Redshirts wasn't in stock Tuesday, and Kobo's DRM shenanigans made me loath to purchase the ebook despite my shiny new tablet. Fortunately, I had already borrowed The Android's Dream from the library. I try to pace myself between books by the same author, but in this case I suppose I'm making an exception. Not that I mind in John Scalzi's case.
The Android's Dream is what I would call clever but zany SF. It's about the race against time to find a breed of sheep to prevent a diplomatic investment from erupting into all-out war with an alien species. The key here is the mundane nature of the quest object, combined with the human fallibility and craziness of the good guys and the bad guys. While the stakes are the usual "survival of humanity" thing, the major plot twists are almost always the result of mundane actions or coincidences. As a result, the book manages to be humorous without, for the most part, overstepping itself.
Reading this so soon after reading Old Man’s War was an interesting experience, because in both books Scalzi depicts humans as a species among many in the galaxy. In this book, Earth and its few colonies are members of the Common Confederacy, which is exactly what it sounds like. In Old Man’s War the galaxy is a little more overtly hostile, and that kind of alliance doesn’t seem to exist—indeed, Earth itself is a lot less relevant to human society in that book. Although I love watching authors build their worlds (or in this case, universes) through successive books, it’s also gratifying when an author shows he or she can build entirely different universes as well.
Yet the different details do not diminish Scalzi’s particular way of constructing aliens or portraying human–alien interaction. Firstly, he’s fond of very creative (albeit predominantly humanoid) alien physiology, and his cultures are quite distinct as well. This creativity leads to a tendency to show off, through digressions, worldbuilding that isn’t all that essential to the story (e.g., the explanation about the Kathungi). In some books this would be a death knell—Scalzi’s saving grace is that, despite his tendency to ramble, when he decides it’s time for an action scene, he delivers an action scene.
From mall shootouts to battles with alien marines inside a cruise spaceship, there is no shortage of such scenes in The Android’s Dream. Scalzi maintains a fine balance between skill and luck when it comes to his protagonists getting out of (or into) scrapes and threatening situations. The bad guys are very competent (and it’s hilarious when they realize that they’ve been so successful in stirring up trouble they might actually have started a war). And there are several levels of antagonists to contend with: beyond the obvious ones, we eventually learn about deeper plots that are coming to fruition after decades of work. So it would be fair to say The Android’s Dream is an often light, action-packed thriller of a novel—but that would ignore how tightly and carefully plotted it is. There’s more going on here than just shoot ’em up scenes (though they are there!).
I love Scalzi’s characters, although I can see why some people complain they tend to sound the same. His default characterization mode is “sassy” or some subtle gradation thereof, so when characters begin making quips their individual attributes tend to blur. But Harold Creek is a very different protagonist from John Perry. He’s much less of a Mary Sue, fortunately—ultimately, as his best plans come apart the seams, help arrives from a timely ally that provides enough information to concoct a last-ditch plan.
Curiously, the cast is almost entirely male. Robin Baker is the only main female character, and the number of minor female characters is paltry indeed. Now, I don’t consciously tally up the ratio of male to female characters when I read books, but I notice when it’s really uneven—especially in books by authors who are otherwise quite outspoken about gender equity, as is the case with Scalzi. I’m not sure what happened here, but it’s a little disappointing that there aren’t any other interesting women in this book except for Robin.
That being said, she’s pretty cool. To be honest, I like her even better than Creek. Creek is capable—but he’s just like every other highly-skilled protagonist out there: little bit detective, little bit rock and roll. Scalzi writes him well, but there’s nothing new to see. Robin, on the other hand, is an interesting combination. Sarcastic by nature, she seems to take a lot of what happens to her in stride. But at certain points in the book, it becomes painfully obvious she’s really just coping, running on physical and psychological adrenaline (so to speak) until she can sit down and work through all of the revelations thrust upon her. Robin, as the asset, is someone not of Creek’s shadow world, pulled out of her depth and into something far bigger than she ever expected to experience. It’s cool to watch her grow and start owning that.
I’m ambivalent about the climax. In many ways, I prefer the tight direction of The Android’s Dream over the somewhat meandering Old Man’s War. Unfortunately, the climax hinges on a technicality, an “oh, by the way,” revealed through some exposition just prior to its execution. I loved the ride all the way, from the opening line up to the very end, but the ending itself leaves much to be desired.
The Android’s Dream confirms that, at least with my sense of humour, Scalzi’s a great contemporary writer. He knows how to make science-fiction a tool for compelling stories rather than a soapbox or a paint-by-numbers canvas of tropes. Sometimes I think he gets a little carried away with the clever nuances of his plots … but I can forgive that, just like I can forgive any number of little glitches, because his style is smooth and his writing is just good.