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Space Opera by Cat Valente – A Book Review

Last night I finished Space Opera by Cat Valente. It’s a book that was recommended to me by a friend around the Eurovision time with a promise of glitter, glam, and the Eurovision in Space. I bought the book on Kindle and didn’t get a chance to read it for a few months, by which time I had forgotten even that much about it.

The opening of the book is immediately reminiscent of Douglas Adams:

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.

This tickled me greatly, and as I continued reading, the similarities in style grew. There were digressions, verbose and improbable similes, a chaotic view of the universe. I laughed out loud reading this book more than I had in as long as I can remember. And not just exclamatory snorts, full blown, wake-your-just-about-asleep-partner laughs. I remember thinking: this writer is doing a much better job of writing in Adams style than Eoin Colfer did when he wrote “And Another Thing!”, and I thought that was a neat trick. At that stage, I nearly dismissed the book as a neat trick of stylistic writing, and as such, inferior to the original. I’m so glad I didn’t.

I (like many people) have a very personal relationship with the works of Douglas Adams. When I was 12 or 13, an aunt bought me The HitchHikers Guide to the Galaxy: A Trilogy in Five parts. I read it straight through, and immediately re-read it. It became my bible. It was gleeful, hilarious, inventive and all the things you already know this book is. The books were a safety blanket for me, and it was only when I discovered the works of Terry Pratchett that I stopped re-reading them constantly while interspersing with other books. While my original copy didn’t return from a trip to the Gaeltacht, I have multiple copies of the series, and of all of Adams’ works. The first Neil Gaiman book I read was Don’t Panic, a biography of the HitchHiker series. I read it before I knew that Neil Gaiman was a cool author in his own right.

Gaiman’s book was full of fascinating insights into Adams process. If you know that The Restaurant at the End of the Universe was originally conceived as an episode of Doctor Who then a lot of things start to fall into place: Slartibartfast’s complete change of character, the prominence and agency of Trillian (who had been the token girl up to that point), the reason Zaphod and Ford seem so out of place in a plot to save the galaxy. You also see how Adams’ disaffection drove the darkness of the books. The message was “the universe is meaningless, so you might as well go a little mad”. This led to some hilariously absurd prose, and the cynicism appealed to me as an edgy teenager. As an adult who believes that cynical detachment is a vestige of privilege and an abdication of a responsibility to people who may be marginalised, it’s more problematic.

When I read Space Opera, I saw the same hilarity, the same glee in writing, the same playfulness with language, and familiar taken to absurd extremes. As I read, I saw pain, fear, and anxiety brought to life with the same pathos and authenticity that Adams brought to the characters in his works. But I also saw hope. One of the lessons that Adams books teach us is that hope is for suckers, and even if you get a happy ending, that’ll be written out in the next book (fucking hell, Fenchurch didn’t even get a fridge!). God’s final message to his creation is “We apologise for the inconvenience”. It’s very a very English form of nihilism.

In Valente’s world, the measure of how sentient you are is how you make music. The world of Space Opera contains a children’s book called “Goguenar Gorecannon’s Unkillable Facts”. The first unkillable fact is this:

 Life is beautiful and life is stupid.

While Adams universe proclaims that life is stupid, Valente agrees, but doesn’t condemn it for that. When I started reading the book, I didn’t expect more than a giggle and some overwrought similes. I didn’t expect a book that would pull apart some of my gooey SJWey parts, sprinkle them liberally with glitter and put them back in glowing with hope. It’s a long time since I’ve read something so uplifting, and I was honestly kind of surprised. Valente thanks Adams in her acknowledgements for the book, but as a massive Adams fan, I want to thank Valente for giving me something that brought me back some of the feelings I’d had as a kid.

I’ve spent the last 800 words comparing this book to the work of Douglas Adams, because of my personal connection to his writing, but Valente’s book is its own creature. It is inventive, colourful, lyrical, bananas and glittery. Bookfrack. For a book with such a silly premise, there’s a lot of depth to this book. I cannot possibly recommend this book more highly. Go read it now.

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