Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

John Scalzi’s Agent to the Stars

Another fine post from guest reviewer Dylan ….

scalziFor us Americans, with Thanksgiving and Black Friday and Cyber Monday (and any other number of ridiculously commercial pseudo-festive event-days that you might be inclined towards) behind us, you would think that the worst of the holiday madness was behind us, too. But we all know that’s not true. No matter where you’re from, the specter of stressful holiday joy is looming just behind the gravy-stained tinsel. Yes, the holiday season is upon us yet again, and with it, as always, comes anxiety.

Whether or not you indulge in Thanksgiving and the post-Thanksgiving week of leftovers, I’m willing to bet you could use a little de-stressing. A helping hand along the way. And for us bibliophiles there is no purer anesthetic than a good book. This, my friends, is a time for guilty pleasure.

I present to you: John Scalzi’s Agent to the Stars.

With this one, I listened to the audiobook, which further enabled me to frantically approach all of the tasks at hand. I listened to it twice. I found it helped to drown out the obsessive and psychosis-inducing 24/7 holiday music. Furthermore, the audiobook, for those interested, is marvelously narrated by Wil Wheaton (of Star Trek fame). A perfect sidekick to holiday mania. That, and a good strong drink. Several strong drinks.

Agent to the Stars is about a junior agent for Hollywood celebrities who is tasked with preparing an alien species for their contact with the human race. It turns out the aliens, called the Yherjak, have been watching Earth for some time, taking in human culture (particularly movies and television), and they are finally ready to make themselves known. The catch? The aliens, while peaceful, witty, and considerate, are foul-smelling, formless blobs. Scalzi describes the Yherjak’s appearance and smell in many colorful ways throughout Agent to the Stars, but my favorite quote is, simply, ‘tuna Jell-O’. The main character, Thomas Stein, is suddenly one of the few people ever to make contact. Combined with his duties of wrangling a small but eccentric array of minor celebrities, Tom has to figure out how best to prep his new and most important client, the Yherjak, for their opening day.

Chaos ensues.

Most of the tension in Agent to the Stars centers around the relationship between a Yherjak named Joshua and Tom Stein. Joshua is witty and acerbic and full of surprises (not to mention alien-related TV and movie quotes). He has a problematically strict code of ethics and a hard-wired sense of uniquely alien morality. He’s claustrophobic and likes hanging out in AOL chatrooms. He has also, it turns out, come to live with Tom Stein while they figure out their plan. One of his secrets is how he got the name Joshua. You’ll have to read the book to figure that one out.

There are no wars, and there is almost no friction between humans and their new alien companions (outside of petty squabbling). Aside from a bloody nose and some minor fighting amongst humans, there is almost no violence whatsoever in this book. If you’re looking for something along the lines of Alien or Independence Day, you’ve come to the wrong book. If I had to pick a television/movie-based analog, it would probably be something like Mork & Mindy or Alf, but those comparisons don’t do Agent to the Stars justice. Overall, I would say that cornball, friendly-alien sitcoms don’t quite have the emotional and satisfying breadth of one of John Scalzi’s works (there are, after all, heavy ethical and philosophical undertones to this book that TV sitcoms generally lack). But that doesn’t keep Agent to the Stars from being hilariously thrilling and delightfully fast-paced. Everything a stress-free guilty pleasure should be. These are good aliens, after all.

There are a few authors I’ve come to implicitly trust (anything by Donna Tartt, Patrick Rothfuss, Neil Gaiman, Cormac McCarthy, for example). John Scalzi is one such author. In fact, he’s just about the only author that I trust who regularly produces lighthearted, fun work like this one. Agent to the Stars is a pleasure from start to finish—a guilty pleasure, at that.

It’s evident from Scalzi’s various novels that he is very much in the entertainment business. A factor that many authors and readers (myself included) tend to forget too easily. Literature is a spectrum: on the one hand we come up with mindless brain-candy like Conan the Barbarian, on the other War and Peace. But that’s just the tip of the metaphorical genre-iceberg. It’s too easy to view fiction as an adverse battle between divisive labels and forget that reading is a complicated and nuanced relationship between reader and writer concerned with (in my opinion) two things, fundamentally: empathy and entertainment. All books encourage empathy with other beings (even smelly blob aliens) by enabling us to enter another life for a while. Good books encourage empathy while entertaining us, or entertain us by encouraging empathy. It’s all subjective, really. I don’t know.

But that leads me back to the point I’m making by recommending John Scalzi’s Agent to the Stars amidst the chaos that is the holiday season. It’s so easy to forget that commercialism is just one side of a spectrum. And you might think that this is the point where I suggest being with your family and enjoying time together and spreading love and cheer to those around you, but I’m not. Instead, I suggest grabbing a copy of Agent to the Stars and heading to your nearest candy cane-proof holiday-bunker. If you absolutely insist on bringing friends and family, make them listen to the audio version while you hide. Don’t worry, Wil Wheaton does funny voices. And then don’t come out. Not until the confetti stops on New Year’s Day. Then, and only then, can you pull your head out from between your legs, crawl out from under your desk, and wander, bleary-eyed, into the holiday wasteland of 2017 to begin rebuilding.

There are more John Scalzi books, after all.

John Scalzi, Agent to the Stars (2005). It’s published by Tor Books in paperback, and in a limited and very rare hardback edition by Subterranean Press. Read the fascinating and encouraging story behind the novel’s publication and gestation here.

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Acknowledgment

  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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