The only comic sci-fi pitch that would sell faster than “Eurovision in Space” is probably “Catherynne Valente Writes Eurovision in Space.” And that’s exactly how Space Opera, originally suggested as a dare on Twitter, glimmered into the world.
Like a Hitchhiker’s Guide that’s woken up on a strange couch after a Eurovision party, clutching its head and wondering what microstate that super-strong schnapps with all the gold leaf inside came from, Space Opera is the story of washed-up glam rocker Decibel Jones and his band the Absolute Zeros, who have to save the Earth from destruction by representing the planet at this year’s Metagalactic Grand Prix. All they have to do is not finish last.
Harder still, on their way to the venue—in a starship piloted by a giant space flamingo and a disorganised time-travelling engineer that looks very like a red panda—Dess and his bandmate, to whom he hasn’t spoken since the Zeros fell apart one dreadful night in Edinburgh, are actually going to have to write the song.
Ever since the spacefaring species of the galaxy almost annihilated each other in the Sentience Wars, they’ve instead taken out their resentments against each other in song. They reached this agreement in a peace treaty signed at “what was once an unassuming market town of no particular strategic or cultural importance … where the final battle screamed itself mute and the war finally ended” (p. 169) … otherwise known as the Zeros’ destination, Vlimeux, but almost as good a description of a little place called Waterloo.
Space Opera is driven by the mythology as well as the mechanics and the magic of Eurovision—the vision of the contest as a continent-wide (or galaxy-wide) performance of reconciliation, where old enemies have looked back on their devastating history and promised to put war aside.
Joked about, pitched and sold while Valente was still livetweeting Eurovision 2016, this is a cis white American’s gaze on European kitsch, multicultural Britain, and gender non-conforming glam rock—and most of its word of mouth so far has come from North America, since the UK print edition won’t drop until later this year. But the fact that one of the things I do in my academic day job is researching the politics of Eurovision made me all the more intrigued to read the story as soon as I could.
For old or new fans of Valente, Space Opera certainly wraps many of her past novels’ strengths up in glitter—the neo-pulp space travel of Radiance (2015), the unapologetic queerness of Palimpsest (2009), the extravagance of prose of the Prester John books or The Orphan’s Tales. But the story that most prefigures it, with its mix of whimsy and resistance, might actually be “The Beasts Who Fought for Fairyland Until the Very End and Further Still”—a Fairyland prequel written just after the 2016 US election, in which her exhausted magical creatures are wondering how they will ever live and love and hope again after seeing the realm conquered by the cruel, tyrannous Marquess. In times like these, sometimes you need a book that sparkles with sheer fun.
And fun radiates off every page of Space Opera—the fun of the worldbuilding, the fun of taking in the prose that builds it, and the fun Valente must have had in crafting every sentence (with the model of Douglas Adams’s prose never far out of view). “Give them the soggiest cast-off thigh-high stocking’s worth of a tune and the most obnoxiously Campari-drunk open-mic night-reject half-sucked raspberry lolly of a lyric,” she writes on page thirteen, “and in one night, Dess and Mira and Oort would turn around a glamgrind anthem perfectly crystallizing the despair of the young enslaved by the London real estate market crossbred with the desperate future-cosmic hope of murdering a Martian catwalk in a satin slip while guzzling a rubbish bin full of cheap ruby port, as sung by the comet-pummeled ghost of Oscar Wilde snorting stars like meth.” And that’s before we’ve even met the aliens.
It’s out in space where the voice most echoes Adams, populating the universe with strange species which all turn out to have pettily human quirks: of course the ruler of the “oldest functioning civilization in the galaxy,” one Musmar the Night Manager, is the author of a self-help autobiography titled Who Moved My Infinite Doomsday Device?; of course every planet turns out to have its equivalent of dressing up as a monster and then gorging on sweets during Halloween.
