I’m a big fan of John Scalzi, and I’ve been wanting to read his first novel, Agent to the Stars, for a while and I finally got the opportunity to when Tor sent me a review copy. (I was going to buy it eventually anyway, but as soon as it arrived, I had to read it!)
The Yherjak are an alien race that want to make contact with humanity, but they are transparent gelatinous blobs who smell like rotten fish. From careful analysis of human movies and TV, they conclude that they’re not likely to inspire an accepting reaction. So they do the most natural thing in the world – hire an up-and-coming Hollywood agent, Tom Stein, to handle their introduction. Of course, hilarity ensues.
Agent to the Stars is a rather silly book. Like all of Scalzi’s work, it’s very entertaining and an easy read, but it doesn’t examine as many fun ideas as his later work (Old Man’s War builds a compelling version of human space exploration, Fuzzy Nation explores sentience and greed). Scalzi started off as a film critic, and this book exposes the breadth of his knowledge of Hollywood, and even though I wished there was more sci-fi, I really enjoyed these aspects.
The characterisation was somewhat one note – everyone is very nice and rational, or can be easily made to see sense and become so. I’m not really complaining, it was similar to an Aaron Sorkin show where everyone is witty and has a similar sense of humour, and that kind of story has its place. The aliens are really polite, and I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and their real plan to be revealed. They’re actually just genuinely nice aliens, though, which was was a refreshing change of pace.
The biggest problem I had with the book was the ending. I don’t want to spoil it, but I found the resolution of the PR problem exceedingly creepy, and it certainly would not make me look kindly upon the aliens. However, if you choose to not think too much about it and read Agent to the Stars as a straight comedy novel, it works really well. It was a bit hard for me to decide how seriously to take the book, since it was ridiculous most of the time, but was occasionally really earnest.
In the introduction, John Scalzi mentions that this book was his “trial” novel, to prove to himself that he could write a full length book. For that, it succeeds tremendously – it’s funny, smart and a really entertaining read. It’s not his best work, though.
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