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Literature / Space Opera

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Life is beautiful and life is stupid.

When the aliens came, no one expected the fate of the Earth to depend on putting up a song and dance number. Space Opera is a book by Catherynne M. Valente, the story of Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, Mira Wonderful Star and Oort St. Ultraviolet, or rather, what's left of them after a tragic roadshow accident, being enlisted as the only (living) pop group on Earth that has even an ice cube's chance in hell of not placing dead last in the Galactic Grand Prix: the yearly talent contest that decides both galactic resource allocation, whether new found species are sentient (and thus saved from being preemptively cleansed by a atomic fire) and the galaxy's new best singles for the pop charts.

Not to be confused with the 1965 novel by Jack Vance, the 1974 anthology, the 1996 Genre Anthology, or the short story by Ray Russell, all of which have the same title.

Space Opera provides examples of:

  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: The 321 are, surprisingly, sympathetic to humanity and other newly discovered organic beings because they were once in their place, and other species considered them like an emotionless IT Guy who could configure their printers for them.
  • Ascending to a Higher Plane of Existence: The first winner of the Galactic Grand Prix won by a point because she did this on stage.
  • Cats Are Mean: Capo the Earth housecat is a terrible person, which is only confirmed when she develops the power of speech inadvertently through a mishap with a universal translator.
  • Dyeing for Your Art: invokedA common occurrence at the Grand Prix, and at least once with a big heaping of Heroic Sacrifice. The monstrously violent race known as the Yurtmak was saved and gained recognition as being sentient when their act in the Grand Prix came on stage with the hollowed out corpse of her lover, sang her heart out by blowing life back into the bones to dance, then set herself on fire, and smiled and waved to the adoring crowd as they threw flowers that scorched off her pyre. The Yurtmak species were deemed to have a rich inner life, and her song became a hit at weddings.
  • Emotion Eater: Turns out Wormholes are living things that, if you were far enough away and 4 dimensional, look like cute pandas. They feed off of the frustration and despair of sentients, but being nearly immortal and as old as the universe, they don't go around causing any, just sort of gravitate to big pools of it. Also, it just so happens Oort and Decibel are feeling really, really desperate about humanity's odds of survival.
  • The Empath: All Esca can skim the topmost memories of a person, and freely manipulate their emotions through subliminal use of sound... and picking the voices of the people they most trust or love in their memories.
  • Face Full of Alien Wing-Wong: Although Dess doesn't realize it, he gets pregnant after he sleeps with the roadrunner.
  • Fantastic Racism: Certain species, and individuals, are prejudiced against others for everything from the petty to the not-that-unreasonable. For example, everyone feared the Voorpret for being a deadly, corpse reanimating virus, but found them too useful to get rid of.
    • Once the roadrunner delivers the list of musicians who she thinks will best compete, Decibel is picked up by government agents from a British government agency who openly belittle him for his being mixed race, his grandmother's nationality, and orientation, while later trying to convince the roadrunner to pick a "more British" (white, straight, clean) musical group instead.
    • Averted the 321, who while they seem to resent organics, genuinely want to help Humanity survive the Grand Prix. However, being sentient software, their choice of avatar was sadly misinformed.
  • First Contact: Humanity gets contacted by aliens early in in the book.
  • A Form You Are Comfortable With: Out of politeness to humanity as the new kid on the galactic block, the 321 print themselves a body that mimics electronic assistant who is supposed to help navigate a complex and confusing system. Unfortunately, their research missed some important cultural context, so they didn't realize that hardly anyone actually finds Clippy (as in, yes, the paperclip from Microsoft Word, except giant) helpful and therefore they've missed the mark on "comfortable". Especially because a giant moving version of something usually encountered as a little pixel creature on your screen would be unnerving even if people did like it. And getting snotty and hostile when you realize it's not working makes no one feel better.
    Oort St. Ultraviolet: Clippy is a cunt.
  • Hive Mind: The Flus. Once a peaceful, well adjusted civilization, that changed when a rogue narcissistic, xenophobic, sociopathic member separated himself from the hive mind, took it over, overrode the genetic code of his entire species into being more of him. This ended up making Flus both an individual and species of Space Hitlers.
  • Humanity on Trial: Rare case of us being made to sing in a talent show to save Earth.
  • Incredibly Lame Pun: Most of the alien song titles, like "Clock Lobster", a Keshet hit which becomes incredibly popular on Earth.
  • Klingon Scientists Get No Respect: Explicitly called out early in book as a reason why humans would never run into space horrors. However, as Goguenar Gorecanon proves, every culture has the uncool kid who just wants to get off the planet as fast as possible. Olabil the Friendless, last of the Inaki, who survived the cataclysm that destroyed his home planet and race because he was skipping school that day.