By comparison, apart from one scene set in a real Brighton pub, the Hope and Ruin, Valente’s Britain is remarkably immaterial: as a reader who’s lived all my life in Britain, I found it difficult to picture (or remember) any of the Zeros’ home towns. That said, most of the story’s earthside time unfolds in Decibel’s flat or the house of his last bandmate standing, Oort St. Ultraviolet. British readers may pay more attention than Americans to how the setting is crafted (a twenty-foot illuminated billboard of the band used to surprise Decibel’s grandmother outside ‘Piccadilly Square tube station’ (p. 10), not Piccadilly Circus or even Piccadilly Gardens metrolink)—but Valente has also taken on the responsibility of writing a queer brown British man as her protagonist from a continent away.
Valente has said that how hard it can be to write strong male protagonists was one of the five things she learned writing Space Opera, though she didn’t expand on how writing across other axes of difference at the same time would have been harder still. Decibel, our protagonist, was born Danesh Jalo—or, rather, “a leggy psychedelic ambidextrous omnisexual gendersplat glitterpunk financially punch-drunk ethnically ambitious glamrock messiah by the name of Danesh Jalo” (p. 10). His combined Pakistani, Nigerian, Welsh and Swedish heritage has probably made his ethnic and racial background as much of an object of public curiosity as his sexuality, or even his gender (like Bowie, Decibel declared himself bisexual early in his showbusiness ascent, though in his case the labels grew more expansive as his career went on).
How accurately Oort, born Omar Calişkan, goes about strategically assimilating into the ideal that his Turkish refugee father used to refer to as “Englishblokeman” will need to be judged by reviewers whose families have negotiated Englishness and Britishness in ways I haven’t had to do as a white Anglophone—though certainly the US edition has complicated Oort’s birth name more than his background suggests, not to mention its two apparently missing diacriticals: “Ömer Çalışkan” would be an everyday Turkish name, “Omar” gives him an Arabic first name instead. But at least Decibel’s personal memories of childhood embarrassment, which ensued his daring to express an artistic self, are individual enough to motivate his character, and many readers with their own creative impulses might empathise with the doubts he still feels in front of every crowd. Decibel has grown up facing homophobic and racist street violence, negotiates microaggressions from government agents (one oddly referred to as “Leftenant” (p. 70) in the US edition) and the Daily Mail, and acknowledges the harm that British imperialism did to one side of his family when before the Grand Prix he stands up to a femme-fatale rival who has offered to cut a deal with him in return for India.
Though Decibel was probably born in the late Eighties or Nineties, his persona and his rise often recall Freddie Mercury (whose Parsi family came to Britain via Zanzibar and India) or David Bowie. That flamingo-shaped alien, envoy of a species called the Esca, liberally quotes in her first-contact speech from Bowie, Queen, Mott the Hoople and Lou Reed, in order to make Dess feel at home, and likens Dess’s self-defined “gendersplat” identity to her own non-male, non-female reproductive role—though apparently no other planet in the galaxy apart from Earth has started disentangling sex from gender, or invented neopronouns of their own.
For better and worse, the Eurovision behind Space Opera is very much the Eurovision of Conchita Wurst (the gender-variant, maybe-Spanish maybe-Latina creation of a cis queer Austrian man)—indeed, the chapter introducing Decibel is called ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’, one of thirty-six titular treats for Eurovision fans. In fact, Space Opera’s chapter titles are just one of the hidden pleasures for fans of Eurovision and/or languages, two fandoms that have a way of overlapping (I’m hardly the only British person my age who started learning a language intensively after hearing it in Eurovision first). The entries they reference go well beyond the obvious (“We Wear Spring Clothes In The Wintertime,” the English translation of Greece’s entry in 1996, labels a flashback to Decibel’s first performance in his signature coat; or “Come On, I’ll Give You A Flower,” Yugoslavia’s 1970 entry, and gimme titles like “Take Me To Your Heaven” or “Hello From Mars”).
Scarcely a Eurovision season goes by without an earful of ethnopop, a drama about who’s allowed which special effects on stage, or a member broadcaster doing the earthbound equivalent of dropping out and “ruining everyone’s fun over an argument about sand” (p. 152). Every national language used in Eurovision contributes the name of one alien species (my second language is Croatian, thanks to several years of Eurovision preselections in the late 90s, so I looked out for the Utorak, a species of enormous stone humanoid whose name originally means “Tuesday”). The emotional arc of the Esca’s signature performance wouldn’t have disgraced Jamala (Ukraine’s winner in 2016), if she’d had a planetary-size LED screen behind her too; and the Alunizar, the galaxy’s cultural and military superpower, which dominated early contests and accordingly are now routinely voted down to the lower ranks of the scoreboard until they cry, can’t have a worse record in the Grand Prix than the UK.
