Review – Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi

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cover of the limited signed hardcover edition from Subterranean Press
cover of the limited signed hardcover edition from Subterranean Press

Agent to the Stars is the debut novel by John Scalzi, better known as the author of Old Man’s War and its various sequels. I reviewed a print edition for Vector #260, Summer 2009, but the author long ago made the text itself freely available here. So, is a book which costs you nothing worth the time it takes to read? Here is a revised version of my review of the 2008 paperback:

Agent to the Stars was written as a ‘practice novel’. John Scalzi explains the background in detail on the page linked to above. In part he says, ‘In the summer of 1997, I was 28 years old, and I decided that after years of thinking about writing a novel, I was simply going to go ahead and write one. … In sitting down to write the novel, I decided to make it easy on myself. I decided first that I wasn’t going to try to write something near and dear to my heart, just a fun story. …’

Eventually Scalzi posted the story online as a shareware novel and enough people liked it to pay for a ‘laptop and a lot of pizzas’. Now if you know Scalzi from Old Man’s War then you may be in for a surprise. Agent to the Stars is far removed from his post-Heinlein space opera, being a social comedy set mostly in contemporary Hollywood.

Thomas Stein is a junior agent at a powerful Hollywood agency. We meet him as he makes the biggest deal of his career, a $12.5 million contract for film star ascendant Michelle Beck to reprise her role in the sequel to SF smash hit Murdered Earth. Immediately afterwards the head of the agency gives Tom the most important assignment of his career; to prepare the ground for the introduction of a genuinely alien race to the world. The Yherajk have picked up earth’s TV signals and come to visit in a hollowed-out asteroid / spaceship, and having watched decades of American TV they have decided the way to introduce themselves is via Hollywood. Their rationale is that US presidents are scary and only speak for one country, but everyone loves Hollywood and the global language of the movies and American TV. So naturally our aliens need an agent give introduce them to humanity and make sure they get the right sort of publicity; they are well-aware there are far more movies about hostile aliens than friendly ones. And the Yherajk are friendly and highly ethically advanced. They also have an image problem.

They look like The Blob from the old Steve McQueen movie

The-Blob-1958
The Blob fancies a night out at the movies

Scalzi takes this knowingly silly set-up and develops it as realistically as the material permits, even down to the sort of coincidences we expect to find in real life but consider implausible in fiction. Many chapters have little to no SF content and deal with Tom’s travails with his clients, most of whom are either stupid, unpleasant, or both. One sub-plot involves Michelle (25, blond, beautiful, dumb but nice) and her misguided obsession with getting the ‘Meryl Streep’ part – a middle-aged dark-haired Jewish intellectual – in a big Holocaust drama tipped as an Oscar contender even before it is made.

What happens when people see The Blob - not the reaction the Yherajk are hoping for
What happens when people see The Blob – not the reaction the Yherajk are hoping for

Scalzi writes with a wry humour, affectionately parodying Hollywood mores and stereotypes.I don’t know how accurate a portrayal of life in a Hollywood agency Agent to the Stars is, but it feels real, if exaggerated slightly to comic effect. The dialogue is reasonably sharp, characters ditto, and the plot moves along nicely. Large parts of the novel will appeal as much to those interested in the workings of the film industry as in SF. Fortunately there is a considerable  overlap, and Scalzi exploits this as the two main parts of his story weave together.

mass market paperback cover
mass market paperback cover

Bar an Oscar-night finale it is all rather low key for a first contact story. There’s a little romance, adventure, comedy, spectacle, satire, and a bit with a dog (which Shakespeare in Love argued was indispensable). Agent to the Stars is disposable, cynical fun with a big heart. Never likely to be an award winner, it could make a good popcorn movie. It’s very Hollywood. Scalzi’s agent is probably making the deal right now. Anyway, give it a read. Far more expensive books have provided me with far less pleasure.

 

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