Thursday, January 29, 2009
The Android's Dream by John Scalzi
What do you get when you combine aliens, diplomacy, artificial intelligences, religion and sheep together? Well, for most people, the answer would be a horrible mess. For John Scalzi, however, it's a fantastic read. Nothing too complex, no greater statements about the nature of humanity and the necessity of war that holds together the stories in his Old Man's War universe, just a good old-fashioned espionage romp. With sheep. Or at least a sheep. Kind of.
The story begins with, as so many stories do, a murder. Not an intentional murder, really, but one that was born of shame and revenge, as so many murders are. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn't rate much, except that the death of an alien trade ambassador is never a convenient thing. When said diplomat may just possibly have been killed by his human counterpart, that's even more difficult to deal with. Instead of a nice, tidy trade agreement cementing the relations between the United Nations of Earth and the Nidu, an alien race with an extraordinary sense of smell and hair-trigger tempers, we have what the State Department might just call "a challenge."
The only thing that can heal this little rift between the two planets is a sheep. But not just any sheep - a special breed, created just for the Nidu called the Android's Dream. Without this sheep, the ruling family cannot hold on to power, and the Nidu will be plunged into a catastrophic civil war that will, in all likelihood, take Earth with it. In order to find the sheep, avert catastrophe and, most importantly, avoid calling shame down upon the government, State Department employee - and veteran of the Earth's greatest military failure - Harry Creek will have to use every skill at his disposal. And then some.
It's a great read, this book. Telling any more about the plot would ruin it, so I'll just exhort you to pick up the book and get reading. In all honesty, you could probably finish it pretty quickly. But I can't just stop here, so let me tell you more about why I liked it as much as I did.
What made it so good, what always makes good sci-fi good, is the reality of the world the author creates. It's great to come up with high-concept scientific ideas, or intricately-planned space battles, but for the reader to really immerse him-or-herself in the book, it has to have a world in which the reader can easily imagine her-or-himself existing.
I thought of this during one scene early in the book. A character was riding the Washington, D.C. Metro and the narrator was describing the various aliens who were riding with him. There was an explanation of how various species had integrated themselves into the city, overcoming prejudice and discrimination, but what really got me was the description of a young woman reading the paper, the only other human in the car. Amidst all the different bodies, tongues, smells, and appearances, she didn't even notice.
"If her great-great-grandmother were on the train," Scalzi writes, "she would have thought she was on commuter train heading toward the fifth circle of Hell. This woman didn't even look up. The human capacity for being jaded was a remarkable thing."
It was at that point that I really accepted the reality of the book. It wasn't a perfect world, it wasn't one that had been ripped apart or perfected by alien contact. What had happened was what happens here any time cultures interact - after a brief period of unpleasantness, cultures start to mingle until it gets to a point where no one can remember when things were at all different. This book has all those little details that help sell the world, things that blend our world with theirs. Bored mall employees, amoral hit men, political jockeying, all of those things are familiar. Actual ghosts in machines, planet-cracking bombs, aliens that are almost entirely mouth and digestive systems, those are not. But they're believable, because Scalzi is one hell of a writer.
I do have one little nit to pick, however. It's not a big nit, but a nit nonetheless.
The book is an adventure, plain and simple. It's a plot-driven story that pulls you along from one event to the other with nary a chance to catch your breath, and I never complain about that. It has some great characters... who remain almost entirely static throughout the story. I can't say there's no character development in the book, because the big hairy guy who eats people does have a change of heart about it, but other than that.... Harry Creek begins the book as a reluctant hero who is hiding his super-hacker, ass-kicker light under a bushel, and he's happy to continue to be that at the close of the book. Robin Baker is a sassy, independent young woman who holds up under pressure - though not necessarily happy about it - throughout the book, and the Nidu ambassador Narf-win-Getag is untrustable the moment he walks on the page, and he remains so up through his sudden and inevitable betrayal near the end.
Like I said, this isn't a huge complaint, because the book that Scalzi has written isn't a character book. It's an adventure, and adventure books usually don't require a whole lot of character development. That doesn't mean the characters aren't believable - they certainly are - and it doesn't mean they're not interesting - they absolutely are. They just don't grow. Fortunately I know from having read Old Man's War and its related books that Scalzi has no problem with character development, and so I can assume that keeping his characters reasonably static in this book was a deliberate choice.
As a tangential comment on characters in the book, there was one character that drove me nuts. This character is not central to the story, and only appears a few times. What makes this person interesting are the following two things: first that the character is named Sam, and second that Sam's gender is never established. Maybe it's me and I missed something, but I have no idea if Sam was a man or a woman.
I caught it mainly because Tad Williams used the same name to pull a similar trick in his Otherland series, but in that story he was hiding Sam's gender from another character, not the reader, so we eventually found out what was what. In this story, Sam's gender remains a mystery for no other reason than I figure it amused Scalzi. It has no bearing on the story, and it doesn't make the fate of Sam's lover any less tragic, but I found it fascinating.
In any case, it's a great read and - as a bonus - very funny. The opening line alone lets you know that, no matter what you think you've read before, you haven't read anything quite like this. But I'm not telling you what that line is - I can't give away everything....
"If there's one thing that distinguishes the human species, it is a pathological need to stay connected."
-John Scalzi, The Android's Dream
John Scalzi's homepage
John Scalzi at Wikipedia
John Scalzi at AMC.com
The Android's Dream on Amazon.com