The plot of this book? A war-preventing intergalactic Eurovision contest in a decidedly Hitchhiker’s Guide-style universe world, where newbies who lose get obliterated and the rankings determine the distribution of galactic resources. It’s a sentience test, designed to figure out whether a species can be trusted to join the ranks of sentient species or needs to be nuked from orbit to prevent future wars. It’s full of glitz and glamour and impossibilities, and Valente has a hell of a lot of fun coming up with weird species and the ways they perform and relate to each other and get high and start wars and have sex.
In fact, she has so much fun with that that the story of Earth’s discovery and non-optional invitation to join the latest contest in order to save Earth is pretty eclipsed by the sheer torrents of verbiage about aliens shiny and strange. It takes a while to realise that Decibel Jones is pretty much the main character, and honestly he’s always pretty much secondary to the wild vagaries of Valente’s imagination.
If you know Valente’s writing, then you can imagine how this comes out. At times, it’s like a firehose of adjectives blasting straight at your eyes, and it takes five minutes to work through a page because the colours are all running — a metaphor, of course, but honestly that’s the indistinct impression I end up with. There’s just too much going on, and it never stops.
And I know it’s not meant this way, because it’s Valente, but it sounds like it’s making fun (in that “oh god SJWs what will they come up with next” way) of some of the language queer people use to describe themselves, and I really don’t find the joy in that. I know it’s meant to be playful, maybe even freeing, but knowing how people complain about LGBT alphabet soups already, it stings. Of course that’s a personal reaction; probably others are really enjoying the freedom from labels pasted onto the characters.
I didn’t connect to the characters or to the plot, and in the end it just felt like I was being hit repeatedly in the head with a discoball while being attacked from all sides with glitterbombs, while someone shouted “ARE YOU HAVING FUN? WHY AREN’T YOU HAVING FUN? IT’S SO QUIRKY AND OFF THE WALL! HAVE FUN DAMN YOU! MOOOORE GLITTER! WHY AREN’T YOU HAVING FEELINGS??” in my ear. So the big finale didn’t come off, I just rolled my eyes.
I do enjoy Valente’s prose in some instances, but nothing about this worked for me — particularly since I think the tone and humour is frequently ripped absolutely directly from Douglas Adams, do not pass go, do not add anything original beyond LOTS MORE ADJECTIVES and a spot of David Bowie. It feels like Hitchhiker’s Guide with the volume turned up to distortion point.
Meh, meh, and meh again. I’m not entirely sure why I stubbornly finished this book, to be honest.
This book tries to imagine what the world would be like if we were just raptured away or abducted by aliens, with little or no warning. Despite being ostensibly a book about the world without us, it turns out to mostly be a book about us. Or, more accurately, what we’ve done to the world, which the world will have to cope with whether we’re here and part of that or not. If you’re science-aware, there’s probably not much to learn — in fact, if you’re up on your climate science, what’s here is very basic when it comes to that. It does muse interestingly on certain specific animals and habitats which would benefit from a world without humans. There’s some good stuff on places where humans don’t go, which are proving to be wildlife sanctuaries even when they’re utterly radioactive.
But mostly, I think I hoped for a bit more of the future, and a bit less of the past and present. Of course, the past can tell us what some environments used to be like without human intervention, or after specific types of human intervention. And of course, the present shapes what will come. And we can’t really predict evolution — look at the differences between the stuff in the Burgess shale and later forms, for example. Or even the way that mammals succeeded the dinosaurs. But I still hoped for a bit more about the future, what kinds of animals might thrive, what it might look like.
If you’re already depressed by what humans have been up to, this will make you feel worse. A lot worse. None of it was news to me, but still… Yeesh, we’ve messed up.
I remember reading some of Alan Garner’s books when I was much younger. I found them creepy as hell then, and he certainly does know what kinds of images to evoke to have that feeling of danger and creepiness. There’s a lot of claustrophobia in this book — tunnels and water-filled passages and being packed in tight. There are parts of the description that are just brilliant.
The mythology aspects are pretty cool, too. The references to Ragnarok, etc. I don’t know whether it’s that whole ‘younger readers can accept the unnatural much better than adults’ thing that people mentioned when reading Diana Wynne Jones, though, but I found it hard to follow and it all piled in on top of everything else in a haphazard, difficult to process manner. Didn’t help that I read parts of it when everyone was around talking, and parts in a cafe, but I think part of it was the writing.
Overall it’s pretty fun, but the characters aren’t terribly well developed. I know it’s a trope of fantasy for younger readers that the kids get to tag along, and be equal to adults, etc, etc — I love The Dark is Rising, which is almost as guilty of it — but it makes me shriek, the way the adults easily accept the kids being dragged into it, and the way the kids seem to just… deal with it. Realism, you can not has it.
I’m going to read the sequel, since I have it, but I can’t say I exactly recommend it. It doesn’t come together very well for me, for all that bits of it are brilliant/cool/fun.
Despite the busy week, I did find time to get to a bookshop — aided and abetted somewhat by Robert @ Bastian’s Book Reviews, of course. I haven’t had time for much reading — you wouldn’t believe how many random clothes I seem to have acquired to sort through — but I have squeezed in a few minutes here and there. Soon, of course, I shall be off to stay with my partner for a few months, and I intend to start out by luxuriously flopping on the floor with our bunny and a book.
Books bought this week:
These have all been on my wishlist for a while, so I was happy enough to finally pick them up! I was very good and resisted other books which haven’t been on my wishlist.