The Android's Dream by John Scalzi, couldn't be any more different from his earlier books Old Manís War and Ghost Brigades). While the main character is ex-military, there is hardly any military action whatsoever. Instead, Scalzi delivers a light touch with humor, a few in-jokes (a couple of which were kind of annoying), and some kick-butt action that's vividly described and keeps the reader involved. The ultimate compliment to a book is that the reader couldn't put it down, and it's a compliment I have to give. I loved almost everything about it.
A diplomatic incident occurs when an Earth diplomat kills his alien opponent in a rather unique way. War is coming, but it could be averted if Earth's government can do something for the Nidu: find an example of the sacred sheep, called "The Android's Dream," and deliver it to Nidu in time for their new leader's coronation ceremony. The problem is that somebody seems to want war, because these sheep are being wiped out all over the galaxy. One man finds a unique example of one, though, and is now on the run from almost everybody, trying to protect his prize. Harry Creek is ex-military, and he'll have to use every trick he learned to protect Robin Baker, the woman whose past contains the secret of the sheep's whereabouts. Assassins, alien marines, and others will stop at nothing to get their hands on the secret - and if they do, the Earth may not be around long enough to improve its standing in the Common Confederation's ranking of aligned planets.
The Android's Dream is very imaginative, with Scalzi pulling out all the stops to create a wacky world that still makes plausible sense (at least in some twisted way). He's created a network of alien races with unique and interesting traits, and the setting is wonderfully done - it's almost an amalgamation of real-world (references to current television shows and movies) and futuristic, and none of it seems out of place. Even the United States government seems as dysfunctional as usual. One bit of convenience for Scalzi is that he's made it so that, once the aliens arrived, the US became the de facto government of Earth. I'm not sure how realistic that is, but it does make the satire a lot easier on which to get a handle.
The title is obviously an homage to Philip K. Dick (as Scalzi states in his afterword), but that's not the only real-world reference, and it is the only one that doesn't throw you out of the book a little bit. Most of the world has gone vegetarian, and there is a reference to a small cult of hunters in northern Michigan who still hunt meat with bows and arrows, and they're called Nugentians (for those who don't know, rocker Ted Nugent is an avid bow hunter). Another reference that threw me out of the book for a little bit (though not as much as the Nugent reference) is that one of the character's doctors, who constantly harps at him to stop eating so much meat, is named Atkinson. Both of these in-jokes happen early in the book, though, and the rest of the book's humor is a lot better.
In fact, the book is outright hilarious at times, both in dialogue and in narration. Some of Scalzi's descriptions of past events almost made me laugh out loud, and there is one bit of satire that is dead-on, even as it becomes a serious part of the book. There is a cult, called the Church of the Evolved Lamb (and thus, you see why it's involved so heavily in this book), created by a mediocre science-fiction author and funded by a woman who wants to see just how much wool this author can pull over the eyes of his followers (I promise that's the last sheep joke). With Creek and Robin on the run and looking for the Android's Dream, the church gets involved as well, and Scalzi's descriptions of the workings of the church are a scream as they try to insert themselves into the events.
Another thing that Scalzi handles masterfully is the all of the computing jargon. There is a lot of network-cracking and snooping, along with Creek creating a good AI search program, and none of it is boring. Even when Scalzi describes in detail how the hackers are breaking into the system, he still manages to keep it flowing and interesting. In fact, the personalities of the AIs (one created by Creek and one that I'm not revealing) were a highlight of the book. Scalzi's ability to give character even to these machines (no matter what kind of human they were based on) is wonderful.
Finally, I have to mention the characterization of everybody else as well. The government agents are sneaky (even the good guys) but also have clear motivations that make sense. One guy is simply out to save his own skin because he thinks there's no way that humans will be able to face off against the Nidu, so he goes into league with them. Creek and Robin develop a relationship with a bit of sexual tension, but Scalzi avoids the stereotype of two heroes of the opposite sex falling in love with each other (though you can certainly see that there's a possibility of that in the future). Instead, the characters are all three-dimensional, with the slight exception of Acuna, who just seems nasty for the sake of being nasty.
The Android's Dream is a perfect combination of humor and action, with a beautifully-imagined world and wonderful characters to populate it. Anybody who can resist the opening paragraph of the book ("Dirk Moeller didn't know if he could fart his way into a major diplomatic incident. But he was ready to find out.") is made of sterner stuff than me. When I read that, I knew I was going to get a funny book. Scalziís deft handling of action and the thoughtful plot just made me savor it all the more.