Book Review: Agent to the Stars

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From Goodreads:

The space-faring Yherajk have come to Earth to meet us and to begin humanity’s first interstellar friendship. There’s just one problem: They’re hideously ugly and they smell like rotting fish. So getting humanity’s trust is a challenge. The Yherajk need someone who can help them close the deal. Enter Thomas Stein, who knows something about closing deals. He’s one of Hollywood’s hottest young agents. But although Stein may have just concluded the biggest deal of his career, it’s quite another thing to negotiate for an entire alien race. To earn his percentage this time, he’s going to need all the smarts, skills, and wits he can muster.

There’s no doubt about it; John Scalzi writes entertaining books. Agent to the Stars is a hilariously reimagined first contact story, complete with aliens that communicate with smells—opening the floodgates on stink jokes wide—and Hollywood life in all of its ridiculousness. Scalzi’s imagination really has run wild here, and the result is fantastic.

The Yherajk, who can shift shapes into inhabiting or imitating human bodies, as well as those of animals, are interesting. They bear a strong resemblance to Sanderson’s Kandra—or perhaps I should say the Kandra bear a resemblance to them. Agent to the Stars was originally published online in 1999, and Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy didn’t come out until 2006. Despite this, however, neither species feels redundant, as the authors have given them entirely different personality characteristics and goals.

The aliens have an interesting story of their own, and they have good, believable reasons for wanting to stay hidden until the human race is really ready for first contact, which I appreciated. It’s nice to see that Scalzi applied a decently high level of rigor to all parts of his worldbuilding, especially the important ones that drive the story in the background.

And like any good science fiction author, he doesn’t shy away from the moral implications of the creatures he’s created. He examines the a human’s right to his or her own body and mind, and when it’s really right to take over someone’s mind—and for what reasons. The discussions, which happen in the later sections of the book, are fascinating and important, as we move closer and closer to having the ability to do this ourselves—albeit in technological, not biological, ways.

It’s not all heavy discussion, though. Other parts of the story are built almost completely for the humor factor. The alien’s smell based communication systems, for example, or some of the relations our main character, an up and coming Hollywood agent, has with his colleagues and clients. Still, since Scalzi, for the most part, manages to keep these to hilarious asides, they don’t distract from the main plot, and there is a sense of drive that permeates the novel. Here, as in The Android’s Dream, Scalzi has managed to balance the two—plot and humor—better than most other authors I’ve read.

While the pacing is good, and the story drives the book, I feel that the ending was rushed. We only get to see the last six months or so of plot points, after what I guess Scalzi felt was the last “important” plot event, before we get the concluding scene of the novel. This odd montage felt out of place with the rest of the novel, and really detracted from the experience for me. It’s fine when you have a training montage partway through your novel—that makes sense. But to have one right before the end, it felt like Scalzi just wanted to jump ahead and grab the emotional payoff of the last scene before wrapping up and saying he was done.

Thankfully, though, the montage didn’t detract from the final scene, at least for me. It’s a powerful, emotional, and important thought-provoking scene. I won’t spoil it, but given that the novel is a first contact story, you can probably make some educated guesses as to what happens. By the time you reach the ending, there are no twists, no crazy pull-the-rug-out-from-under-you moments to make your head spin. It nevertheless accomplishes exactly what it should, and it mostly redeemed the previous montage for me.

In summary, Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi was a delightful and humorous first contact story, mixed with a few deep philosophical and moral questions that do not detract from the entertaining and engaging plot, which I felt only faltered in the rushed ending. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a fun read with aliens, and happily give it four of five stars.

Scalzi’s blog.

Goodreads.

Amazon.

Book Review: The Android’s Dream

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From the back cover:

A human diplomat kills his alien counterpart. Earth is on the verge of war with a vastly superior alien race. A lone man races against time and a host of enemies to find the one object that can save our planet and our people from alien enslavement…

A sheep.

That’s right, a sheep. And if you think that’s the most surprising thing about this book, wait until you read Chapter One. Welcome to The Android’s Dream.

