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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Review: Agent to the Stars

Agent to the Stars is John Scalzi's first novel. Not his first published novel, but his first written novel. In the foreword, Scalzi notes that he wrote it as an exercise to see whether he could indeed write a novel, and never planned to even attempt to publish it. But he had a lot of fun while writing it, and when he was done, sent it around to see whether it could indeed get published. What happened was that it got roundly rejected, and he posted it online for everyone to read. As it happened enough people liked it that he got about $4000 in donations from various folks who enjoyed it.

Naturally, once Old Man's War was published to both commercial success and critical acclaim, a publisher stepped forward to offer to publish this book. Now, if you've read Scott Adam's column in the Wall Street Journal about giving stuff away on the internet, you will see that Adams, who had considerably more clout than Scalzi did, apparently did not negotiate with his publisher to keep his old free blog entries available on the internet, but agreed to take them down. Scalzi, who's probably not in the same category of wealth that Adams is in, apparently thought enough of the internet to keep the product free while betting that the paper product would reach more people and still bring in money. I guess science fiction writers really are a forward thinking bunch of folks who aren't in it all for the money.

How does the novel read? It reads amazingly well. If I ever tried to write a novel, and it turned out of this quality, I would be very pleased with myself, even if it never got sold. The plot of the novel revolves around a Hollywood agent for actors and actresses who has just had the first big break of his career. His boss calls him in and asks him to represent the toughest sell in anyone's career, a bunch of space aliens who have visited the earth, but look like the blob and smell like fart, and want a way to introduce themselves to the Earth's population without immediate assumption of hostilities just based on appearance alone. And of course, who would know how to make a good impression but the best of Hollywood?

The plot unfolds in a straightforward manner, but not without showing off Scalzi's versatility. He can write dialogs, he can write from different perspectives (including the Protagonist's boss), he can write press releases (a whole chapter is written in press release form, which is entertaining), and he can even write funny scenes in a dry, straightforward fashion without giving the impression that he thinks constantly about how smart he is.

A very impressive first novel, and excellent airplane reading. Recommended.

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