Monday, April 27, 2009

Agent to the Stars

It's been a while since I made my way through a novel laughing out loud every 50 pages or so, making my family wonder what I was reading, as I did this weekend. We had the right kind of Saturday for me to read John Scalzi's Agent to the Stars--one filled with kid activities, but no demands on me other than to chauffeur everyone here and there through the lovely spring day: Walker to soccer practice and then a rehearsal for a vocal concert, Eleanor to her final play performance and cast party. Agent to the Stars kept me in a pleasant mood while being kept inside a car for so much of the day.

Scalzi calls this one his "practice novel." It was posted on his web site in 1999, published as a very limited edition in 2005, and came out in paperback this winter. Basically, it's about friendly but unlovely-in-appearance aliens trying to find a way to introduce themselves to the human race, so they land outside LA and find an agent to help them spin the story. These are not your father's aliens; they realize that they can't just land on the White House lawn and take themselves to our leader. And like other fictional aliens in the last decade (most amusingly, the ones in Galaxy Quest), their knowledge of our culture comes largely from tv and movies, and they need some help differentiating between fiction and reality. The first place I laughed out loud, in fact, is on p. 32, when the aliens, who call themselves the Yherajk, have their contact, Joshua, tell the human they've picked to be their agent that they realize most humans will be repelled by their appearance:
"We look like snot," Joshua said. "And we smell like dead fish....We have seen The Blob and it is us."

The way the plot will be resolved is obvious from p. 89-90 of this 365-page novel, and the author has re-used a few of his favorite devices (aliens who fart a smell-language, also in his wonderfully funny The Android's Dream, for instance). But that really didn't detract from my pleasure in reading Agent to the Stars. It's not about the plot. It's about the way the characters talk to each other, and the sophistication of the Yherajk, who know they need an agent because, as one of them says, "The SETI program implies that your planet is actively seeking contact with other peoples, but your entertainments show you to be hostile to the idea, full of the fear that the peoples you encounter will try to subjugate your planet. Moreover, when you do show aliens as friendly or benevolent, they tend to be humanoid in appearance. When they are hostile or violent, they tend to appear like us. Obviously, this is very worrying."

Many of the human worries from old alien-monster movies (parodied so hilariously in Mars Attacks) are parodied as the action of this novel moves along. At the point when the alien, Joshua, takes over the body of a dog, the agent, Tom, says to him "You ate him, Joshua!" and while the alien explains the process at some length, including cultural taboos against taking over anyone's body against their will, the laugh line comes two pages later, when Joshua tells Tom
"eventually my cells will take the place of all his cells....It's more efficient, especially since I won't have all these damned specialized organs to deal with...."
"What happens to the old cells?" I asked.
"I digest them."
"Oh man," I said. You are eating him."

The climax of the novel is visible a long way off. If you miss the foreshadowing on p. 89-90, it's spelled out for you on p. 250, when a producer describes a scene in a film "where the alien overlord is trying to get control of Michelle's body--we were going to have the overlord stick his tentacles in her mouth and ears as a way to get to her brain. Really disgusting, of course--eyeballs popping and mouth really huge and all that." But since these are friendly aliens, what looks "really disgusting" is the subject of intense alien debate and is enacted, finally, with the best of motives (which, the aliens specifically point out, might not be a good enough basis for such action, so the climactic action is promised to be the subject of philosophical speculation by Yherajks for generations to come).

What a shame if you should miss the climax of the novel, though, because it's such fun to see the Yherajk take the stage at the Academy Awards Show and reveal that there is an alien among us:
"The fact that an alien had managed to sneak past humanity, pose as a superstar, and win the Best Acress Oscar had the desired effect of showing the world that the Yherajk were an essentially benign race--after all, if they had been a warlike people, they could have overrun us with their spaceships, or at the very least have fielded a football team and tried to win the Super Bowl instead. Winning the Best Actress Oscar was the most nonthreatening, yet high exposure, way to introduce one species to another."

This is a first novel, but it's more than just an "extra" for people who are already John Scalzi fans. It's for anyone who enjoys a new twist on hackneyed alien-from-outer-space images, and an entertaining story for a lazy spring or summer afternoon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You are such a sweetheart, distracting me from the global warming/economic meltdown/swine flu pandemic trifecta with Mr. Scalzi! Thanks for both the Tweet and the review--both made me smile.