Subterranean Press, 2005, ~96,000 words.
The space-faring Yherajk people have come to Earth to begin humanity's first interstellar friendship. There's just one problem: They're hideously ugly and they smell like rotting fish. Gaining humanity's trust isn't easy when you look like a B-movie terror, and the Yherajk need someone who can help them close the deal.
Thomas Stein knows all about closing deals -- he's one of Hollywood's hottest young agents, but he's about to learn it's one thing to sell your client when she's a hot young starlet and another thing entirely when your client is an alien species!
As a devoted follower of Whatever, John Scalzi is one of my favorite authors whose books don't really do that much for me. I haven't not enjoyed any of his books, but when he announces a new book, my reaction is not "Yay! A new Scalzi novel!" but "Oh... well, I'll probably read it eventually."
I am trying to work through the backlog of books on my ereader, and Agent to the Stars was short. It was Scalzi's debut novel, and he posted it for free on the Internet. You can still get it for free. Basically, this was the book he wrote to prove he could (or couldn't) write a decent SF novel. Since he is now a Big Name SF Author, I guess he could.
The premise is what it says in the blurb: aliens, who picked up our radio signals, traveled in a big spaceship to Earth to make friends with us. But since they've been monitoring our media for the past few decades, they have figured out that being bad-smelling blobs with some particularly creepy (from a human POV) abilities is not going to endear them to humanity, and they want to make a good first impression. Hence, they decide to seek representation. Hollywood representation.
So, they make first contact with the powerful head of a Hollywood agency, who delegates the job of figuring out how to prepare the Yherajk for their first public appearance to one of his junior agents, a likable fellow named Tom Stein.
"It's just creepy," I said. "Invading someone's brain to have them do your bidding." I did an involuntary shudder. "It's like a mental rape or something."
"Tom, they're big frogs," Joshua said. "It's certainly not any worse than whipping some dumb animal to get it to do what you want to do. Anyway, it's not like we take over the brains of anything that can think. That's a --" He stopped for a second and waved the tendril, as if to imply trying to think of a word; the frog shifted uncomfortably within . "--sin. A really big sin. Like murder or incest would be for you."
"What a relief," I said. "Because, you know, people never murder each other or commit incest around here," I said.
"Don't blame me for the shortcomings of your own species," Joshua said. "Here, look. While we were talking, I got into this guy's head. Now watch." He dropped the tendril to the ground and slid it back into himself. The frog sat there, not doing much.
"Where's the tendril?" I said.
"The operative phrase here is 'very thin,' Tom," Joshua said. "You're not going to see it. Here we go."
The frog sat there some more. After a couple of seconds it nudged itself forward. Then it sat there some more.
"There," Joshua said.
"That's it?" I said.
"Let's see you do that, smartass," Joshua said.
"Do what?" I said. "The frog moved. Big deal. The frog would have moved anyway."
The frog lifted up on its hind legs and did a hoppy little samba. Its front legs moved in time.
"All right," I said. "That, I don't see very often."
This may sound silly (especially the part about the job being handed to a junior agent), but the reasoning is explained in the story and it's actually pretty good. I still thought the premise was a little thin at times, but overall, while certainly not a serious novel, and definitely not hard SF, neither is it farcical. Scalzi creates a believable alien race, within the context of "soft" SF, and their technology generally stays within the realm of known physics. There are two main subplots: one is the aliens, the other is Tom's chief client, a bubble-headed starlet who has just ascended to the A-list largely by being very pneumatic and having the good fortune to star in a couple of big summer blockbusters.
While Michelle Beck might initially rub some readers the wrong way — she seems to be the very epitome of a stereotypical Hollywood Dumb Blonde, and Scalzi does not refrain from scoring a few laughs at her dim-witted expense — she does become a real person, if not a very smart one, and she eventually plays a major role in the Yherajk's debut. Tom Stein, Michelle Beck, and the Yherajk are also involved in another, touching subplot involving the production of a small, artsy movie about a Holocaust survivor.
This was a fun, light-hearted but surprisingly well-plotted read. It's not all humor, but while the Holocaust movie is not made into a joke, neither is it a great big anvil of Serious thrown in there to make some kind of a point.
The writing was solid, and the only thing that really marked it as a debut novel was the overuse of dialog tags (like the line above with two "I said"s in the same sentence) and a rather large number of typos and grammatical errors. Plot-wise, I found it somewhat improbable that everyone (especially in Hollywood!) turned out to be so darn nice and reasonable, but if you can suspend your disbelief enough to buy a Hollywood that's not populated by raging assholes, you can probably buy ameoba-like aliens named "Joshua."
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Verdict: Scalzi's earliest novel is, in my opinion, one of his most enjoyable. If you want to read some light, feel-good sci-fi with a bit of snappy humor, I recommend it, especially since you can download it for free.
Also by John Scalzi: My reviews of The Android's Dream and The God Engines.
My complete list of book reviews.