Friday, May 4, 2007

Review: Agent to the Stars

John Scalzi's website has a link to one of his early works. It wasn't offered as part of IPST, but is freely available all the same.The novel, Agent to the Stars, is Mr. Scalzi's first novel, one which (according to the introduction) he wrote just to make sure he could. Of course this is a good thing, as it have resulted us in being given such books as his Old Man's War. The way that this book was produced is that Mr. Scalzi first offered it online as a "shareware novel". Basically, you read the story and then sent him how much you thought the story was worth. After a while of that, he managed to get it published through Subterranean Press-and if memory serves there's talk of another publisher taking a stab at it. For a story that began life as an exercise in making sure that he could produce novel-length work-it has gone over very well. He's a poster-child for what the Internet can do for a writer.

Anyways, onto the book. The blurb (found on Subterranean's website) reads thus:

The space-faring Yherajk people 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. Gaining humanity's trust isn't easy when you look like a B-movie terror. The Yherajk need someone who can help them close the deal.

Thomas Stein knows all about closing deals -- he's one of Hollywood's hottest young agents who’s just closed the biggest deal of his career. But it's one thing to sell your client when she's a hot young starlet. It's another thing entirely when your client is an entire alien species, depending on you to pull off the greatest introduction in this history of man. Stein's going to need all his smarts, all his skills, and all his wits to earn his percentage -- and his place in history.

Agent to the Stars is a gleeful mash-up of science fiction and Hollywood satire from acclaimed novelist John Scalzi (Old Man's War), a film critic since 1991 and author of The Rough Guide to Science Fiction Film. It's a whole new look at alien encounters -- and a view of Tinseltown you've never seen before.

Now that's a blurb. It tells you what this book is going to be about, lays everything out there for you, and provides the perfect bit of information about the main character and the problem of the novel so that you know what you're getting into. Unfortunately, the book is currently out of print, so unless you're willing to shell out nearly $200 for a second hand copy, you're up that proverbial creek (I didn't check eBay for copies, so there may be some cheaper there). Luckily, Mr. Scalzi provides it as a file for free.

As the blurb above says, the main character (and POV character) is an agent by the name of Thomas Stein. I really enjoyed the Thomas character here - he's funny, smart and has that right mix of smarmy good-heartedness which made Jerry McGuire so popular. Rounding out the cast are his boss, his administrative assistant, his prime client, a reporter, and Joshua.

Joshua is the smart-alecy, wise-mouthed Yherajk, who is Thomas' main point of contact with that alien race. The aliens here are responsible for some of my favorite moments in the book - especially when you consider that this is a race that has learned to speak English from our radio and television transmissions. I mean what's not to love about a Jell-o mold who quotes Yoda?

The plot is one of those first-contact plots. Of course, that plot can be handled in two different ways, first is the evil aliens which gives us things like Independence Day, second the plot has good aliens like the one found in E.T. The Extra-terrestrial. This plot has the good aliens - and the main problem facing our hero here is how is he going to introduce the aliens to humanity. A problem made complex by the fact that they look like the Blob rather than an Ewok.

The novel pretty much spends the entire time of the story in Los Angeles, specifically the area around Hollywood. It's a story that is set in contemporary times - with nothing overly obvious as to giving it a specific time frame. Though we know things like Tom Hanks is still alive and making comedies. The descriptions of everything works well, holding that perfectly blend which tells the reader what he needs to know.

Truthfully, I had trouble picking out a theme for the novel. I know not every story needs one - but this is speculative fiction. Above and beyond everything else it's supposed to make you think and consider. While you're laughing at the jokes or rooting for the good guy during the fight scene, you're also supposed to be pondering the big questions of the universe through the filter of the story.

Or maybe I'm just an optimist.

Regardless, I had trouble picking out the theme for the novel. I think it might be because I was just enjoying myself too much while reading it. In the end, what I came up with was a mish mosh of ideas and concepts. Most of them half-baked. I know that this novel is trying to tell me something, but unless it's the comments about Hollywood and culture spoken by two different characters, I just don't know what it is. If the theme is those comments, then it's bashing the reader over the head with it. If they're not, well, then I'm still drawing a blank.

This was a first person story-with all the benefits and drawbacks of that model. Typos and what not were possibly non-existent, at least I can't remember any. But I do have to say that the more of Mr. Scalzi's work that I read, the more I like how he writes. It's a beautiful mixture of humor, satire and speculation. It's is almost like reading a Heinlein novel. At least a Heinlein novel that has been ran through the Men in Black comic book. I can only hope that this way of writing stays with Mr. Scalzi as I go out and find the rest of his Old Man's War books.

Overall, this has been a fun, fun ride. I laughed, I was amused, and I even thought. I considered the potential for first contacts going through Hollywood rather than just dropping by the White House or the United Nations. Ultimately, I decided that it was an idea that made sense to me, especially when viewed through the lens of the book.

I give it a 3.9 out of 4.


RJ Peters said...

That's a fascinating topic. It's different enought that it has me intrigued. A cool take on the first contact plot. Thanks again for the review!

Stephen Wrighton said...

Yes it is. And I enjoyed the take on it as well.

As always, the reviews are a pleasure to do. Thanks for reading!

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