Tor, 2006, 396 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30941-6
Things can change quickly.
Two years ago, John Scalzi was “just” a popular blogger to most of the SF community, one whose first novel, Old Man’s War, was about to be published by Tor. His blog spoke for itself, but he was still unproven in matters of fiction: While Agent to the Stars (his first “practise novel”) was freely available on his web site, SF fans and pundits waited for the real thing.
These days, Scalzi is also known as “best-selling, Campbell Award-winning John Scalzi”. Thanks to the runaway success of Old Man’s War and its follow-up The Ghost Brigades, Scalzi quickly found a place as a bright new writer. Agent to the Stars was re-issued as a hardcover. Fans accumulated from within and outside the genre readership. With the release of The Android’s Dream, Scalzi cements his reputation as a reliable source of solid SF entertainment. A comic thriller in the avowed tradition of Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard, Scalzi’s latest novel is pure SF delight from beginning to end.
Trying to explain the intricate details of the plot in a few words would serve no one, but you can rest assured that within a few chapters, all of the required thriller elements are in place: a competent man with a dangerous history, a damsel-in-distress with more than a few skills, an unusual MacGuffin, shadowy organizations with immense resources at their disposal, and enough wheels-within-wheels to ensure copious crossfire. Add to that some SF elements to juice up the action sequences, setting and stakes, and you’ve got all that’s required for a terrific piece of entertainment.
But SF thrillers are a dime a dozen on the shelves. Some argue that they’re one of the dominant forms of the genre. What sets The Android’s Dream apart from the rest?
Part of it is the humour. Despite the high stakes, character deaths and implacable opponents, The Android’s Dream keeps things as light and breezy as they need to be. The tone is set by the book’s now-infamous first paragraph (“Dirk Moeller didn’t know if he could fart his way into a major diplomatic incident. But he was ready to find out.”) and if the end result isn’t quite so ridiculous, the novel lives up to this promising start.
The quality of the writing is also tied to the novel’s easygoing tone. Scalzi has a good pen for amusing banter (especially between his romantic leads) and his prose manages the impressive feat of balancing both the humour and the suspense that are essential to this type of novel. A technique that he uses to good effect is to introduce a character and then unwrap his past history from the deadpan perspective of an omniscient narrator: It works better than you’d think at generating both the laughs and the background exposition.
For some reason (maybe the high-density dialogue), I kept picturing the book as a big-budget action film: Sequences like the “Arlington Mall” chapters have the feel of a purely cinematographic action sequence, down to the obvious set-up and the wisecracks. Even the omniscient unwrapping of characters kept reminding me of a certain post-RUN LOLA RUN school of collage film-making. (I also flashed back on THE FIFTH ELEMENT during the cruise starship sequence, but that’s just me: in terms of allusions, the title of the book itself is a better subject of contemplation.)
As a piece in Scalzi’s career so far, The Android’s Dream fits comfortably next to Agent to the Stars and his two other military-SF novels: The pacing is similar, the humour is in the same vein and the accessibility of Scalzi’s fiction carries through even as Scalzi refines his prose style. You could give The Android’s Dream to a non-SF reader and they wouldn’t have any trouble parsing the content: While this may not give jaded SF readers their jolt of rarefied sense-of-wonder, it will work well on a wide variety of readers. The “Scalzi brand” is taking shape: solid Science Fiction entertainment that clearly works well within the protocols of the genre, while remaining accessible to readers who may not have dedicated the past decades of their live reading SF. Not only does the genre need new writers like John Scalzi, it needs more of them.