The Aliens (and Humans) Come in Peace!

So six months have passed since my last halfway decent update, and I know there’s no excuse for it. I just wasn’t reading anything that wasn’t required for work. (I even ditched the grad-school thesis project for a while, so that’s saying something.) There’s only so much voluntary reading I could do on work days and even on weekends; and by the time I logged out, all I wanted to do was eat or sleep.

Well, I’m back now; and I’m just getting into reading for pleasure again. And what kind of books do I go for first? Those with…

Aliens: the answer to everything, according to Giorgio Tsoukalos.
Yep. (Image from WhatCulture)

Damn right.

Science fiction and weird fun in text always make me happy – particularly science fiction that doesn’t always follow the decades-old tropes and story lines. You know, something like:

  1. A strange extraterrestrial comes to Earth on a shiny, shimmering, splendid ship.
  2. It makes an offer for our salvation/survival in exchange for a sacrifice that isn’t made explicit until the second act – maybe one life, maybe an entire country’s or continent’s worth, or maybe “just” our basic human rights.
  3. The humans refuse, and counteroffer with fire and fury. But of course. Oh, and the first-world folks hog the spotlight. But of course.
  4. The extraterrestrial summons its posse, then tries to annihilate the entire planet.
  5. The humans rally and annihilate the extraterrestrials instead.
  6. The humans all go back to treating each other like crap. What aliens?

Instead, the two books I’ve read recently subvert these expectations in their own distinct and unexpected ways. The aliens aren’t the enemies (well, most of them, anyway), and the humans aren’t the heroes. The protagonists aren’t swashbuckling white males intent on saving “the girl”, and the antagonists aren’t mustachioed/leather-jacketed punks with funny catch phrases. And so on, and so forth.

And because I’m also in the process of getting my writing chops back, this update would be relatively quick and surface-level, yeah?


Spoilers ahead!!!

Let’s sing that song that aliens like!

In "Space Opera",  the humans are the aliens. And we're about to die by song.

When a writer for a tech website I often visit said that Catherynne M. Valente‘s Space Opera is “the funniest science fiction novel [he’s] ever read“, I thought I should give it a shot. I did love The Refrigerator Monologues, after all. Other sci-fi funnies like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are classics, too. And Valente’s other novels got multiple awards as well. So I thought she (and this book)’s a safe bet for me.

The premise is quite interesting too: think Eurovision, but in space. Humankind, represented by two musicians at different levels of cooperation and get-it-togetherness, must sing for its survival, or be wiped out and reseeded and regain eligibility for sentience in literally another lifetime or maybe a few.

Okay… so aliens, humans and extinction. Sounds about right.

There are no complex subplots, no big diversions. It’s just this: humans are the aliens; and two of us must sing and sing well, or we all die. LitReactor called it “plotless“; I’d say it has the barest of plots. I can actually summarize it in three words: intergalactic musical warfare.

(Come to think of it, mass-televised stage competitions can be considered death for some folks…)

With those factors, Space Opera isn’t something you read for deep thoughts on life among and away from your own kind; or how to cope with the knowledge that yep, we’re so not alone in the universe, and we place last on the aliens rankings. You read this book to be entertained, to laugh at the whole absurdity of it, to imagine the most outrageous artists we’ve ever known transplanted in this environment and winning the whole thing, and then that’s that.

Valente’s liner notes offer more sobering tidbits, such as the novel being modeled after the long-running Eurovision contest, begun after the horrors of war in the 1950s. Many of Space Opera‘s biggest elements – like the aliens and species’ names coming from Eurovision participants’ respective languages, or the multiple rounds and general pageantry and eccentricities of the participants – are also pulled from real life. Thankfully, sanctioned alien-murder attempts backstage aren’t.

“Goddammit, Karen.” (Photo by Miriam Espacio on Unsplash)

Valente’s enthusiasm for Eurovision and the vast imagination and stamina with which she built a weird and ridiculous Twitter joke into a novel are infectious. With Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros and the cast of aliens and species, she built a world that is wild and weird and action-packed and downright fun and fucking funny. The jokes, puns and quips rooted in human truths and hypocrisies come in succession here, and you’ll never be bored.

