The Android's Dream by John Scalzi
In recent years, some science fiction authors have drawn inspiration from thrillers, spy novels, and detective novels. Charles Stross has combined Len Deighton's world-weary spies with Lovecraftian horrors from beyond. Tim Powers has written two fabulous books that read as if John le Carré had developed an interest in the supernatural. Now John Scalzi has joined Powers and Stross, though his new book, The Android's Dream, is more Carl Hiaasen than Robert Ludlum.
In the nearish future, Earth is part of a large confederacy of aliens. Humans are weak politically and militarily, ranking near the bottom of nations in Common Confederation. Our closest ally is the Nidu, a race that communicates in part through smell. After one of their diplomats dies in an unfortunate flatulence-related incident, the Nidu threaten war. To prevent it, Earth must deliver a type of electric-blue gene-engineered sheep known as The Android's Dream. Earth had originally given The Android's Dream sheep to the Nidu as a coronation gift. Now, however, all of The Android's Dream sheep are dead or dying, and the next coronation is imminent.
Enter Harry Creek, a programmer-turned-soldier-turned-cop-turned-bureaucrat. Harry is given the task of locating and securing a sheep for the Nidu. Before long he is part of an unlikely team that includes both an intelligent software agent and a pet store owner named Robin Baker. Complicating things are political factions whose members hate the Nidu and want to see the upcoming coronation fail, a church that bears a passing resemblance to Scientology, various aliens, and a spaceship full of human veterans from Earth's most disastrous off-planet military battle.
The story's complications are the engine driving the book forward. The first portion of the book sets up the Rube Goldberg-like plot; after that slower first act, all hell breaks loose. The resulting chaos is entertaining. There are surprises throughout -- indeed, early on, there is a twist at the end of nearly every chapter -- and yet they do not feel cheap or tacked on. More impressive, everything comes together in a fitting climax. At no time did I feel the heavy hand of the author forcing characters into situations.
This is a deeply funny book. I don't often laugh out loud at books, but there were several points in The Android's Dream where I couldn't help but do so. The writing is sharp and the characterization often funny. This is not satire, nor is it the low-rent version of parody where labels are swapped but nothing else is changed, resulting in companies like Wal*Porium appearing. Instead, Scalzi has amplified the characteristics of people and their institutions, and then let everyone carom off of each other. The political scheming is like that seen in the US government, only with the meanness turned down.
That's not to say that the book is without seriousness. For one, there are two fight scenes that are most definitely not played for laughs. The fight set in a mall is especially inventive, and heralds the novel's shift into high gear. For another, characters do die. The novel's stakes are high, and there are real consequences to people's actions.
My primary complaint with The Android's Dream is about the protagonist. The earlier reference to Ludlum was not an accident, as Ludlum's Jason Bourne was ridiculously competent. Harry Creek is like that, only more so. He is a computer genius who has made a major breakthrough that he hasn't publicized, and he's a veteran whose actions earned him a Distinguished Service Cross, and he's so conscientious that, since he felt he didn't deserve it, he never accepted the medal. Oh, and he's still fantastic at hand-to-hand combat years after he left the military and stopped being a policeman. Despite all of that, Harry is still a believable person, and his hyper-competence ends up serving the story's needs. For that, I can put aside my personal dislike of such paragons.
The Android's Dream is a galloping caper that is very funny and very satisfying. Often caper books fall apart at the end, the plot flying apart from the stress of all of its complications. Thankfully, The Android's Dream avoids ending with a whimper. Watching all of the plot threads wind back together into an integrated whole is delightful. By combining a tight ending with sympathetic characters and sharp, funny writing, The Android's Dream delivers top-notch entertainment.
The Android's Dream by John Scalzi