Sunday 9 June 2019

Space Opera — Review

At our book club discussion of the Hugo-shortlisted novel Space Opera, there was a consensus that
Derivative and listless,
Space Opera failed to
meet expectations.
(Image via
Catherine Valente is an author worthy of a best novel rocket ship on her mantle. We also agreed that Space Opera is not the work that should earn it for her.

Valente’s 2015 novel Radiance is criminally underrated. Thoughtfully tackling issues of patent hoarding and the resulting stifling of innovation, Radiance makes the case for the continued relevance of steampunk as a genre. The structural story-within-a-story techniques shows what Valente is capable of as an artist – this is a non-linear tale that could only really work as a prose novel.

Her 2011 novel Deathless is an engaging – and approachable – historical fantasy that weaves together fairy tales with the Russian revolution. It could be compared to something between Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

And by contrast, Valente’s previous Hugo-shortlisted novel Palimpsest is an emotional tour-de-force about desire and possibilities. Deftly imagined – and artfully lyrical – Palimpsest is both a dreamlike and challenging book that readers will continue to get something out of on repeat readings.

Clearly, Valente writes first-rate books, in a wide range of styles and voices. There had not been a single one of her books that anyone in our book club had read and failed to enjoy… until Space Opera.
Catherine Valente is
capable of first-rate
novels, such as the
underrated gem
(Image via Amazon)

There are moments of entertainment in Space Opera’s numerous asides to metagalactic history, but the book is hampered by a surprisingly slow pace, thinly drawn characters, and a weak plot. Most troublesome for fans who wanted to love it, Space Opera is occasionally fun, but rarely funny.

While it’s obvious that not all comedy will appeal to all readers, those who study comedy contend that most successful jokes depend on a subversion of expectations. This is difficult to accomplish in science fiction in part because an author’s imagined strange new worlds are at their core an alienating experience for the reader; thus readers often have fewer expectations that can be successfully subverted.

Throughout Space Opera, every expectation is fulfilled, whether it’s the concluding clause of a sentence that reinforces the overarching point rather than subverting it, or the narrative arc of a character following a predictable cliched path.

In his classic work Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Douglas Adams managed a subversion of expectations repeatedly – often through deft linguistic legerdemain in which an end clause subverts the beginning of a sentence (I.E. “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.”), or by taking science fiction tropes to their logical but absurd extremes.

It is difficult not to compare Space Opera to Hitchhiker’s Guide. The latter work is not only the most famous science fiction comedy of all time, it’s set in a chaotic and diverse universe that is a clear antecedent to Valente’s book. This leads to similar joke setups, and similar punchlines.

And this becomes one of the major problems with the comedy in Space Opera; all sentences and actions live up exactly to expectations, especially if you’ve read any Douglas Adams.

As example, when Valente describes various animals that produce economically viable goods (such
If there's ever a movie adaptation
of Space Opera, we hope that the
role of Decibel Jones is played
by comedian Carlos Mencia.
(Image via
as a goat that “dispenses ice cream, brie, and buttercream frosting”) due to the random vagaries of evolution, it bears remarkable similarity to Adams’ section of the third Hitchhiker's book Life, The Universe And Everything in which we are introduced to the wild mattress creatures of Sqornshellous Zeta. When Valente treads the same territory as her predecessor, the comedic twist is lost, because you know where the joke is going.

In addition, Valente seems to use polysyndeton as a replacement for wit; “the glitter and the shine and the synth and the knowing”; “You are bizarre and disgusting and interesting and fixated on fetishes”; “Do you have enough empathy and yearning and desperation to connect to others outside yourself…” Sadly, this excessive use of the word ‘and’ just becomes tiresome.

It is uncomfortable for us to describe any book on the ballot as undeserving of the rocket, especially a book from an author for whom we have so much affection and respect. Unfortunately, none of the book club’s members plan to vote for Space Opera, and some couldn’t see placing this book above No Award.

No comments:

Post a Comment