Bookworm! John Scalzi’s Agent of the Stars (TQP0109)
[A not-exactly-advance-per-se review by internationally-renowned book critic and nationally-renowned badass Chris Hsiang]
[This review appears in a slightly different form in Dispatches From the Border, the newsletter for Borderlands Books.]
At last, after all the waiting, it happens: the faint signals from an alien civilization have been detected. The whole planet is thrilled and inspired by the revelation: “We Are Not Alone!” The entire globe’s science and technology are kicked into high-gear, launching an expedition to their new-found neighbors. They convert an asteroid into a generation ark, fill it with the best and the brightest, and cast them off for the long voyage across the void. After many lonely decades the ship finally reaches that Little Blue Marble, stealthily inserts itself in orbit, and hunkers down to learn from the various entertainment and news broadcasts from the planet Earth.
A bunch of blobs loafing about watching teevee– sounds a lot like us, right? No, not really, they are literally blobs. These explorers, the Yherajk, are translucent, gelatinous masses of undifferentiated cells who communicate amongst themselves by aerially transmitted long chain organic molecules. In the words of Joshua, the main representative of the Yherajk:,”We look like snot, and we smell like dead fish… We have seen The Blob, and it is us.” After studying our media concerning aliens they realize that, if they were to land at the White House, humanity’s first reaction would be to find a cigar-chomping action hero to punch them them in the face (or similar surface area).
This is a major image problem. They need help. They go to the true leaders of human culture–Hollywood–and look for an agent to represent them.
Agent to the Stars (Tor, 352 pp) was John Scalzi’s first novel written way back in 1997. He distributed it online with some success then got it published as a hardcover through Subterranean Press with a mere 1,500 copies. Since then he has written several non-fiction books for the Rough Guide series, maintained “one of the oldest and widely read blogs on the Internet” called Whatever, committed some questionable acts with bacon, and written five very well-received Science Fiction novels.
In the Old Man’s War books he turned an homage to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers on its ear by suggesting that maybe a Human Imperialist war against the rest of the galaxy’s species would be a less than good idea. In The Android’s Dreamthere is a near-perfect balance between uproarious silly slapstick and heartfelt deep thought. His next book, The High Castle, is set in the same universe as The Android’s Dream and due out in the fall of ’09, so we can expect more adventurous space-comic opera to come. Scalzi is a hot, new(ish), popular writer and deservedly so. He may in time garner the adoration and reverence SF fans bestow upon that master of absurd truth, Douglas Adams. Yeah, I said it; he is Hitchhiker’s good and may get better. Now you have a chance to check out his remarkably good first novel.
Once you get past any preconceptions, the weird Yherajk are quite charming and likable–as is the tale’s protagonist Tom Stein, who belongs to one of Earth’s most reviled professions: the Hollywood Agent. Tom is a hot new talent in the Game and will do anything; hustle, wheedle, prevaricate, and just outright lie to get the best deal for his clients. That roster of talent includes all the oft-parodied show-biz types: the Airhead Actor and Actress, the Overbearing Stage Mother, and the Diva Bitch From Hell. All of them, along with the Sleazy Tabloid Reporter, are deftly elevated from two-dimensional caricatures into believable and (mostly) sympathetic characters with an economy of language that takes the breath away from this long-winded reviewer.
At first Tom’s wacky exploits in La-La Land seem to take precedence to his mission of cosmic importance for his newest client. Is humanity’s First Contact taking a backseat to Tom’s 10%? Just sit back and enjoy the sunny ride beneath rat-infested palm trees though a very sharp satire of the Industry. Rest assured all the apparent loose ends in this complex madcap plot are tied up by the exciting conclusion. But this is more than light-hearted parody and side-splitting gags. Scalzi weaves biting social commentary and weighty ethical conundrums with sobering meditations on grief and loss from the small and personal to a planet-wide and historical scale. Witty, perceptive and never dull, Agent to the Stars is a fast read but ultimately satisfying on many levels.
My only real criticism is so nerdishly geeky I should never ever speak of it at all. Okay, it goes like this: if the Yherajk native language uses only scent why do they have names and vocabulary so difficult for us to pronounce vocally. Wouldn’t they call themselves “the People” or “the Fluid Ones”? Are they just screwing with us? But I digress.
On film, Agent to the Stars would play more like a classic screwball comedy than Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Independence Day and I am thankful for the difference. The aliens bring neither the threat of enslavement nor a message of Galactic Peace; they just want to get to know us and maybe hang out over some pizza. There have been some complaints recently that Science Fiction has been overrun with dystopian futures and overall pessimism. Looking around the world today I can see where this influence might be coming from.
I don’t know if Utopia is even possible, but humor is important to humanity. We will all need a good giggle as we queue up for Soylent Mauve in our matching paper jumpsuits. In all his of his work, John Scalzi cannot keep from being wickedly funny. It’s just his nature. Scalzi’s worlds may not be perfect but in them a handful of sarcastic smart-asses with their hearts in the right place can always save the day, at least until the next screw-up. If that isn’t optimism I don’t know what is.