Book Review: Jack Vance’s Space Opera
Sometimes, I get Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe mixed up.
Which I imagine will draw cries of indignation from just a few of you, while the rest go ‘huh?’ Though to be fair, they both have a similar, almost dreamy kind of style (though now that I think of it Wolfe is a little more surreal than Vance, at least from the tiny bit I’ve read of both).
Nowadays, Vance’s biggest claim to fame can be his influence on Dungeons & Dragons, of all things. Y’see, where the Thief class was lifted directly from Leiber’s Grey Mouser, the original magic system of D&D where magic users ‘memorize’ a spell in the morning and then ‘lose’ it once it’s used is directly taken from Vance’s Dying Earth series, down to certain spell names like prismatic spray.
With this in mind (plus the ‘oh, I haven’t read much of this classic author’ thing), I nabbed Vance’s Space Opera at the used bookstore. Gotta love the brazenness of the title– that’s just like naming your book Paranormal Romance or Swords and Socrery or directly after some other sub-genre.
Of course, the gag is, Vance Space Opera is a literal title, as it centers on an opera company … IN SPAAAACE. Though as a sidenote, Vance’s Space Opera should not be confused with the recent release of Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera, which is basically about Eurovision … IN SPAAAACE.
The fun thing about Vance’s Space Opera is that it touches on a lot of space opera tropes. There are ancient & ruined civilizations, strange aliens, lost planets, and so on. It’s just that instead of focusing on a dashing space-captain, Space Opera views all of these things through the lens of a touring opera company. Vance even gets into some ‘deeper’ ideas, such as describing chord progression as a scientific constant that any civilized creature could appreciate (which turns out not to be the case, but it’s still a fun sci-fi idea).
Space Opera opens with an alien opera troupe coming to Earth and taking the theatrical world by storm. For one night, at least, as they disappear after just one performance. And so, in order to find out the truth behind this, a ludicrously wealthy aristocrat by the name of Dame Isabel (who should be played by like Maggie Smith or maybe Judi Dench in the extremely unlikely case this book is ever made into a movie) decides to fund an opera tour to the stars in order to find the truth of the aliens’ home planet, Rlaru.
It doesn’t go well.
Space Opera is a silly, episodic little adventure. Every few chapters Dame Isabel and her crew touch down on a new planet, and find themselves with new problems. Strange aliens that can’t comprehend human culture. A Space-Australia prison planet full of prisoners who want to escape. An untrustworthy space-captain. A mysterious siren of a stowaway. And, horror of horrors, a spaceship crew that starts a jug band.
I’m fairly certain Vance cranked out Space Opera based solely on the title, but damn if he didn’t do a good job of it. It’s a goofy, fun little farce that’s not afraid to take potshots at both ‘high culture’ (sci-fi still being somewhat looked down on in comparison to ‘dramatic’ literature, even today) as well as various sci-fi tropes. I’m not super familiar with the operatic canon, but I imagine Vance tucked some great jokes in there for those folks who are that just went over my head. Even still, there was a little throwaway gag about the St. Louis Browns that had me laughing out loud.
Really, I think the most surprising part about Space Opera is how light it is, compared to a lot of the other Jack Vance work I’ve read. Which is hardly a bad thing, mind you– if you’re in the mood for something quirky and different that still has spaceships in it, Space Opera is definitely worth nabbing if you can find a copy.