🏳️‍🌈Book Review: Fireworks or feeling? A holistic view of Eurovision in Catherynne Valente’s “Space Opera”

🏳️‍🌈Book Review: Fireworks or feeling? A holistic view of Eurovision in Catherynne Valente’s “Space Opera”

It should come as no surprise to Eurovision fans that there have been books written about the contest–especially after the 2019 movie. However, maybe not everyone has heard of Catherynne Valente’s Space Opera, her 2018 science fiction novel that takes Eurovision out of this world. Beware, spoilers below!

Space Opera was recommended to me by a friend after the 2021 contest, following a discussion about the politics of Eurovision (that no one else on the Zoom call could follow!). The book was the product of a semi-joking tweet towards Valente, that an editor then offered to pick up without even having a sample. Valente, a science fiction author and an American like myself, marries the blatant camp of the contest with high-stakes political commentary, and ties it all together with an almost unexpected sincerity that, considering the book was published shortly after Salvador Sobral’s declaration that “music is not fireworks, music is feeling”, is maybe not that unexpected after all. 

But Valente makes a compelling case that music can be both. 

So what happens in Space Opera, anyway?

The book follows Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, a glam-rock band well past their heyday and probably most comparable in musical style to the real-life American band The Orion Experience. In a nebulously near-future United Kingdom, the human race is tapped by aliens to perform at the Metagalactic Grand Prix, and the Absolute Zeroes are the only surviving band on an alien-curated shortlist that included Yoko Ono and Insane Clown Posse. Decibel recruits his surviving bandmate Oort St. Ultraviolet and sets off on a spaceship towards the planet Litost, where competing delegations try to assassinate them as they struggle to come up with a song worthy of saving the human race. 

Yes, you read that right. Worthy of saving the human race. Space Opera opens by describing the circumstances that led to the Metagalactic Grand Prix–much like real-life Eurovision, the contest emerged after a devastating war. In order to preserve the well-being of the galaxy, whenever a new society is discovered, they must compete in the Grand Prix, and a last-place finish means their species is killed off. Sounds a little heavy-handed, right? We’ll come back to it. Bits and pieces of contest history are scattered throughout the plot, giving the reader a complete history of the show and how it has evolved over time. 

The alien species Esca appear simultaneously to everyone on Earth one day, informing them that they aren’t alone in the galaxy and that they must compete in the Grand Prix. Valente, in one of my favorite sequences in the book, delivers this conversation in bits and pieces, showing how people across the world, from the Queen of Denmark to a marine biologist on assignment in Antarctica, reacted to this news in very similar ways. The Esca share their shortlist of preferred artists for the Grand Prix, and Decibel “Dess” Jones, upon realizing that he’s one of the only available singers, agrees to represent Earth, even though he’s years removed from the height of his fame and artistic motivation. Dess, Oort, Oort’s cat Capo, and the Esca who’d visited Dess, nicknamed “Roadrunner”, embark on a journey towards Litost, struggling to write a song and to repair their relationship, which had been ruined after the death of their third bandmate, Mira Wonderful Star. 

When they arrive on Litost, however, Oort and Dess learn that, as part of the rules, the other alien species are allowed to sabotage and even assassinate other entrants, because any participant who doesn’t show up to perform forfeits and automatically comes last. The results of the Grand Prix are used to allocate the galactic resources for the year, and as the new civilization, the humans are the easiest target. 

Dess, Oort, the Roadrunner, and Capo successfully, intentionally or not, foil a number of assassination attempts, but Dess is finally incapacitated when he’s poisoned by a Smaragdi alien during an intimate moment. He’s unable to move, or sing, and he and Oort still don’t have a song. Oort, desperate to save his species and his family, sings the only song he can think of–It Came Upon a Midnight Clear. This jumpstarts a reaction that allows Mira to, paradoxically, come back from the dead, and breaks the paralyzing poison on Dess. Their song doesn’t place last, and the human race is allowed to live. 

Space Opera gets Eurovision exactly right

In recent decades, part of what has made Eurovision what it is is the camp. The glitter, the flamboyance, the contest’s place as the “gay Olympics” over the last few years. Valente embraces this aspect of the contest wholeheartedly in Space Opera. The songs she describes the other alien species singing, in her explorations of the Metagalactic Grand Prix’s history, have cheesy lyrics, about love or peace. She makes no effort in trying to sell it as a serious thing; many of the song titles she name-drops are puns on real songs, such as “Death is a Wish Your Fists Make”. Through her humorous depiction of the Grand Prix, Valente makes it seem on the surface the same way that Eurovision seems to most casual viewers–just camp, nothing else. I’m not going to go into an explanation of what camp is here, it’s not my area and we go into it alright in That Eurovision Podcast‘s academia episode, but suffice it to say that it’s the parts of Eurovision that make everyone dismiss it as the gay Olympics. 

Valente knows her audience. The kind of people who were going to pick up her book are exactly the kind of people who’d enjoy Eurovision for the camp. However, that’s not the only way that Valente made Space Opera especially enjoyable for her LGBTQ audience. Decibel Jones is decidedly genderqueer. He describes his gender to multiple people as “boyfrack”, wears clothes traditionally assigned to women, and in fact gets pregnant over the course of the story, which leads me into my third point about the book’s queerness. The aliens. 

