Agent to the Stars

by John Scalzi

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2005
Printing: December 2010
ISBN: 0-7653-5700-3
Format: Mass market
Pages: 385

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Tom Stein is a hot Hollywood agent, negotiating contracts and babysitting (mostly babysitting) a stable of quirky and often dysfunctional actors and actresses. He's just landed the biggest contract of his career, representing a currently-hot actress for a summer blockbuster role, when he's called into his boss's office and presented with a special client: the Yherajk, aliens who look like a blob of goo and smell like rotting fish. They want to reveal their presence to the world, and they want Tom to convince the world they're friendly and don't warrant panic.

Agent to the Stars was John Scalzi's first novel, originally written just to see if he could write a novel and released for free on his web site in 1999. After Old Man's War was a hit, it was released as a limited edition from Subterranean Press, and then finally in trade paperback and mass market editions by Tor starting in 2008, once Scalzi's popularity had been well-established.

This is, therefore, a very early novel by a writer who subsequently became popular, and I think it's worth being aware of that going in. While it doesn't have the typical first novel problem of having too many ideas for its length, it does have uneven pacing and a bit of trouble bringing its plot together in a coherent form. The aliens are also, well, not alien, despite attempts to show their mental and physical adaptability, emphasize smell as a sense, and add some alien ethical questions.

That said, anyone who follows Scalzi's blog will immediately notice his sense of humor in Agent to the Stars. That's a good reason to spend some time with a book. It doesn't always work, but there's some great banter. The first-person protagonist shares Scalzi's gentle self-deprecation and use of humor to defuse tense situations, which makes a character who could otherwise come off as a sleaze considerably more appealing.

For the first half of this book, it seems like it's going to be a humorous romp, supported in large part by outrageous stories about Stein's other clients and the alien Joshua's random observations on humanity. However, it suddenly becomes much more serious about halfway through the book, taking an abrupt dive into mortality, individuality, and (of all things) the Holocaust, although the latter is the subject material for a serious film and only discussed indirectly. At first, I found this a bit off-putting; the cast up to that point was not particularly serious and the tone shift is rather abrupt. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it fit. It's exactly the sort of shift that Hollywood does: turning from the ridiculous antics of overpaid starlets to serious artistic investigations of history and morality on a dime, frequently involving the same people. I don't think the pivot is as smooth as it could have been, but there were moments towards the end of the book that were genuinely moving. (And Scalzi made an excellent choice to convey parts of the end of the book as a series of newspaper excerpts rather than a narrative.)

This is not one of Scalzi's best books, and I wouldn't go out of my way to track it down, but I enjoyed reading it. I think it's a bit long and tends to wander in the middle, and some of the humor seems inappropriate and forced after the tone change happens, but it's worth sticking with it for the ending. Fans of Scalzi's blog will appreciate the sense of humor, which comes through more clearly here than in his more serious space opera. And if you're willing to read it in a web browser, you can still read the whole novel for free online, although I much prefer having a paperback in my hands.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-12-26

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