Agent to the Stars - John Scalzi This book was selected for the April Read for my book club based on a member's inquiry:

I was thinking earlier today that it's kind of weird how I haven't really seen any major variances from the male/female paradigm in the sci-fi I've seen. Now, I'm not a sci-fi fan and am only recently starting to explore the genre, so it's possible I just haven't seen enough yet. But it seems like usually even if there's really no good reason for a species to fit those categories, they do anyway in some ways.

The Yherajk fit the requirements. They are a species that look like globs of snot and smell horribly (they communicate through scent) and there is no sex or gender distinction between each member of the species. Their reproductive process, as Gwedif, their initial representative describes it, is far more pleasurable and euphoric than anything humans experience during sexual intercourse, because it is far, far more intimate. It involves the complete giving over of one’s self – mind, body and soul – with the resulting offspring being both unique, with its own personality, and also a combination of the parents (of which their can be any number). It will have all the memories and experiences of its parents, but is able to develop its own. Joshua, the Yherajk emissary sent to earth, is the product of 2000 Yherajk and one human – and later a dog, an executive assistant and an actress.

It is possible for a partner in the process to completely destroy any or all of the other partners, obliterating who they are. This is tantamount to murder and raises a huge moral dilemma for the Yherajk and their human contacts later in the story.

The story itself is about a race of aliens who have been watching human television shows and movies for quite some time and wish to become friends with humans. The problem is that, despite the message earth is sending out to space inviting friendly relations with extraterrestrials, the message conveyed through television and film is that almost all aliens will be greeted with fear and violence. Aliens that do not look human at all are automatically assumed to be evil and the only ones with a chance of acceptance are ones that look somewhat human. Based on their viewing, the Yherajk are uncertain of what to take as fact versus fiction, but conclude that this fear is a very real concern. They also conclude that plopping down at the White House is not the best way to make contact because the American presidency is (A) scary, and does not represent or influence the world. Hollywood, however, is international. So their first contact is Carl Lupo, principal of Lupo Associates – a Hollywood agency, who passes the responsibility of figuring out how to introduce the Yherajk to humanity to his junior agent, Tom Stein.

I really did not like Tom. His ‘hot shot agent who takes no shit and isn’t hesitant to be honest and blunt with his clients’ attitude should have been interesting, but I found it rather dull and perhaps trying too hard not to be cliche. If it wasn’t for his literally ass-kicking assistant, Miranda, I would have felt even less for Tom, but even then, I was being lenient because I imagined Miranda as Donna from Suits, who is the newest member of Women I Want To Be When I Grow Up.

Joshua, the Yherajk emissary is initially very amusing with his snarky attitude and occasional television and movie references. I was thankful that those didn’t get over used, but after a while, all the snark and attitude started to drag, with the story going no where fast. That was part of the plot, with Tom having trouble figuring out how to do his job of introducing the Yherajk to earth. Lucky for him, convenient plot devices – mostly in the form of dead people and dogs – showed up at just the right moment to move things along to the next stage in the plot.

I would have liked to spend far more time with the aliens and learning about their understanding of humans. Joshua took on the form of a dog, with the later intention being for him to get a better perspective on humans through interaction, but he didn’t do much interacting at all.

I was also disappointed with the results of the major decision at the end of the book. Through Joshua, the Yherajk were introduced to humanity, but in a way that did not reflect the full scope of human reactions and turned Joshua into a wholly different and unlikeable character. For the most part, humanity was happy with them, despite the deception and what I felt was a rather lame explanation for it, but we didn’t get to hear, even in passing, of any real disagreement with the first contact plans. It was the author’s choice to leave the official first contact up in the air, but I felt the end was almost an rushed afterthought. At one point I wondered if the first contact was even going to happen, with a whole chunk of the focus being on Joshua’s Oscar winning performance in a Holocaust survivor movie.

Understanding John Scalzi’s background in the film industry and as a science fiction writer, I appreciate the entire concept of fitting the two together., but overall, I did not enjoy the delivery of the story, feeling that it dragged more than necessary. I did enjoy the insight into the Hollywood agent industry. The interjections of Holocaust stories was a bit surprising in their continued usage to move the plot along, but the stories themselves in relation to the plot were reasonably interesting.