Over the course of the book, Valente takes time to sketch out for us the different alien species that compete at the Grand Prix. She especially takes time to make them seem especially alien. They’re intentionally made unfamiliar. Valente asks us to ask questions about what does sentience even mean? Some of these aliens have a hive mind composed of all of their collective ancestors. Others, like the Esca, can read minds. Some are sentient wormholes; others are sentient code. She complicates our ideas about what intelligent alien life might look like. Part of that means complicating our ideas about how those aliens reproduce. Because the aliens in Valente’s galaxy are so different from us, it follows that they wouldn’t share our ideas about gender and sex. There’s a scene near the end, shortly before the contest, where Dess attempts to have sex with a member of another species, only to discover that for the Smaragdi, “sex” is more along the lines of sharing a deep emotional connection, rather than sex in the physical sense that we humans do. 

And besides all that, Valente uses Eurovision song titles as chapter and section titles, and that’s just fun. 

There’s another crucial part of Eurovision that Valente gets right, though. This might sound controversial, but she makes an excellent point about Eurovision politics. Anyone reading this who either knows me or has listened to the That Eurovision Podcast episodes I’ve been on knows that I’m a Eurovision politics “truther”. It’s impossible for the contest to be apolitical, and that’s not a bad thing. If you get a bunch of countries together, ask them to compete, and then televise the thing, it’s going to be a political exercise whether people like it or not. 

Valente blows up the politics inherent in something like Eurovision and makes them impossible to miss in Space Opera. Most obviously, there’s the pronunciation that performing badly in the contest can doom the human race to extinction, and the rule that performance in the contest dictates the allowance of galactic resources for the year. While there obviously isn’t a direct analog to this in real Eurovision, it’s a similar concept to how some countries, especially ex-Soviet and ex-Yugoslav countries, compete for social resources through Eurovision. A favorite academic of mine, Galina Miazhevich, has written about how Eastern European countries view, or at least viewed as of the late 00s, good results in Eurovision as a key to belonging as a part of Europe and good treatment by Western countries. Participants want to do well because a good result means good things for their country or planet. 

Another aspect of this is how countries and planets construct a “national image” through participation in the contest. In the book, the Alunizar aliens were the aggressors of the galactic war that led to the Metagalactic Grand Prix being invented, but they consistently send songs about being sorry and how things just aren’t going so great for them anymore, they’re different now, they promise. Or they send songs that aren’t topical at all, and are just cool enough that everyone forgets about the war for a little while. This is similar to how countries like Russia, that have a history of or tendency towards violence or corruption, try to do well in Eurovision by sending peace songs (see: 2015) or by putting on a polished, “apolitical” performance that does well because of the staging quality (see: 2016). 

However, the politics presented by Valente aren’t only on the galactic stage. Real-world British politics also feature prominently. All three members of the Absolute Zeroes come from immigrant families–Dess (real name Danesh Jalo) is Pakistani, Oort (real name Omar Calişkan) is Turkish, and Mira is Polish and Japanese. Throughout the book, Oort relies on a persona referred to as “Englishblokeman”, that is to say, being as ordinary and British as possible so as to avoid scrutiny, from the government or otherwise. Near the end of the book, Valente reveals that a forceful anti-immigration policy led to Dess’ beloved grandmother being deported, Mira’s uncle dying, and Mira herself dying, after she proposes to Dess that they get married to ensure each other’s political safety as “a nice straight couple with money in the bank[,] and no one can be offended by that, no one can come after that in the night” (263). Dess, misunderstanding her intent and in shock at the political situation, laughs her off, and Mira runs away, eventually dying in a car crash. The United Kingdom’s very real far-right, xenophobic politics run in an undercurrent throughout the book, sinisterly leading up to the reveal about Mira’s death. 

What it all comes down to

So what does this have to say about Eurovision today? Space Opera advocates loving the contest in all its political, campy glory. Both of those things are integral and inseparable from the contest we love, and neither one should be moralized. And indeed, Valente embraces the show factor. Music is not only feeling–music can be fireworks, too. Aren’t fireworks just an expression of feeling? Love or frustration or “I wanna go out and have a good time”? 

However, Valente’s most important commentary on Eurovision comes in chapter 18–a chapter named for an obscure Danish entry from the 90s and narrated by a cat. In this era, where Russia has invaded Ukraine, where attacks on queer and especially transgender rights grow more frequent in both Europe and my and Valente’s home country of the US, where xenophobic rhetoric continues to spread, I find this line especially poignant:

“[…T]he only wall we could ever build against What’s Going On was the glitter and the shine and the synth and the knowing grin that never stops knowing. The show. Because the opposite of fascism isn’t anarchy, it’s theater. When the world is fucked, you go to the theater, you go to the shine, and when the bad men come, all there is left to do is sing them down. [… Y]ou can’t sing a dirge to the reaper, he’s already heard them all. You gotta slaughter him with joy”. 

When it feels like the world is falling down, we turn to music. Whether that is the erosion of human rights at home or the potential destruction of the human race. Whether that music is Eurodance or whether it’s a high-art composition worthy of old-school Sanremo. Valente makes a case that this is the true value of things like Eurovision, and I, for one, am inclined to agree.

Will you be checking out Space Opera? Do you agree with what the book has to say about the contest we all know and love? As always, let us know what you think by commenting below. Also, be sure to follow “That Eurovision Site” on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tiktok as we prepare for Eurovision 2024!

News Source: That Eurovision Site

Photo Credit: Catherynne Valente/Saga Press

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