Book Review: Space Opera by Jack Vance
It’s not that Roger Wool doesn’t want to work, as such. It’s that he doesn’t want to be tied down to a single job day after day, the same desk in the same office. And he’s too well-bred for most work that involves wandering from place to place doing odd jobs as they come. Fortunately, his wealthy aunt Dame Isabel Grayce has been willing to subsidize Roger living in the manner to which he’s accustomed, in exchange for being available for her every whim.
And while opera is not Roger’s thing, the avant-garde performance put on by the alien Ninth Company of Rlaru has some interesting points. However, later that night the performers vanish into thin air, leaving their human manager struggling for an explanation. Dame Isabel learns that this was supposed to be part of a cultural exchange, and immediately puts her entire fortune behind the project of sending an Earthly opera company to the stars.
This is highly alarming to Roger, who was hoping that his aunt’s largess would continue into her will–if she goes broke on this wild adventure, there goes his inheritance! While helping to make the arrangements for the voyage, Roger meets a mysterious beauty named Madoc Roswyn, who is hellbent on coming along. Problem is, she has no musical training or other opera-useful skills, and Dame Isabel quickly sees through the secretary gag.
And so the Phoebus blasts off with a full opera company and orchestra aboard, as well as a crew led by the increasingly nervous Captain Gondar, Dame Isabel and her staff..and Madoc as a stowaway.
Jack Vance (1916-2013) wrote many fine science fiction works. This comedic novel was a stand-alone, written (so he claimed) to fit the title, rather than adding a title to a finished manuscript as was the usual custom. Mr. Vance was known for detailed alien cultures with unusual customs, and that’s on full display here.
The plot is episodic, with the Phoebus landing on new planets, meeting new strange customs, and putting on shows. Most of the performances don’t go so well for reasons ranging from getting the wrong audience to the planet being actively hostile to life as we know it.
There’s a certain amount of classism and cultural snobbery–Dame Isabel and her coterie are aghast to learn the crew has formed a washboard jazz band in their spare time. And the romantic subplot is weak. Madoc is goal-driven, leading her to some femme fatale tactics, and the resolution of that is a letdown.
But top marks for the zany culture clashes and some moments that opera fans will doubtless enjoy even more than the layman.
Recommended for fans of comedic science fiction.