REVIEW SUMMARY: Another fun read from Scalzi.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Harry Creek must prevent an interstellar war by providing a sheep to an alien race.
PROS: Immersive; clear writing style; well-executed humor; highly entertaining.
CONS: Somewhat slow beginning.
BOTTOM LINE: Fans of Scalzi’s previous work won’t be disappointed.
When I read John Scalzi’s debut novel, Old Man’s War, an obvious homage to Heinlein’s juvenile stories, I thought he did an excellent job but secretly wondered if the Heinlein nod acted as a crutch to prop up the writing. (What, you weren’t wondering the same thing?) However, I also deeply enjoyed the sequel, The Ghost Brigades, which was a departure from the previous book’s formula and wisely so; it showed that there was some real talent there after all. His latest is The Android’s Dream and I think I can safely say that Scalzi’s writing style not only aims to entertain but it also hits the mark.
The events of The Android’s Dream might be what you’d find in an Elmore Leonard novel if he were to write a science fiction story with Keith Laumer in Reteif mode – which is to say that it is equal parts crime story, diplomatic drama, political intrigue and science fiction adventure. To prevent an interstellar war after a most unfortunately foul diplomatic incident, the government of Earth must produce a certain strain of sheep to the alien Nidu for use in a time-honored coronation ceremony. They turn to Harry Creek, an ex-cop, war hero and hacker who now works as a diplomat in the capacity of bearer of bad news. Harry, enlisting the aid of an artificial intelligence based on his childhood friend, sets out to find the rare sheep but is soon besieged by mercenaries, aliens and the members of a religion based on the scheming writings of a long-dead science fiction author. (Despite the obvious reference of the title to Philip K. Dick, the con game played by fictional writer M. Robbin Dwellin that accidentally forms a religion [Welcome to The Church of the Evolved Lamb!] echoes L. Ron Hubbard as well. My lawyers advise against any further comment on that observation.)
But The Android’s Dream isn’t so much concerned with literary allusions. This is one of those books that makes science fiction fun (an observation I also noted with Chris Roberson’s Paragaea). It’s fun because within the book’s easily-digested pages you get cool things like interstellar travel, several alien races described in detail, cool technology (for example, organic nanobot spy tech that avoids detection), logical extrapolations and artificial intelligence. There also a good helping of action scenes to keep our stalwart hero on his toes and a dash of drama in Harry’s war-torn past. Together these elements immerse you into the setting and take you along for the ride.
One of the admiring traits that shows itself – here as well in his previous books and his enormously popular blog – is how much the author himself likes the material, the writing process, or both. The whip-smart writing exudes his enjoyment in such a way that almost guarantees the reader will take pleasure in the story as well. It shows in the characters’ snarky attitudes, their realistic everyday dialogue and in the well-placed humor. Humor is hard to do well; it has to be natural, non-intrusive and funny at the same time. Scalzi pulls it off exceptionally well.
Just about the only misgivings I had have to do with pacing in the first quarter of the book, as if the author was waiting until all plot elements were firmly in place before he really shifted into high gear. There were many, many points in the story – especially in that first quarter – where plot advancement nearly stopped in favor of a mini-infodump that conveyed one back story or another. Most of these proved to be entertaining pit stops, to be sure, but the effect was that it paled in comparison to the later three-fourths, where scenes were more of the page-turning variety.
Overall, The Android’s Dream was a lot of fun to read. You won’t hear any complaints from me if Scalzi decides to write a sequel.