Catherynne M. Valente: Five Things I Learned Writing Space Opera
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy meets the joy and glamour of Eurovision in bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente’s science fiction spectacle, where sentient races compete for glory in a galactic musical contest… and the stakes are as high as the fate of planet Earth.
A century ago, the Sentience Wars tore the galaxy apart and nearly ended the entire concept of intelligent space-faring life. In the aftermath, a curious tradition was invented—something to cheer up everyone who was left and bring the shattered worlds together in the spirit of peace, unity, and understanding.
Once every cycle, the great galactic civilizations gather for the Metagalactic Grand Prix—part gladiatorial contest, part beauty pageant, part concert extravaganza, and part continuation of the wars of the past. Species far and wide compete in feats of song, dance and/or whatever facsimile of these can be performed by various creatures who may or may not possess, in the traditional sense, feet, mouths, larynxes, or faces. And if a new species should wish to be counted among the high and the mighty, if a new planet has produced some savage group of animals, machines, or algae that claim to be, against all odds, sentient? Well, then they will have to compete. And if they fail? Sudden extermination for their entire species.
This year, though, humankind has discovered the enormous universe. And while they expected to discover a grand drama of diplomacy, gunships, wormholes, and stoic councils of aliens, they have instead found glitter, lipstick, and electric guitars. Mankind will not get to fight for its destiny—they must sing.
Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes have been chosen to represent their planet on the greatest stage in the galaxy. And the fate of Earth lies in their ability to rock.
Writing comedy is hard.
I’ve written a lot of books that have comedic scenes in them—I think perhaps all of my books do that. A little comic relief in a dramatic story is one thing. But I’ve never done a book that is intended to fall within the comedy genre. And at the same time, the “Eurovision in space” concept is hardly one you can play straight. It’s a heightened and ridiculous reality that requires a certain tone.
This turned out to be astonishingly challenging for me. I’m a very fast writer. I allotted time to write Space Opera based on my usual wordcount-per-day rates. And suddenly I found myself working 12 hours a day to produce 1000 words. Because suddenly I didn’t only have to worry about the right word or sentence, the prettiest way to say something or the most dramatic way to say something or the most interesting way to say it, but it had to be the funniest word as well. Which leads to long conversations about what the funniest animal or fruit or man’s name is, or whether (actual discussion) the euphemism “wang” is funnier or less funny than “willy.” It’s a brand new dimension of decision making, and while I found it terribly fun, it just took so much longer than anything I’d written before. I couldn’t just come up with a cool take on spaceships I hadn’t seen done before, it had to be an at least somewhat amusing take on spaceships as well. And then, of course, in the long waiting period between finishing a book and it coming out, you have to worry about something new. I used to just worry about whether people like the ending or identify with the characters or find the structure too difficult. Now I have to worry about whether or not I’m funny, too. IT’S A WHOLE NEW WORLD OF FEAR AND INSECURITY HURRAH. In a normal SF book, if you get a laugh or two out of a reader, you’re hilarious. But in a science fiction comedy, you have to deliver all the way through, and not fall down on any of the rest of it, either. It’s freaking tough.
How to make friends with the space-elephant in the room
Of course, when you make any attempt to write science fiction comedy, the ghost of Douglas Adams is always in the room. He did it best, and you can’t do better. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you can actually get to work. It was even worse for me, since I knew I couldn’t have my protagonists be American (it’s not called Americavision) and the only participating country I’ve lived in, and thus, felt comfortable enough to write about, is the United Kingdom. I knew there would be comparisons, and it’s a bit terrifying, because, as I said, you can’t come close to Hitchhiker’s, it’s a mathematical law, like Xeno’s Paradox.
Ultimately, I had to give myself permission to sound a little bit Adams-y from time to time, that it couldn’t be helped, and know that in the end we are very different writers, with very different concerns, and a perhaps bit of arch deadpan humor on a spaceship could be forgiven in service of rocking out as hard as possible. One of my favorite things to do is dwell in the comedy until the reader feels comfortable, and then go straight for the feelings. It’s that oh-so-American hard turn into gut-rending emotion that I feel I can bring to the genre. And you know, it’s fairly freeing to know that you just can’t reach the same heights as the master—you’re bound to mess it up in comparison, but if I can pull a bronze in the event, that’s enough for me.