For Harry Creek, it’s quickly becoming a nightmare. All he wants is to do his uncomplicated mid-level diplomatic job with Earth’s State Department. But his past training and skills get him tapped to save the planet–and to protect pet store owner Robin Baker, whose own past holds the key to the whereabouts of that lost sheep. Doing both will take him from lava-strewn battlefields to alien halls of power. All in a day’s work. Maybe it’s time for a raise.

I managed to read this one in four days, something of a miracle considering my current reading load and how the rest of my life is going (School, mostly.).

The book starts off talking about farts, something that almost put me off immediately. I enjoy funny books, and I know that humor sometimes gets crude, but potty humor is, for some reason, something I nearly always find disgusting.

Thankfully, this type of humor worked perfectly into the plot, and made sense. It also was not a large part of the rest of the novel.

That’s not to say the rest of the book wasn’t funny. I haven’t read a book this hilarious since Sanderson’s Alcatraz series. Many of the plot points and ideas–even the alien species and the religions–in the book seem ridiculous and crazy at first glance, and I found myself laughing throughout.

But Scalzi also managed to do something here that I’ve never seen done before quite so well: he blended the ridiculous levels of humor and insanity into a coherent plot, where every part, every rambling explanation of how a man wrote prophesies as poems to get money from an old lady, and inadvertently founded a church (Uh, yeah. That happened.), and makes it not only make sense, but also play a critical role in what happens in the plot. I was continually astonished by the way he did that in this novel; every time he went off to explain some new and crazy idea, I expected it to be just put there to be silly. I was wrong every single time, and it made me happy, every single time.

The plot itself was gripping. It follows a rather interesting and shady bunch of people across the galaxy. Many of them are brilliant at what they do, some are simply despicable. My favorite is, hands down, Harry Creek. He is, in many ways, everything I wish I could be. A talented programmer, a brilliant soldier, and a genuinely good guy, who’s just trying to do what he can to save the human race from complete annihilation at the hands of a race of aliens who want… A sheep.

Two of the main characters, Harry and Archie, are both very good with computers, and technology plays a critical role at several points in the plot of the novel. I’ve read plenty of books before where the computer science side of things was handled with a hand-wave or a few fancy tech buzz-words. Not here. This is the real deal. Scalzi knows what he’s talking about when he talks about computers and how they work. I’m a second year computer science student, and I’m not sure that I could write those portions of the novel as accurately as he did, but I definitely know enough to know that he wrote them correctly. I’m not sure if he is that knowledgeable himself, or if he called in an expert to help him (Sanderson has said, for example, that he did something of the sort with the medical scenes in The Way of Kings.), but the end result is excellent. I want to thank Scalzi for the attention to detail, and I wish more authors would do this.

The plot of the novel itself is never forgotten for more than a few pages, and the pacing is excellent. In a novel that could easily become sidetracked in the richness and humor of the universe, Scalzi manages to focus on the single central plot, and I was very impressed and never bored with the book. I finished it in four days, and it did not feel like I was rushing. In fact, I usually put it down at 3 AM, wishing I could read more, but knowing I had to get up and do other things the next day.

This novel is a stand-alone, and it shows. At times, I think I forget how satisfying a good stand-alone novel can be, lost in the glory of Randland and Westeros, the Cosmere and Temerant (Kudos if you know them all.). I’ve loved other stand-alones before, most notably Tigana. The Android’s Dream reminded me why. It is completely self-contained, and has an incredibly fun, twisty, and satisfying ending. It reminded me of a Sanderson ending, with its complexity and unexpectedness, although I was able to call a few of the major twists a few pages before they happened. Four days to start, live, love, and finish an entire world. I really should read more stand-alone novels.

In conclusion: The Android’s Dream by John Scalzi is a fast-paced, laugh-out-loud hilarious–even if it does occasionally stray into crude humor–stand-alone novel. It manages to make the humor utterly ridiculous and simultaneously integral to the completely serious plot. It’s one of the few novels I’ve read that portrays computer technology accurately, and it has a very twisty, satisfying ending.

It blew me away. If you like brilliantly funny novels, and you want a quick, satisfying read, I highly recommend The Android’s Dream. Five of Five stars.

Links:

Goodreads

Amazon

John Scalzi’s Blog