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A Political History of the Future: Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

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In this installment of A Political History of the Future, our series about how science fiction constructs its political, economic, and social futures, we discuss Catherynne M. Valente’s latest novel, Space Opera, a comic romp in which humanity is forced to compete in a gonzo space-Eurovision, with the species’s very survival at stake.

One of the criteria I defined for this series when I first introduced it was plausibility. I never planned to be a stickler on this point—there’s at least one work I’m very excited to talk about whose premise simply doesn’t hold any water—but nevertheless, it seems obvious that if we’re going to look at how SFF worldbuilding reflects real-world politics, it would help if the worlds in question had some bearing on reality. In light of this, those of you who have read Space Opera, or know even a little about it, would be perfectly justified in asking: why are we talking about this book?  A deliberately outrageous adventure that flaunts its unseriousness from the very first paragraph would seem to be well outside our purview.

To which the answer is, because talking about Space Opera gives me an opportunity to point out a glaring lacuna in almost all the works we’ve discussed so far—the way that nearly every one of them leaves out the centrality of culture, and particularly popular culture, in shaping a society and reflecting its preoccupations.

When I say “culture”, I’m talking about several different things, each integral to the believability of any invented world. Culture can mean shared cultural touchstones, classic and modern, that give people a common frame of reference, like humming a pop song or quoting the Simpsons. It can mean characters who are artists, professional or amateur. It could refer to the way that culture can become a political battleground, as we were discussing just a few days ago in response to the news that conservatives want their own version of SNL. Or it could be a discussion of material culture—fashion, design, architecture—and how it allows people to express themselves in even the most mundane aspects of their lives.

It’s very rare, however, to see science fiction try to engage with any of these aspects of culture. Even as it strives to create fully-realized worlds, art—high and low, functional and abstract, popular and obscure, ridiculous and serious—tends to be absent from them. So are artists—try to remember the last time you encountered a character in a science fiction or fantasy story who had an artistic side, even just as a hobby. Even worse, few characters in SFF stories have any kind of cultural touchstones.

Despite the fact that most of us filter our world through popular culture, it’s very rare for characters in science fiction stories to do the same. When they do, the result is often something like Ready Player One, which assumes that in the next few years, all of human culture will stop, and humanity will become irrevocably obsessed with one narrow tranche of 80s pop culture. Or, slightly less obnoxiously, the characters on various Star Trek shows who were history buffs, all, oddly enough, experts on 20th century Americana. But characters creating their own culture, and reflecting the state of their world in doing so, are extremely rare.

There are a lot of reasons for this—not least being that it’s hard enough to create a world, much less create stories for that world to obsess over. But I also think that, especially for SFF worldbuilders, caring about culture is perceived as dangerously feminized. You can spend pages talking about the imaginary technology that powers your FTL drive, but heaven forbid you take even a moment to consider the evolution of uniform design. Despite the fact that every fictional world we’ve ever enjoyed was designed from top to bottom to convey certain impressions and create certain emotional associations, the people within those worlds often act as if the whole thing just happened. As if there isn’t a community of artists, and an industry furiously monetizing their work, at the back of it all, about whom it might be interesting to tell stories. And I think that’s because those artists are perceived to be either female or feminized.

It certainly seems to be the reason why the few space operas that leave space for culture seem to be written by women. Take, for example, the way that Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books are often as much novels of manners as they are space adventures. Or the way Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy stresses cultural signifiers, as when characters lust over a particularly fine tea set. Leckie’s novels, in particular, emphasize the role that culture has in the imperial project. By imposing upon its protectorates and conquered foes the impression that Radchaai culture is high culture, the Radch not only gives itself an excuse to dismiss all those who don’t participate in that culture as barbarians, but forces anyone who wants to accumulate power within its structures to buy into their worldview—to study the right poets, quote the right philosophers, dress and style themselves the right way.