More than I ever wanted to know about Eurovision.
If you’ve heard anything about Space Opera, you’ve probably heard it described as “Eurovision in space” which is about the long and short of it. The book came about because I was live-tweeting Eurovision two years ago, because I love Eurovision more than most things, and someone on Twitter joked that I should write a science fiction version. It was sold just on that sentence and little, if anything more. Now, as I said, I love Eurovision, with all the passion of a filthy American convert. (If you don’t know what it is, basically, every country in Europe, and a few not in Europe, send a pop band or singer to compete against all the others in a glittery, ridiculous, wonderful song contest with a global audience bigger than the Super Bowl, despite most Americans never having heard of it at all. It’s sort of a combination of The Voice, Miss Universe, and WWI, as people vote from home, but you cannot vote for your own country, so the current political situation is usually very well illuminated by the Eurovision voting.) But there’s love and then there’s the level of knowledge it takes to turn Eurovision into a complete galactic extravaganza with as many species as nations on the continent.
I now, officially, know way too much about Eurovision.
Each chapter title is the title of a song that has been performed at a real Eurovision Song Contest in the 62 years of its existence. Yes, even Vampires Are Alive and Boom Bang-a-Bang. Each species name and indeed non-human character name is taken from the languages of the participating Eurovision countries. There are jokes about that time Ireland threw it because they were winning too much and couldn’t afford, as a nation, to keep hosting it. If you are a Eurovision fan, there are more Easter eggs in Space Opera than you can shake a rabbit at. If you’re not, then it’s all just wild fun, I hope.
Oh, and also, pro tip, if you live with an Australian, do not try to tell them any Eurovision facts. They already know. Australia was allowed to enter Eurovision despite being emphatically not in Europe sheerly because they love it so much.
Writing strong male protagonists is hard
That probably sounds like a joke, and it sort of is, but it mostly isn’t. I usually write either female protagonists or multiple protagonists with some of them being female. And I absolutely intended to do so in Space Opera. But the character of Decibel Jones, in retrospect, quite predictably, grew and grew until my washed-up former glam rock star undeniably owned the stage. Now, Dess is somewhat loose in his gender presentation (he refers to himself as “gendersplat”) but the secondary protagonist, a member of that once-chart-topping band Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, is definitely male. And because I am a woman and the male perspective doesn’t come naturally to me, I found myself asking all the same questions of these characters that I have had to address about female protagonists on a parade of endless panels. Are they vulnerable enough? Are they authentic? Is this something a guy would actually think, or am I just creating girls with butch haircuts? Humans aren’t so terribly different, whatever gender they are, but human culture certainly tries to enforce a difference, and I wanted my men to feel as real as my women. More to the point, I suppose, this is just incredibly important to me. For me, writing diverse characters sometimes means adding more men, and certainly more POC men (as both Decibel Jones and his man-of-all-music Oort St. Ultraviolet are), because I write about women all day and into the night. There are plenty of other female characters in Space Opera, major and minor, but I was nervous about my portrayal of these characters that I came to love so awfully much. I wanted to get male protagonists right—and it isn’t necessarily easy when you don’t come at it from the perspective that male points of view are the default.
Finno-Ugric languages are the actual living best
When I got the idea to use the Eurovision countries’ languages to name all the aliens, I started making word lists, and what I discovered was this: if I weren’t committed to honoring every participating nation (and there are a lot) with a linguistic homage, I could have named the whole galaxy using only Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian, and you all would have been like “Cat, how did you come up with such amazing names?” and I would have demurred bashfully, but really, it would have just been those three language dictionaries on my desk because they are the greatest. I suggest everyone study them because that language group really is fascinating in terms of structure, vocabulary, and versatility. I admit I’m a language nerd, but hot damn, they are just something else. First prize.
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Catherynne M. Valente is the acclaimed author of The Glass Town Game, and a New York Times bestselling author of fantasy and science fiction novels, short stories, and poetry. She has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards, and has won the Locus and Andre Norton award. She lives on a small island off the coast of Maine with her partner, two dogs, one enormous cat, a less enormous cat, six chickens, a red accordion, an uncompleted master’s degree, a roomful of yarn, a spinning wheel with ulterior motives, a cupboard of jam and pickles, a bookshelf full of folktales, an industrial torch, and an Oxford English Dictionary.