’m thinking Terry Pratchett minus the benign optimism.
Three things stuck with me most in the last few chapters:
THE TEST OF SENTIENCE
Anyone who enjoys this kind of book is going to cheer at this ultimate test because they’ll ace it:
“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?”
PLAYING WHICH BAND MEMBER DO I WANT TO BE
Here’s how the band members are described:
“Decibel Jones always lived in the moment; Omar Calisșkan always lived in an uncertain future. Mira, he supposed, had always lived in her own head and allowed others to visit once in a while. With advance notice. And extensive decontamination protocols.”
I could never be Decibel Jones and I’m thankful for that. I want to be Mira and used to think I was but these days I’m worried that I’m becoming Omar.
DJ Bobo is one of the dominant figures of the music scene here in Switzerland. There’re only 8 million people here, a quarter of them are foreigners and only half of what’s left speak the same language so being famous in Switzerland is not like being famous in the UK. Still, I like the guy, so I was pleased to see that Chapter 14, “Vampires Are Alive” is named after his most famous stage show.
Reading progress update: I’ve read 57%. Nice thought and a below the belt reference
Here’s a quote that I’d like to believe is true but is probably only comforting:
“Because the 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 think the previous contest stories give a nice context but go on too long. I liked the idea of the monstrous Flus who were completely unable to perceive their own monstrosity.
Most of the pop references are fun but quoting Conchita Würst was below the belt. I think this was one of the worst points in Eurovision history. She wasn’t a phoenix, just a bird set alight for our amusement.
Reading progress update: I’ve read 84%.- What is it about Alien bar scenes? Clippy is a… Boredom. What a semi-final
What is it about Alien Bar Scenes?
So, just like the Alien bar scene in Star Wars, this one went on for too long and tried too hard. Lots of originality. Not so much fun. I did like the replica Hilton thing though. A great metaphor for Purgatory.
Clippy is a…
The 321 AI race as Clippy was a hoot. God, how I hated Clippy. And do you think that AIs are named after an old spreadsheet program from Lotus but spelt backwards?
The human race lacks the attention span to face the possibility of total annihilation for sixteen days without getting bored and turning to gambling and mindless entertainment. That insight right there explains the whole Cambridge Analytica-enabled, Russian-funded rise of the Far Right in Europe and the otherwise inexplicable Trump.
What a semi-final
That was a great twist. Got my attention all the way back and blew away the cobwebs from the Alien Bar Scene.
Reading progress update: I’ve read 90%. – loved the guidance on inter-species sexual etiquette.
One of the alien gurus makes some amusing assertions about sex and then gives some good advice that made me smile.
“Where there’s a wang there’s a way.”
And the tongue-in-cheek paraphrasing of William Gibson’s
“The future is alreay here – it’s just not evenly distributed”
“Sex is universal, it’s just not evenly distributed.”
But what I liked most was this advice on how to treat a sexual partner from another species:
“…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.”