Friday, 8 April 2011

Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi

Lowdown: A Hollywood agent is tasked with selling an alien race to humanity.
Readers of my blogs will know that although I haven’t been aware of author John Scalzi for too long he has quickly become a household figure. Hell, the guy even won my 2010 Person of the Year award, and not solely for exposing himself to me in person while he was moist (don’t ask!). The result is that I look forward to picking Scalzi books up; yet in the case of Agent to the Stars, no build up could have prepared me for the experience ahead.
My fascination with Agent to the Stars started with Scalzi’s own introduction to the book, in which he informs the book is his first attempt at fiction, written for him to test whether he can write it in the first place. It was then published on his blog, Whatever, for free sharing; you can still read it for free here. Only years later was it published in paper form, eventually manifesting itself in that piece of processed wood I was holding with two hands.
It can be argued that Agent to the Stars is an offshoot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. We are introduced to a young Hollywood agent who is quite bright and appears to be doing a good job for his actors, even when they give the impression of being the least aware of what benefits them and what doesn't. Then our agent’s boss introduces our agent to his new client: a slimy alien of a race recently arrived at earth’s orbit via an astroid serving for interstellar travel.
The business proposition is simple: make humanity accept this stinky and slimy alien species as its friend in the universe. The approach preferred by the aliens, exposed to humanity primarily through off the air TV transmissions, is to use the powerbrokers behind the entertainment industry to achieve their goal. But can it be achieved? And how will our agent toggle the rest of his life – his other actors, the media, his neighbor’s dog – with this enormous pressure on his shoulder?
I will lay it on the table in no uncertain terms: in my opinion, Agent to the Stars is the best easy reading I have had for a good few years now. It's incredibly approachable, set as it is in Hollywood and the movie scene we're all familiar with. It’s light reading, providing exciting twists and thrills. It’s incredibly witty and funny as a result, but not silly funny; its is the smart humor domain. At the same time Agent to the Stars deals effectively with heavy moral dilemmas and subjects such as the Holocaust and racism. The mere fact Scalzi is able to mix and match lightness with Holocaust, and do it so effectively, is testimony to his skills as an author.
Let’s appreciate Scalzi’s achievement further. I am a person of similar attitudes to Scalzi (undoubtedly this similarity greatly helped in me liking Agent to the Stars). As in, I have the tendency to take everything, no matter how bad/hard, with a smile/laugh on my face. Often at work environments, or in situations where I am assessed for my work abilities (to quote a real life scenario, my ability to deliver effectively while working in a team being examined at a job interview), this tendency of mine is quoted as an indicator for lack of seriousness. Yet as Scalzi clearly demonstrates in Agent to the Stars, sometimes the apparent lack of seriousness increases the impact of the truly serious: the majority Agent to the Stars’ readers who weren’t brought up in Israel and pumped up with Holacaust history studies at school will probably learn more about the Holocaust and its human aspects from Agent to the Stars than everything else they encountered in their lives before.
Another interesting aspect involving Agent to the Stars is to do with Scalzi’s general science fiction portfolio, of which Old Man’s War is probably the most famous and the best selling. I read the Old Man’s War book; I also read its two sequels (here & here). I liked them all, but I liked a less acknowledged book from John Scalzi much more: The God Engines, which I consider the best fantasy book I read in decades (alright, I haven’t read that many fantasy books, but it’s still an astonishingly good read). Then comes Agent to the Stars, another Scalzi book with not even half the halo of Old Man’s War, yet a book I so thoroughly enjoyed reading I found myself deliberately reading it slowly in order to make it last. It’s extremely rare nowadays for a book to make me feel this way; Old Man’s War certainly didn’t.
If you want me to my grips with Agent to the Stars I will gladly do so, but I will issue a petty alert first. For a start I found the book too American centric, but then again - Scalzi is American and so is his main target market. Besides, Hollywood is in America. The second problem is the book's lack of Twitter readiness: breaking news spread in the book through phone calls to radio stations, whereas that is firmly in Twitter land today. Sure, I know Scalzi wrote the book before Twitter was conceived, but he himself admits to updating it in order to keep it up with the times (an effort that is very evident throughout the book); I am therefore allowed to raise silly complaints even if I only do so because I love Twitter.
I’ll summarize things this way: with Agent to the Stars John Scalzi has firmly placed himself in that exclusive club of writers whose every book I will buy without a second thought. There are probably less than five people currently in that club, but Scalzi earned his place there fair and square.
I can't wait for Fuzzy Nation!
Overall: Scalzi can definitely write fiction. 5 out of 5 stars, and I’ll say it again: the best light reading I have had for many years.

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