Agent to the Stars, John Scalzi

Tor, 2002 (2008 revision), 368 pages, C$16.95 tpb, ISBN 0-7653-1771-0

(Also available online at http://www.scalzi.com/agent/ )

Trunk novels. Just about every writer in the business has at least one: those early efforts that weren’t good enough to warrant publication and so await patiently, in the trunk (so to speak) to be reworked or abandoned entirely. Some writers eventually manage to revise and publish them while others seem happy to let them age away unseen. I know of one red-hot hard-SF writer who reportedly has ten of them, which is the kind of stuff that makes me feel better when I read his stuff and wonder how his “first” book out of the gate was so unbelievably good.

But in these wild and woolly Internet times where information actively schemes to be free, more and more writers are turning to a third alternative: Releasing the novel on the Internet as a free sample of what they can do and a piece of must-read history for their fans. Campbell Award-winning John Scalzi is now officially one of SF’s most sensational new writer, but the runaway success of Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades masks the fact that those weren’t his first two novels: Another one, Agent to the Stars, was written in the late nineties and and released as a free download on his wildly popular web site in 1999, where it attracted attention and some generously donated money.

But then Scalzi sold other novels, which did quite well on the marketplace. This, in turn, raised Agent to the Stars‘ profile high enough that the fine folks at Subterranean Press crunched some numbers and figured they could make a profit re-publishing the novel as a special limited edition. There are rarely second chances for books, but there are also exceptions: this is one of them.

Those of you worried about quality can rest easy: While Agent to the Stars doesn’t quite make it as a first-rate SF novel, it’s good enough by itself, and quite reasonably good for what is, after all, a trunk novel. Scalzi is such a professional that it’s hard to imagine him releasing anything that wasn’t good enough for public consumption.

It’s also one of those relatively rare creatures: A light-hearted Science Fiction novel. The hook is simple: Successful Hollywood agent Thomas Stein is a bright young darling at his agency, and he’s lucky enough to have at least one rising superstar under his wing. Things are looking up for him, until he’s called into his boss’ office for a special assignment: Find a way to “sell” a race of slimy smelly aliens to the human public. The agent job of a lifetime… if Tom can handle it. Fortunately, the aliens are friendly (pretty funny, actually) and Tom seems reasonably confident that he can crack the problem. But this is Hollywood, and things have a way of not going quite right.

Before long, tragedy occurs and Agent to the Stars heads to grounds that will feel familiar to seasoned Scalzi readers: Ethical dilemmas arise, and with them the ideal excuse to use SF as a tool to explore a few big “What If?”s. The warm and gooey aliens end up teaching two or three things to Tom about what it means to be human, bringing the novel to a conclusion that will satisfy everyone.

On a writing level, Agents to the Stars is deceptively simple: The prose is immediately accessible, and Scalzi knows how to put his characters in genuinely amusing situations. The balance between comedy and drama is tricky to get right and if the tonal shifts can rough at times, the skill of the conclusion more compensates for it. Scalzi has a lot of experience writing about movies and he uses that knowledge to paint a convincing portrait of the daily life of a Hollywood agent: Movie buffs won’t be the only ones who benefit from Agent to the Stars, but the novel will pack a special fun for them.

This being said, it remains a trunk novel, even if it’s exceptionally pleasant to read. It’s a bit linear and fluffy (though less so than you can imagine, thanks to the dramatic turn taken in the second half of the book), with a few dramatic shortcuts that make sense in a comedy but wouldn’t pass inspection in a more rigorous tone. The speculative elements are few, though well-developed and reasonably consistent.

But as a Scalzi fan, I’m just thankful that he’s been generous enough to allow random readers to have a look at his first effort. In some ways, I suspect that Agents to the Stars reflects Scalzi-the-author a bit better than his first “official” novel Old Man’s War: it’s funnier, looser, a bit more explicit in its ethical concerns and not as worried about mass-market appeal. As time passes, I think that Agents to the Stars will find its place not just as an unusually good “free novel on the web”, but as an essential piece in the Scalzi bibliography, the one piece that announces a strong career.

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