Decibel Jones, one-time rock god and full-time personification of glam and glitter, wakes up from a hangover to confront an alien invasion. More precisely, he wakes up to find himself being abducted. The aliens want to know more about humanity, and they have chosen Jones and his old band, the Absolute Zeros, as the best living specimens.
That is the extent of the similarities between Space Opera and any other book about humankind’s first interaction with extraterrestrial life. Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros are not bound for an examination room and a catalog; rather, they are headed for a stage. These aliens’ research method of choice is, of all things, a song competition, and they hope to determine whether or not humanity has enough soul to be allowed to survive.
Although Catherynne M. Valente’s delightful sense of humor is the most constant aspect of her prose, it is not the most memorable. Although her comedic talents are reminiscent of Douglas Adams at his best, Valente’s palette is far larger. Her prose is always quick and engrossing, but the content ranges from a glitzy, sometimes profane satirization of the music industry and its larger-than-life characters, to dead-serious flashbacks and a genuinely moving finale.
That ability to fluidly tie real-world tragedy together with psychedelic hilarity is perhaps Space Opera’s most impressive attribute. Valente’s writing here is as strong as anything taught as “good prose,” although the rock and whimsy will keep it from finding its way into the traditional literary canon anytime soon. And that’s a shame. It takes confidence, skill and talent to craft a tragic disco ball metaphor, and Valente has all three in spades.
At the end of the day, Valente’s fiction of a high-stakes, sequined Intergalactic Idol ably addresses what it means to be human and what it means to love someone, while being ever-entertaining and, crucially, being the kind of book that makes you want to dance. It’s got soul, after all.