Then again, that’s also the downside. As I’ve said before, it takes a while to get used to Valente’s writing style. Here, her wordiness goes into extreme overdrive. Once you get into it, the reading’s easy. Still, paragraphs- and pages-long descriptions and setups can become overwhelming and tiring at times. I often found myself going back several pages and chapters because the information overload made me forget characters and places and galaxies and whatnot.

Overall, I say read this book. It’s a guaranteed good time, and you’ll laugh a lot. But read a few chapters at a time. Then maybe pick up its sequel, Space Oddity, in 2021; or watch the movie adaptation in a few more years.

Space Opera, Catherynne M. Valente

Well, hello, neighbor!

"The Spaceship Next Door" sees aliens come to our planet and land their ship... but nothing happens for three years. WTF?

From a colorful, laugh-per-line book, let’s move on to a fairly good YA novel that reverses the scenario in another way. A spaceship lands in a quiet field in the small, sleepy town of Sorrow Falls. Then it does absolutely nothing for three years, driving the world nuts with its inactivity. Or is it inactive…? And where are the damn aliens???

In Gene Doucette’s The Spaceship Next Door, the main character is 16-year-old Annie Collins, a.k.a. the kid whom everyone in town knows and loves, because she’s Annie and all that. OK, sure, I can roll with that.

Anyway, while most of Doucette’s chapters have Annie as the focal point, some chapters also switch to different POVs. Some of the residents of the RV town that sets up across the street are given their own time to shine, along with their various conspiracy theories and prep work (particularly the couple Laura and Oona, and their badass weapons and bunker). The government and military folks (Ed Somerville, Sam Corning, the brigadier general, and a few other secondaries) take turns as narrators, too. It’s a nice mix, and these shifting viewpoints provide a good balance to Annie’s.

And while Doucette’s writing style remains the same throughout, there are a few nice touches in the text that show he tries to change dialogue and mindsets to reflect whose POV we’re in. Particularly for Annie, he accurately depicts the general awkwardness of being a teenager, and the entire painful process of growing up and becoming self-sufficient.

The author also includes several paragraphs where he captures both the anxiety and pitfalls of being a woman in modern times – like when Annie comments to Ed that she keeps reminding people she’s 16 so that men would stop thinking about her in a sexual way; and that when she turns 18, she’ll remind them of how old they are instead. It’s a form of safety work – and it’s fucking sad that girls as young as 16 or even younger have to learn to do this early in their lives.

I can’t help but laugh at her comments about Ed not passing as a reporter. Many of her observations about town outsiders’ attire and demeanor as dead giveaways, and reporters citing their publications first instead of their names during introductions, are quite right.

With that said, this book has a lot going on that, like Space Opera, it can be tricky to keep up. The book starts with a spaceship with absent aliens, then goes into zombies and body/mind possession and immortality. Among the other interesting sci-fi imagery explored here are:

  • A flexible, invisible dome protecting and isolating Sorrow Falls (reminiscent of the TV show Under the Dome and, uh, The Simpsons Movie) from the rest of the mainland US, controlled by a spaceship that can absorb and deflect external threats;
  • The implanting of memories and ideas at will, which remain neutral until acted upon to be good or evil;
  • Weaponized emotions and instant mass depression;
  • A self-exiled alien living on Earth for centuries, with the power to make people forget her and where she is;
  • Images and thoughts as forms of communication.

Because the story juggles all these concepts in one book, it falls apart a bit in the middle and near the end. But it still feels like it ends as it should – even if it means playing to the ultimate teenage fantasies of having power over and respect from adults. This is YA, after all. It does ask for a huge suspension of disbelief. But generally, I’d say Gene Doucette and his characters earned it.

Fun facts:

  1. The Spaceship Next Door was previously available on NetGalley for review. Maybe I should check out that site again…
  2. Again, like Space Opera, this book wasn’t meant to be the first in a book series. But hey, it’s now the first book in a series!

The Spaceship Next Door, Gene Doucette