  • Landfill Beyond the Stars: The rest of the galaxy found Elakhon the best place to get rid of anything unwanted due to no light escaping its surface. It kept and analysed everything and eventually housed the galaxy's main library.
  • Loophole Abuse: The Absolute Zeroes were invited. All the Absolute Zeroes. Just because Mira's dead doesn't mean she doesn't count. So, technically, there is no rule stopping the band's time-traveling handler from stealing her out of time and dropping her onstage to perform.
  • Next Sunday A.D.: The year is never specified but Princess Charlotte is queen of England and some modern celebrities are dead. There's nothing futuristic about Earth until the aliens show up.
  • Once More, with Clarity!: The incident which led to Mira Wonderful Star's fatal car accident is revisited later in the story, and with context it's even more tragic: watching Western society descend into xenophobia and authoritarianism, immigrant Mira begs natural-born citizen Dess to marry her so she won't have to worry about being kicked out of Britain. Dess's laughing at her is a reaction of pure hysteria, brought on by horrible images on the news and the realization that his own beloved grandmother has just been deported.
  • Our Zombies Are Different: The Voorpret are a sentient virus that, once it infects a host (living or dead) can ride it around like a meat suit even as it decays around them. The differences kick in in that as a recognized sentient species, they tend to gentrify whatever star system they enter with coffee shops, bistros, and paying neighboring aliens for use of their corpse when they die a natural death.
  • Portal Crossroad World: The Alunizar have such a large space empire due to the number of wormholes in their planet's orbit.
  • Reality Show: The Grand Prix eventually became one, by virtue of the incredible level of treachery, bloodthirsty and drama it created, with an actual Grand Prix rule being that murdering or sabotaging the competition isn't a disqualifying offence.
  • Recycled IN SPACE!: space!
  • Ridiculously Cute Critter: The roadrunner, and all other Esca for that matter. They've evolved to survive by creating a protective instinct in other species.
  • Secret Test of Character: Towards the end of the qualifying rounds, Decibel and Oort are respectively offered the votes needed to survive in exchange for India, and for them and their immediate family to be rescued from annihilation if they drop out of the contest. Both refuse, with Decibel noting it was very poor taste to offer a person whose ancestors directly suffered British oppression salvation in exchange for more of it, and Oort that he didn't want to be that kind of person. And a good thing, too, because these are not real offers but a secret extra qualifying round for new species. Failure means instant death. Oort's cat, Capo, fails spectacularly by eagerly accepting the alien's fake offer when they mistake her for a backup singer.
  • Sinister Surveillance: The Grand Prix is televised in true Reality Show style with incredibly intrusive and omnipresent cameras courtesy of the dubiously legal (in-setting) use of drone cameras fused with Keshet Stem Cells that allow them to be both invisibly out of phase of space-time and to move around where and when needed.
  • Spiritual Successor: Critics and fans have compared Space Opera to the works of Douglas Adams, what with the Lemony Narrator, kooky aliens, rather dim view of humanity, and spikes of humor throughout.
  • Sugar Bowl: The Klavaret, rosebush people, live on a planet of perfect happiness with cocaine, serotonin and melanin literally in the air supply. War had to be described to them. With picture books. They still didn't get it. Their band, however, seems to have cottoned on, as they are more than happy to take potshots at Dess.
  • Starfish Aliens: The only aliens who are not deeply weird in some way (literal rocks, coral, singing empathic blue anglerfish-flamingos) are the Keshet, and that's because the Keshet are originally from Earth (there was a time travel accident by a red panda exhibit).
  • Talking Animal: This is what the Sentience Wars boil down to. Being a spacefaring race doesn't necessarily mean you're sentient, according to other species. The races of the Great Octave mostly sort of believe you can have a conversation with an non-sentient species, and to avoid warlike, sociopathic species making life miserable for everyone, it was decided that they compete in the Galactic Grand Prix. More literally, the roadrunner makes this point by imbuing Oort's cat (Capo) with the ability to speak. Her POV on this is essentially that she could always talk, but the monkeys can now finally understand her.
  • Temporal Paradox: The Keshet, being natural time travelers, power non-wormhole space travel by placing people who are a cause of/will cause a time paradox in special chambers (not unlike a comfy hotel room) to harness the energy of the paradox. One known example is a man being his own grandfather, with him and his grandmother during the... event causing said paradox being frozen in said room. By the time Decibel and Oort have to perform, their Keshet friend brings their dead bandmate Mira from the past to the future to play and this helps them pass the Grand Prix. Her existence, while a paradox and incredibly dangerous, is stated to not be a problem as long as she spends most of her time on a (truly massive) spaceship, which her significant other can be nearby.
  • Verbal Tic: Keshet will oftenusuallynormally use multipledifferent words in their sentences, because each iteration of each keshet says/will say/will have said a slightly different thing, but it all comes out at once, sort of like a record skipping but with time travel.