Catherynne M. Valente touches on some serious intergalactic themes in her latest sci-fi gem, but it’s the humor in her over-the-top prose that keeps the reader engaged … and chuckling.

In constructing her distinctive science fiction and fantasy novels and stories, Peaks Island resident Catherynne M. Valente has frequently unleashed her far-ranging sense of humor.

Her recent novella, “The Refrigerator Monologues,” deliciously skewers the damaging tropes of superhero comics, letting the wives, girlfriends and female nemeses have their say for once. Her books for younger readers, including “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making” and its sequels, also brim with an infectious hilarity, giving her audience plenty of witty subtext to read between the opulently phrased lines.

“Life is beautiful and life is stupid,” the narrator explains near the beginning of “Space Opera,” Valente’s new full-length novel for adults. “As long as you keep that in mind, and never give more weight to one than the other, the history of the galaxy is a simple tune with lyrics flashed on-screen and a helpful, friendly disco ball of all-annihilating flames to help you follow along.”

“Space Opera” is set a hundred years after the Sentience Wars, which nearly exterminated all intelligent space-faring life. The survivors vowed never to let such a disaster happen again, and therefore decided to chill out with a new tradition that emphasized singing, dancing, fashion and gladiatorial sports. The Metagalactic Grand Prix was established to provide feats of competition for a mind-boggling array of sentient life forms to assert their home planets’ worthiness.

One morning, each individual member of humankind on Earth is simultaneously visited by a representative of the Esca, one of the surviving species from the Sentience Wars. Human singer and one-hit-wonder Decibel Jones, for example, awakens hungover in his living room to witness a “seven-foot-tall ultramarine half-flamingo, half-anglerfish thing standing awkwardly on the good rug.”

Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeros used to be a super-hot trio. Decibel was the glam lead singer, Mira Wonderful Star played drums and keyboards and Oort St. Ultraviolet was the man-of-all-other instruments. Now Mira’s gone and the remaining members have been reluctantly conscripted to represent Earth in the universe-spanning musical contest. Failure, however, will result not only in public humiliation across light years, but the complete destruction of the planet.

Even if she had not expressed her thanks in the book’s liner notes, Valente’s devotion to the Eurovision Song Contest would be readily apparent. Through song titles, band histories and assorted in-jokes, she mixes the sublime absurdity of Douglas Adams’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” with the shape-shifting glamour of David Bowie at the zenith of his popularity. The unlikely combination is inspired, producing something magical and unique.

The book benefits from the wide varieties of Valente’s sentient specimens. They range from giant sea cucumbers to what look like time-traveling red pandas to a virus that hijacks the bodies and minds of its unsuspecting victims. Bearing collective names like the Alunizar, the Utorak, the Sziu, the Voorpret and the 322, some seem friendly, but any of them might be willing to sabotage whatever song and dance routine Decibel and Oort are attempting to create.

Valente’s jazzy run-on sentences can become a bit exhausting, but rapid-fire syntactic overindulgence befits the proceeds. “Space Opera” is all about going over the top and turning the volume up to 11, and Valente pushes her prose and plotting to the outer limits of silliness.

She doesn’t, however, abandon the need to ground her novel in something true and human. Decibel and Oort are an effective comic duo, but they have experienced enough heartbreak and disappointment to earn the reader’s attention and affection. As they prepare for their grand finale, the remnants of the Absolute Zeros must also make the case that humankind is worthy of continued existence – not an open-and-shut case by any means.

Although it touches upon serious issues, “Space Opera” succeeds mostly by being charming, fast and funny. That’s more than enough reward for readers at a time when so much of popular culture, science fiction especially, is dreary and dire.

Valente has long been a talent to watch. Now that her work has been sufficiently surveilled, “Space Opera” proves that it’s time to upgrade her status to that of a reliable maverick, someone who can be depended on to deliver the off-kilter and unexpected goods, no matter what subject she tackles.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

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Twitter: mlberry

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