Sunday, April 14, 2019

Review: Space Opera

Space Opera Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a 2-star, DNF, Dorothy Parker review. That is a thoroughly accurate representation of my experience.

Minor spoilers ahead. Nothing that will ruin the plot as this one flew across the room in the fifth chapter.

Read as a part of evaluating the finalists for the 2019 Hugo award for "Best Novel". Selected as my first novel this year at random.

John Scalzi blurbed the book as:

"As if Ziggy Stardust went on a blind date with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, then they got smashed and sang karaoke all night long. Cat Valente is mad and brilliant and no one else would have even thought of this, much less pulled it off."

Surprisingly, I've not bothered to read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. But I've read lots of other humorous and/or off-beat works. They can be fun.

And I enjoy listening to David Bowie along with a lot of other musical oddities. So again, this sounds like it could be fun.

I was already more motivated to write about this book rather than reading it by chapter 3. The first two chapters were filled with the message that humanity is not the sole sentient species in the universe. The other species think their expression of sentience is the gold standard of sentient life. Everyone else is "meat".

And some gratuitous slagging of Enrico Fermi.

Lots of extended exposition that does a lot of "telling" and not very much "showing".

The story does not improve when we begin to meet our erstwhile protagonists in chapter 3. They are rock stars of mediocre wattage that over-imbibe in various mind-altering substances and glam rock style makeup. The lead singer seems inspired by the pastiche of David Bowie and Freddie Mercury. But those two were wholly likable. Little work is done to create a connection between the reader and the protagonists.

Chapter 4 is filled with the "wacky" efforts of one of the afore-mentioned sentient aliens (an Esca) to communicate with every inhabitant of planet the same time.

Essentially, the major sentient life-forms have decided that humanity is sufficiently advanced to be invited to a galactic sing-off where humanity isn't expected to win and will be thoroughly obliterated if they don't manage to be sufficiently entertaining. You see, these major sentient species had an ugly war in the past. And they decided a dance/sing-off was a better method for resolving difference? Put a pin in that for a minute.

The book blurbs suggested that this book was funny. And there were a few amusing moments. Nothing nearly as amusing as the works of Robert and Lynn Aspirin or Piers Anthony.

In chapter 4 there is a passage where the Esca is using familiar mental images (parents, a friendly waitress) to break the news to all of humanity that their collective lives are on the line.

Perhaps because, no matter their luck in life, they knew in their bones that at least they were better than the kid who brought them their steak medium, not medium-rare, and so could cling to the idea that humans were still the ones being served with a smile, the ones who were always right, the ones with a place at the table, not a place at the dishwasher, for a few precious minutes longer.

Hogwash. Most people appreciate waitstaff because we have had that sort of crappy job. We sympathize with the person that has a crap job and still does their best at it...just like we did.

Later on the Esca is defending the intergalactic sing-off with:

We have a responsibility to those who were here already when that chap with fangs and fur turned up pretending to be civilized.

Is the author actively supporting immigration restrictions, colonialism, and mass slaughter of aboriginal peoples?

By the time I made it to chapter 5, I'd had enough. The text heaps derision on the idea of the individual; at one point the Esca indicates that they had a "problem with libertarians", but they eventually pulled it out.

The entire history of the science fiction and fantasy genre is filled with authors illustrating the efforts of individuals to struggle against and hopefully break the efforts of the collective to make the collective's definitions of "acceptable" to be the only acceptable standard for every individual's behavior. If there is a sub-text to the sf/f genre, it is one of extolling the individual above the desires of the collective.

This novel didn't go into the Dorothy Parker bin because of all those nitpicks. The nitpicking was an indication of a book that contained serious flaws. Extensive exposition, protagonists with few features to base a connection, the humor was barely there, and other general editing flaws (i.e. we are told that the Esca refer to themselves as a "choir" only to have a later self-reference be to "the Esca". The editor was either absent or ignored in this book.

Back to that "pin".  The book does have the nut of a good idea worth exploring.  How do we treat less advanced civilizations?  Should we intrude on peoples that do not have a desire for our level of technology and force them to demonstrate an ability to be "civilized" according to our tastes?  It is [Is it] legitimate to shield ourselves from civilizations that might pose a lethal threat?  Interesting ideas coupled with a less than stellar execution.

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