Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Continuing to read John Scalzi

After reading Lock In, by John Scalzi, for high school book club, and then Fuzzy Nation just because I liked the title, I was stymied; I wanted to read Scalzi's series that all takes place on the same timeline in the same universe, but it begins with the book Old Man's War, and both of the library's copies are lost. (They have been reordered, never fear.) So I went and read other things, and then came back to see if there was another stand-alone that I might enjoy while I wait for OMW to arrive and be catalogued. There were two!

My first choice was Redshirts, and it was a delight. It is almost impossible to reveal anything about the plot of this book, because it completely ruins the gradual realization of what's happening. But I can provocatively describe it for you as a combo of Star Trek (the kitschy original TV series), Galaxy Quest (the movie that parodies Star Trek), and The Truman Show, if you can imagine. And the resolution of the crazy plot in the three Coda chapters at the end was my favorite part. If you insist on knowing more about it before opting to read it, you can go back to a review by Daryl that we published on this blog when the book was first released.

After that, I picked up The Android's Dream. The initial set-up is straight science fiction: The Earth is in a confederation with many alien races, with humans pretty far down on the status totem pole. There has just been an international incident in which a human diplomat initiates events that end up killing his Nidu counterpart, and now, to make amends to the Nidu government, Harry Creek (a low-level State Department flunkie with interesting hidden talents) has been tasked to find the one thing that will placate the Nidu and keep them from declaring war on Earth: a sheep. It's a rare breed of sheep, called the Android's Dream, that they need for their coronation ceremony; and though in theory it should be relatively easy to find one, in practice someone else has anticipated Harry's need and is obliterating all specimens before he can acquire one. He finds himself up against at least two (and possibly more) shadowy entities determined that he will fail of his quest, and all he has to bring against them is an attractive pet store owner, an unusual artificial intelligence, and some unwitting military allies from his past...

There are lots of things you can say about books—you can laud the lyrical writing, or compliment the well fleshed-out characters, you can cite the lightning-fast excitement of the pacing—but I would like to pay this book an ultimate compliment: It was one of the most sheerly entertaining books I have ever read. The turn of every page, the beginning of each chapter, led to a more improbable, more hilarious, more ominous, more engaging next one, and it didn't falter once, beginning to end.

It had just enough science in its science fiction to keep things on an intelligent, brain-challenging level; it had just enough philosophy and politics to start you thinking about the what-ifs of human interactions when they are backgrounded by relations with more powerful (and possibly more devious) alien races; it had action, violence, a little romantic intrigue, and a pace that never let up. And I can picture Scalzi's entertainment quotient as he sat at his computer making up the appearances, characteristics, and foibles of all his aliens, let alone naming them. The best and most hilarious was the concept that Takk, a truly fearsome giant hairy guy who eats people, was able to justify his actions because of being on his race's/religion's equivalent of rumspringa. (Rumspringa is a period of adolescence in the life of Amish youth in which they are allowed to experience the pleasures of the outside world without guilt, before making their final decision about whether to remain Amish or leave their community permanently.)

I couldn't give a better commendation than to say that this book is the more macho but equally hilarious equivalent to Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog, of which it reminded me more than once with the audacious improbability of its turns of events.

For those who think the title sounds vaguely familiar, you're right: It is an homage to the famous novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by the inimitable Philip K. Dick, that was the basis for the movie Blade Runner. This book is not really like that one, being partially about literal sheep (or their DNA), but it's smart, funny, and entertaining, nonetheless. My one quibble was that the cover designer paid more homage to the original book than to the contents of this one, with the result that it has an illustration of a robot (not an android) dreaming of sheep. Since there is nary an android (nor a robot) in this book, I made up my own cover instead.

And now, I have to find something else to read until Old Man's War finally becomes available!

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