Sometimes, in order to call attention to how much of a role culture and fashion play in shaping our society and politics, you have to put realism aside. In her novel Persona (2015; there’s also a 2016 sequel, Icon, which I haven’t read) Genevieve Valentine imagines a world where diplomacy has somehow merged with pageant culture and reality TV, with each country represented by a “Face”, whose friendships and romantic dalliances translate into trade deals and defense pacts. Valentine is a long-time commentator on fashion and the way it’s used to send messages and promote careers. Her write-ups of various red carpet events are perennial highlights; see, most recently, her thoughts on the Catholic-themed Met Gala. In Persona, she incorporates these observations into her plot, in which the representative of resource-rich, cash-poor South American country has to deftly navigate between playing on the exotic stereotype expected from her, and having enough personality to stand out. As I wrote in my review of the book, the impression formed is of The Hunger Games with all the boring fight for survival stuff taken out, focusing exclusively on the intersection between fashion, celebrity culture, and politics.

Which brings us back to Catherynne M. Valente. Over the last decade and a half, Valente has had one of the most implausible, idiosyncratic careers it has been my pleasure to observe. Her secret seems to be to write exactly what she wants and trust that the audience for it will materialize, which it usually does. In the ’00s, she was writing dense, flowery quasi-mythology, as in the Orphan’s Tale duology (In the Night Garden, 2006; In the Cities of Coin and Spice, 2007), in which a series of nested fables build into one another to create a single narrative. Her 2009 novel Palimpsest, about a group of people who find that they can access a fantasy city by having sex with people who have visited it, was easily one of the Hugo award’s most inexplicable nominations (I say this not as a knock against the book, which I quite like, but because it’s so completely outside the Hugo’s bailiwick). In her more recent career, her work has become even more difficult to pin down, as in a retelling of the legend of Koschei the Deathless intercut with a narrative of the Russian Revolution (Deathless, 2011), or a novella in which the girlfriends of superheroes commiserate over being killed to motivate their lovers (The Refrigerator Monologues, 2017).

And now she’s published Space Opera, a Hitchhiker’s Guide-esque extravaganza in which humanity is informed that not only does sentient life exist in the galaxy, but it’s been silently judging us. Following the “Sentience Wars”, the surviving species decided that it was no longer safe to allow developing planets to potentially reach a technological stage where they might decide to wipe out and colonize the rest of the inhabited galaxy. So “borderline cases” like humanity are required to participate in the Metagalactic Grand Prix, an annual musical contest, where their future depends on not landing dead last. The thinking is, if a prospective participant in the community of species possesses true sentience, not just intelligence, they’ll be able to convey it through art, to demonstrate that they are capable of empathy by arousing it in others. If not, their planet will be humanely cleansed of intelligent life.

Valente wears her influences broadly and proudly. Even if she weren’t upfront about the debt she owes to Douglas Adams in her acknowledgments, the novel’s opening lines would do the job for her:

Once upon a time on a small, watery, excitable planet called Earth, in a small, watery, excitable country called Italy, a soft-spoken, rather nice-looking gentleman by the name of Enrico Fermi was born into a family so overprotective that he felt compelled to invent the atomic bomb.

But Valente also works to make this premise her own, chiefly through her insistence that sentience—and worthy sentience most especially—is most fully expressed through art.

“It’s perfectly absurd to think we’re alone in the universe. But if they ever do come, Danesh—it is Danesh, isn’t it? Well, Danny Boy, if they ever do come, it won’t be anything like The Thing or Predator or any of that Doctor X-Files rot. They’ll be better than the rest of us. They’ll have art and poetry and music.”

The speaker here is Mira Wonderful Star, one-third of the flash-in-the-pan glam-rock group Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, who just happen to be the one band on the list, helpfully supplied by humanity’s chaperones in the Grand Prix process, of acts identified as possessing the right combination of heart, showmanship, and pizzazz to potentially not completely alienate the audience, who are also still alive (well, two out of three—Mira’s tragic death looms over Decibel and his surviving former bandmate, Oort St. Valentine, for most of the story).

