Jun 03 2018

Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente — The B Side

In her “Liner Notes” to Space Opera, Catherynne Valente thanks, “however obliquely … Douglas Adams, or at least his ghost, who looms somewhat benevolently over all science fiction comedy.” He did more than just hover over my review, he provided the framework of the lead paragraph and set the tone for much of the rest of the piece as well. A couple of sentences later, Valente adds, “Good lord, without Hitchhiker’s Guide, I would disappear in a puff of logic.” As someone who still has basically all six hours of the original radio show lodged in his brain, I can relate. I could no more write about Space Opera without picking up some of Adams’ style than I could say “Oolon Colluphid” without adding “trilogy of philosophical blockbusters.”

John Scalzi has often said that Hitchhiker’s was an extinction-level event for humorous science fiction. “It was so clearly, obviously, blindingly popular that it just obliterated everything else in the field.” It’s worse than that, in a way, because even Douglas Adams was really Douglas Adams only about half the time.

So Valente is going full-tilt at a windmill that has bested many a lance in the forty-odd (some very odd) years since Hitchhiker’s was published. Why does it work in Space Opera? Three reasons, I think. First, over-the-top is one of her natural idioms. The long and funny and occasionally random list; the apparent non sequitur that comes to a sharp point; the piling on of absurdist detail and action — all of these are apparent throughout the Fairyland books, for example. When Valente moves this approach to space, it doesn’t mean that she’s doing Douglas Adams. It means that she’s doing Valente in space, which happens to read a lot like Douglas Adams.

Second, much of what she is up to in Space Opera is the obverse of what Adams was about in Hitchhiker’s. The first sequence in Hitchhiker’s is about blowing up the earth. (One of the threads that became Hitchhiker’s was the concept of a radio series, with each episode about a different way that the world came to an end.) All of Space Opera is about avoiding that very outcome. Adams’ British everyman has no trouble with that aspect of his role, it’s coming to terms with everything else that he can’t quite get the hang of. Valente’s everymen struggle hard both to attain and to get away from the remarkable unremarkability that was Arthur Dent’s very stock in trade. By flipping key elements, Valente gives herself more space to sing in the same key as Adams without simply doing a cover version.

Finally, the two authors are telling different kinds of stories, and the difference is right there in the title. One is an opera, the other is a guide. Adams’ picaresques famously went on to become a trilogy in five parts. The open-endedness of the Hitchhiker’s stories and universe meant that the only real limits were Adams’ ability to get the ideas onto a page. The Guide could always be revised. In extremis, new roving reporters could probably have been conjured to cast a slightly hungover eye on the galaxy’s foibles. By contrast, Space Opera is complete in itself. This is no Ring cycle. Once the skinny guy has sung, the curtain comes down and the audience streams out to the after-parties. Taking the opposite approach from Adams’ strengthens Valente’s work, especially in the inevitable comparisons.

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One of the book’s additional small pleasures was its depiction of Oort’s cat, Capo. A series of improbable events gives her the ability to talk, to which she attaches as much importance as one would expect from a cat. “The key to a happy life, Capo devoutly believed, was never giving much of a damn what happened in any given day so long as you got in a nap, a kill, and a snuggle, and the snuggle was optional.” A few lines later, Valente sorts out the priority of the remaining two elements of a good day: “The nap was the really important thing. The nap was all.” (Ch. 18)

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Late in the story, the temptations of Decibel Jones are accompanied by a drink that is almost but not quite entirely unlike tea. Here is part of Jones telling off the tempter, “Allow me to be one of the few historically significant Britons to say; India is none of my business. Thanks for the tea, Bloodtub. See you on the morrow, as it were. Upon St. Crispin’s Day.” Jones takes up a new kind of Britishness, one that might well have befuddled Arthur Dent as much as the machinations of the NutriMatic.

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Space Opera, douze points.

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