Friday, July 13, 2012

My Perfect Vacation Novel

Last week, I headed to Ireland for a wedding and to do a bit of sightseeing--as they say over there, it was "a lovely holiday" (US translation: "a nice vacation").  I drank whiskey, saw a lot of sheep, and saw the spectacular sights along the Antrim Coast.  There were no snags in any of my travel plans, and in fact, my biggest dilemma occurred before I left.

That dilemma was this: What do I bring to read?

I knew that I was faced with about 20 total hours of plane rides, along with several bus and train trips.  I had initially been planning on bringing Stephen King's 11/22/63 along, but when it came time to actually pack it, I had to opt for something smaller--the thought of carrying that hardcover around for a week was a bit daunting.

Instead, I ended up packing a smaller King hardcover (The Wind Through the Keyhole) and 3 paperback novels, including John Scalzi's Agent to the Stars.  I had picked up this novel at Uncle Hugo's bookstore in Minneapolis (a wonderful, yet dangerous store for any scifi/fantasy fan), and it was the book I chose to start my trip with.

It was the perfect choice.
Agent to the Stars tells the story of Thomas Stein, a Hollywood agent who is on the verge of becoming a major power player.  He has just gotten his client, Michelle Beck, a role that pays $12.5 million dollars, solidifying her role as one of the hottest young actresses in the business.

Now, that right there would probably have been enough for me.  I like following Hollywood gossip and fashion, and a novel that follows the career of one of the people who makes things happen would have been interesting and fun.

But, given that this was a John Scalzi novel, there was going to be more to it than that--and in this case, the "more" was that Stein is appointed by his boss to be the agent for a race of aliens named the Yherajk.  The Yherajk are blob-shaped, stinky aliens who have studied humans enough to know that a) they won't go over very well if they just show up and b) Hollywood is the best way to try win over the human race.  So, Stein is faced with the not-enviable task of finding a way to make the Yherajk appealing to humanity, a task that requires secrecy and not a little bit of creativity.

Agent to the Stars hits all the right notes, which I have come to expect from Scalzi's work.  (This novel, incidentally, is the first novel he ever wrote; it was his "practice novel" back in 1997, and it has been updated since then to make the pop culture references more relevant.)  It's light and funny, but intellectually engaging--the very premise of the book cuts to the chase about what's important to Western society, and it doesn't stop there.  The Yherajk that Thomas becomes closest to is named Joshua, and the story of his birth and how he got his name is emotional and touching, all without getting too heavy. 

And while Thomas and his Yherajk compatriots make very interesting, appealing protagonists, the secondary characters carry their own weight, too.  I, for one, would love to read the story of Thomas' grandmother (although that would be a very different sort of novel altogether).

My only complaint is that I didn't buy the ending.  I'm not going to say what happens, because that would give away too many of the twists and turns of the novel, but I will say that the ending assumes something about the way the human race at large would react, and my reaction didn't match up with this assumption.  And so, as a member of the human race, I ended up feeling disconnected and a bit excluded from the events that concluded the novel.  That's not to say they weren't enjoyable or humorous, and to be honest, I'm not sure that it could have been ended in a more satisfactory way.  It just (and this might sound strange, given that it's a scifi novel) didn't seem quite as believable.

Overall, though, it's a fantastic novel, and I'm very glad that Scalzi decided to publish it.  It was the perfect start to a much-needed, wonderful vacation.