The scene in which humanity, fresh off the twin revelations that they are not alone in the universe and that they’re going to have to sing for their survival, gets a look at this list is one of my favorites in the book, because it gets at the point that I’ve been trying to make in this essay—the point that I think Valente is making in her book—that culture is at the very heart of us as thinking, feeling creatures. Perhaps the best proof of humanity’s sentience in Space Opera is the fact that when presented with a definitive list of “good” Earth musicians, the first reaction of most humans is to argue with it, demanding to know where Beyoncé is and announcing that “Skrillex is not going to go down as the savior of humanity. It’s just not happening. I’d rather die in a sea of nuclear fire.”

“What’s… what’s wrong with you? Why do you like this stuff?” Asked a middle-aged graphic designer in Berlin. “Grace Jones, I get. Brian Eno, I suppose, if you must. Even RuPaul, I can almost understand. But Jefferson Starship? Nicki Minaj? Hüsker Dü? Courtney Love? I mean, really? And Donna Summer just seems wildly out of place with the rest of them. There’s no aesthetic unity here at all

I love “MacArthur Park”.

“Right. Okay. Cool. No, sorry, it’s not cool, that’s awful. Good lord.” A Liverpudlian nightclub owner crossed her arms over her chest. “A moment ago I was nearly pissing myself in terror, but now I’m just… well, I’m just a bit offended, frankly.”

Valente’s model for the Grand Prix is Eurovision, a pan-European singing competition that has been running since 1955, and has, in recent decades, become associated with outrageous excess, not to mention queer culture. (To give you a bit of a frame of reference, the Finnish entry in this year’s competition involved the singer spinning 360 degrees on a knife-throwing target, and—perhaps because no actual knives were thrown at her—this was not considered particularly noteworthy and her song ended up ranking second-to-last.) Valente’s take on Eurovision—make campy, really gay music, not war—is more than a little romanticized, but it fits the kind of book she’s trying to write, which is not just about the importance of culture, but about the need to let your freak flag fly. For all the book’s obvious, deliberate un-realism, that still feels like an important lesson for science fiction authors, a reminder that wherever there are people, there will some genuinely weird, funny, beautiful shit to look at, and it might be worth writing about.

There’s a lot more to the book, of course. Valente has a a lot of fun inventing the various other sentient species in the galaxy and delving into such—obvious, for this sort of story—corners as inter-species sex or the various musical styles that have won previous Grand Prix. Along the way, Decibel and Oort make peace with each other and with the death of Mira, and take some important steps on behalf of the species towards not being so awful all the time. The book is also openly, gleefully political. One of the species who customarily competes in the Grand Prix, for example, has dropped out because it doesn’t suit their increasingly militaristic worldview, “and anyway, their current emperor is a slowly rotting mango on a lawn chair, so their own sentience status is a bit up in the air at the moment”. But one of my favorite moments comes towards the end of the story, when Valente takes us back to Earth to reveal what happens after humanity has a chance to process its probably-looming annihilation:

People started to root for other bands—not over Decibel Jones, of course, but there were a lot of slots above dead last, and they’d been grooving on Elakh, Escan, Yurtmak, Smargadi, and Klavaret, hits for a while now. The Keshet band Basstime Anomaly actually topped the Billboard charts with one of their moldy oldies, “Clock Lobster.” Nobody wanted to say so, but it seemed pretty unlikely that two thirds of a has-been glamrock duo was going to take first place, so why not support the best and cheer for old DJ to come in ninth or tenth, which would still keep them all safely unincinerated?

It’s this truth—that sometimes, the art we admire can mean more to us than matters of life and death—hat Valente grasps, and so many other writers of genre miss.

One the next APHotF: not sure, but probably either Sam J. Miller’s Blackfish City or Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gun.

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