Space Opera by Catherine Valente
Life is beautiful and life is stupid.
A very quick review. This book came to my attention a while ago with many people raving about it, but it seemed to be just some lighthearted fluff. Then it was Hugo nominated, I was between books, and picked this up on a whim.
It's definitely lighthearted fluff. But there's more to it than that.
The book started as a Twitter joke: "Hey, why don't you write a novel about the Eurovision Song Contest in space?" So she did.
The plot, such as it is, is as ludicrous as Eurovision itself. The galactic community has decided to judge if Earth is ready to be welcomed to the galaxy at large, or is so without empathy (and hence dangerous) to warrant utter destruction of the species. The judgement will be by a washed-up glam rock trio performing in the Metagalactic Grand Prix; so long as they don't come last, the human race is safe.
But that's almost by-the-by. The book is very funny, written in a style I can best describe as Douglas Adams doing a Douglas Adams impersonation and perhaps trying a little too hard. There's fabulous imagination:
The Voorpret Puvinys Blek, who happened to be the virtuoso earworm artist behind the death metal barbershop quartet Vigor Mortis Overdrive, grinned ghoulishly. It could hardly help it. Being a sentient prion infection living in symbiosis with the cadavers of other species, the Voorpret almost always do things ghoulishly.
there's pop-culture references:
oh, come on, you must know ‘Leave It Black.’ I see a black door and I’m extremely satisfied with how it looks?
and there's reflection on just how bizarre the world is:
Somewhere on Earth is an insect that excretes a golden antibacterial ooze that also does a splendid job sweetening your tea; a terribly picturesque tree whose bark will fix your malaria right up; and a large four-legged, two-horned mammal whose reproductive system dispenses ice cream, brie, and buttercream frosting.
But the book is more than just a celebration of kitsch and basking clever turns of phrase. It actually has a heart, and that heart is about celebrating art and how it can uplift it. It's about celebrating art not because it's useful, but exactly because it's not. It's about encouraging people to be them best selves, and applauding them when they do.
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?
Fundamentally, it's about what makes us human:
But in the end, all wars are more or less the same. If you dig down through the layers of caramel corn and peanuts and choking, burning death, you’ll find the prize at the bottom and the prize is a question and the question is this: Which of us are people and which of us are meat?
So, is Eurovision the pinnacle of art, the epitome of what it means to be human? Probably not, but it's pure joy, it's stupid, and it's beautiful.
And the book is a fabulous read.