But, along with pop magicians like a Robyn or a Kieron Gillen, Valente knows about the melancholy behind the disco lights. The Zeros, like so many other unfortunate stars, never foresaw, in the course of events that took place well before the novel begins and led to the death of their third member, Mira Wonderful Star, “the power of the ordinary to gum up the works of the epic” (p. 18). The full scale of a political catastrophe that should have rocked their world like Trump’s election or the Brexit referendum only hits the reader near the end—though at the cost of leaving us wondering how it should have influenced the characters’ motivations up until then. It may also pack too hard a punch for readers who are already living in fear of it coming true.
Translating the planet-annihilating outcomes of intergalactic warfare from Adams’s Vogons—a spoof of town councils’ urban planning—to a spoof of Eurovision, meanwhile, forces the story to pick a very delicate path through European war memory itself. The same myth of “unity in diversity” behind Eurovision (founded in 1956) also gave cultural glue to the political and economic projects of Western European integration that politicians created after the Second World War to tie France and (West) Germany together. The internecine destruction of the Sentience Wars is more reminiscent of European public memory of World War I than the Allied struggle against the Axis powers—but European institutions, and Eurovision itself, have subtly joined in the myth-making of 1914–45 as one long war.
Surviving the brink of destruction has tempered this galactic society, just as Western Europeans tell themselves the story of how their continent has progressed since the Second World War. The contestant species of the Grand Prix have agreed to cease warfare over which planets’ inhabitants deserve to be called sentient, and they look down on the human capacity for extinction and genocide in terms that locate that capacity in the human species rather than fascist and colonial powers with their own histories. The comic tone is not always up to representing the sensitivities of colonialism: one arch narrative line contrasting the agricultural potential of Europe and Australia smacks of the colonial “terra nullius” principle in ways that Indigenous readers would not want to encounter in a comic sci-fi romp; and another remark put into one alien’s mouth reads as if the Lakota, Cree, and Aboriginal Tasmanians are already extinct.
The “Europe” of Eurovision, as 2018’s contest in Portugal reminded us, is one where the silences of empire and enslavement persist even when the continent remembers war. By hitching the myth of postwar European reconciliation as well as the basic structure of the Song Contest to its ride through space, with protagonists who embody Britain’s politics of belonging, Space Opera has more difficult registers of history to balance than if its world had been imagined at more removes from ours. At its most thoughtful, its politics are unmistakeable: “Which of us are people and which of us are meat?” (p. 5), its narration rightly describes as the question that legitimises almost every war. The very fact that Vlimeux and its beautiful garden-world of Litost (Czech for an anguished sense of self-regret) should, in any conflict the scale of the Sentience Wars, really have been scorched off the map by the first passing invader seems to sum up what glam rock and the last few years of Eurovision mean to Space Opera: defiance in the face of crisis.
The readers Space Opera wants to appeal to—and the viewers who Eurovision invites into its temporary transnational family front room—are those who want to believe that as a planet or as a continent, humans or Europeans are “kind enough … [n]ot to crush underfoot the singers of songs and tellers of tales and wearers of silk” (p. 106). Where Eurovision tries to unite its audience in a shared fantasy of overcoming war, Space Opera reaches out to its own readers’ emotions with a dream of overcoming tyranny: within its universe, “[t]he opposite of fascism isn’t anarchy, it’s theater […] and when the bad men come, all there is left to do is sing them down” (p. 144).
Eurovision has bemused its fair share of North American contestants, from Katrina and the Waves’s frontwoman to Celine Dion, so the protagonists need not have come from a quickly-drawn Britain in order for the Earth-based backstory to make sense. Nevertheless, Space Opera will still give fans of Valente’s writing or the song contest she loves the comfort of imagining that theatre will be enough—and that it will be possible to sing the bad men down.