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Box Of Paperbacks: Space Opera

(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 41.)

I'm not one of those people who goes around Wikipedia dropping "citation needed" warnings on every assertion without a footnote, but sometimes I sympathize. The entry for this week's book, Space Opera by Jack Vance, contains this note: "[Vance] has stated that the title was not his choice: he was commissioned to write a book with that title, and this was what he came up with." That seems unlikely to me. Space opera was a well-established, if often sniffed at, subgenre by 1965. The only reason to call a book Space Opera is to subvert expectations. So is Vance having us on with this assertion? Did he even make the assertion in the first place? Citation needed. And if we can't get the objective facts right, what hope is there of talking clearly about subjective stuff? I labor more in the subjective field far more often than in straight reporting, but you can't have one without the other. I've been listening to Richard And Linda Thompson's albums a lot lately. There's this notion passed down over the years that their final album together, Shoot Out The Lights, is somehow about the breakup of their marriage because its release and accompanying tour immediately preceded their split. Never mind that the writing and first attempt to record the album took place a couple of years before Richard embarked on the solo tour arranged by the woman who would become his second wife. The other story's better. Still, when you talk about art, facts only get you so far. Sure, those songs were written and first recorded before the break-up. Does that mean they can't be about the break-up in some larger sense. "Who's going to cure the heart of a man in need?," Thompson sings. Is the plea a coincidence, or a pebble dropped in a lake that years later fed into a mighty wave of heartbreak? It's hard to talk about art in exact terms, even when talking about fundamentals. A film can have sloppy edits, but what if we're talking about a Cassavetes film where the sloppy edits are key to the texture and frayed emotions? And today's mistake is tomorrow's aesthetic choice. Nobody let lens flares into their movies before the 1960s. By the next decade they were part of the language. By the end of the '70s you could see them on C.H.I.P.S.. In other words, the gestalt matters. I don't mean to get off topic. I'm circling back to this week's book, which is largely about the role of art and whether or not it makes sense out of the context that created it. The short, picaresque novel essentially concludes that, even though art may be literally universal, there are all kinds of cultural impediments that get in the way of a consensus notion of greatness. It's a book about space opera in the literal sense. Having sponsored an Earth performance by the Ninth Company Of Rlaru, Opera League Secretary-Treasurer Dame Isabel Grayce finds herself unexpectedly at the center of a controversy. Some doubt whether the Ninth Company and their pleasant music really come from another planet at all. They grant no interviews, after all. And, as music critic Bernard Bickel argues, the mere fact that they make music enjoyable to Earth ears makes them suspect. "Music," he argues, "is like a language; you cannot understand it unless you learn it, or more accurately, are born into it." That the Ninth Company, brought to Earth by a shifty space captain named Adolph Gondar, disappears shortly after the performance, only feeds into his suspicions. Determined to prove Bickel wrong, Dame Isabel recruits Gondar to lead an expedition to bring the best of Earth's opera tradition to the stars. (I cast Margaret Dumont as Isabel. Is there anyone else to play a wealthy, opera-loving dowager?) Also along for the ride: Isabel's nephew Roger Wool and a stowaway he just met and plans to marry, a mysterious "Welsh" woman named Madoc Roswyn who's actually [spoiler warning] a member of a civilization that landed on Earth centuries ago now looking for her home planet. Madoc's story never becomes more than a relatively minor sub-plot. My understanding is that Vance recycled the notion of an Earthbound-alien looking for a lost civilization in later novels. (This is the only Vance I've read but it left me impressed enough to add him to the list of writers to check out once I've exhausted the box.) The focus here is on the operas and their receptions as Isabel's Fitzcarraldo-esque quest to bring opera to places where most would feel opera has no business going hops from planet to planet. Their reception is mixed, to say the least. On one planet a handful of natives sit patiently then, thinking they've been watching a commercial demonstration, put in an order for an oboist. On another, where the outcasts live above ground and civilization spends most of their time underground, Isabel decides to swap some elements in Beethoven's Fidelio by moving the first act to a dungeon. It doesn't work. Elsewhere, their intentions get lost in translation. Playing before an audience expecting to be challenged to an ordeal in a friendly contest between civilizations, the opera company in turn finds itself subjected to razors and chunks of hot iron. The humans quickly fold, much to the disgust of their hosts. "We sat through three hours of your worst and never flinched!", one says before proclaiming their guests "weaklings." Isabel's greatest humiliation awaits her on Rlaru itself, however. Turns out the Ninth Company was for real, and really just a sampling of the trippy artistic experiences available on Rlaru, which Vance describes as a kind of cross between a laser show and an acid trip. The Rlaruans even understand Earth opera. They just don't like it that much, preferring instead the music of Isabel's spaceship's crewmen, who've formed The Tough Luck Jug Band and gotten really good at performing something called "You've Gotta See Mama Every Night." Rimshot. It's a long way to go for that punchline, but Vance makes getting there quite pleasant. This book reminded me of what I liked best about Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. Vances uses humor as a tool for genuine speculation of the kind that science fiction does best. Is music, like math, a kind of universal language? Does Wagner make sense at the distance of some light years? You can start applying variations on those questions elswhere, too. Is the experience of listening to Shoot Out The Lights deepened by thinking about it in terms of the break-up of the Thompsons' marriage? Is Space Opera a cleverer book if Vance came up with the title himself or if it's one he was given? I can only come up with one, vague answer to all these questions: The thing itself is only part of the story. New! Want to read past Box Of Paperbacks Book Club entries? All previous installments of The Box Of Paperbacks Book Club are archived here.

Next: Goldfinger by Ian Fleming

Then: The Mouse On Wall Street by Leonard Wibberley