At times, I am so jealous of John Scalzi. He seems to have more writing talent in his little finger (not to mention his middle one!) than most people do in their entire bodies. What brings this feeling to mind today? Having just read Scalzi's first novel, Agent to the Stars, and realizing that it's one of the funniest, yet also kind of profound, novels I've read in a long time. Curse you, Scalzi! But I just can't put it down.
The enigmatic alien race known as the Yherajk have come to earth after monitoring the signals we've been broadcasting for the last fifty or so years. They decide the proper way to introduce themselves is not by landing on the front lawn of the White House but by getting a Hollywood agent to figure out what the best way is. Enter Thomas Stein, an agent with a modest clientele, but one whose boss thinks is perfect for the job. As Thomas lives with one of the gelatinous aliens and tries to figure out how to earn his commission, other things in his life begin to go topsy-turvy, which may end up solving his problem in the long run.
I don't know whether Scalzi has any history in Hollywood or in the agent field, but he captures the whole Hollywood scene perfectly, at least to this laymanís eyes - cutthroat negotiations of getting back-end deals versus front-loaded ones for his actors, lots of talk about the movie-making business (and TV, too), just an amazing amount of detail that either demonstrates Scalzi's knowledge or his research ability. Granted, it's all taken a step above reality into the mildly absurd, but that's what this novel is: an absurdist science fiction novel.
Agent to the Stars has an interesting pedigree. It was written back in the 1990s when Scalzi just wanted to see if he could write a novel. He offered
it as a shareware novel on his web site before Tor picked him up for their SF
line with Old Man's War. Then boutique publisher Subterranean released a limited-edition hardcover of Agent to the Stars, and now Tor has published this really nice trade paperback edition. Scalzi has updated the pop-culture references (as he notes in his introduction, he had to change the now-defunct UPN to Comedy Central), but otherwise this is the same novel that he wrote over ten years ago. Now you see why I'm jealous?
Scalzi's characteristic underlying wit shines through, but the book is also laugh-out-loud funny. One of Thomas's clients is a young California bleached-blonde airhead of an actress who for some reason wants to take on the role of a middle-aged Holocaust survivor who became prominent in the U.S. Civil Rights movement. Scalzi spends three pages detailing the life of this survivor, the horrors that she went through and the uplifting later days of her life, then ends with a quip? And it's not offensive? Well, some might find it offensive, but I found it hilarious.
There are just so many moments that I burst out laughing that I'm surprised my wife didn't have me committed. Joshua, the Yherajk who Thomas has to deal with, has obviously learned a lot about Earth culture. He makes some striking comments about the whole thing, especially when he inhabits the neighbor's dog as a way to get around less noticeably. Some of the humor comes from the situations Scalzi sets up, some are just wry Hollywood asides, and some are sarcastic jokes. None of them fall flat.
Better yet, much of the humor actually comes from the characters, who are solid as usual under Scalzi's care. Even the bimbo Michelle becomes endearing as the novel goes along, and I loved the relationship between Thomas and his administrative assistant, Miranda. Joshua, of course, is beautifully done and the rest of the Yherajk are as well. There is simply not a false note among any of the characters.
While Agent to the Stars is definitely a comedy, there are some serious notes. Scalzi explores the subjects of morality and the "when does life really end" question in a poignant sequence late in the book. While there are definitely humorous aspects to the discussion and situation, he never makes fun of the actual concepts, and the results are actually quite well done. These serious situations never bring the book to a halt, but they do make it that much more enriching.
That's not to say there aren't any problems. No book is perfect, even less so a first novel. There are a couple of slow spots, including the sequence where Thomas's boss explains to him how the Yherajk came to him. There is definitely some good humor involved, but for some reason I found my attention wandering. Also, the ending is wrapped up with a bow on top. Scalzi uses the device of a number of newspaper and magazine articles to detail what happens during the last year leading up to the alien revelation to the world. This would have added at least 100 pages to the book to write normally (and perhaps more to do it right), so perhaps it's understandable. It distanced me from the characters and the events more than I would have liked.
All that said, Agent to the Stars is perfect for those looking for a good laugh - science fiction with humor makes it accessible to all readers. Non-genre readers may have to get a few SF concepts through the head, but it's well worth it. Scalzi is a great writer, and this is a great read.