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Agent to the Stars
John Scalzi
Tor, 365 pages

Agent to the Stars
John Scalzi
John Scalzi was born in 1969. His first job out of college was as a film critic at the Fresno Bee newspaper in California. Since 1998, he has been a full-time freelance writer. As well, he is the Chief Entertainment Media Critic for Official US Playstation Magazine. He lives in the small rural town of Bradford, Ohio with his wife and daughter.

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A review by Michael M Jones

The good news: There's intelligent life out there, and they've come to Earth to meet us. They're friendly, and eager to get to know us.

The bad news: They resemble gelatinous cubes, and communicate amongst themselves by means of odor. In short, they're ugly and smelly. And they've familiarized themselves with our popular culture, and let's face it, the "good" aliens never look like ambulatory Jell-O or smell like wet dog farts in summer.

That's why the Yherajk have decided to do what other people in need of an image makeover do: get a Hollywood agent to make them palatable and acceptable to the public. And that's how up-and-coming Thomas Stein, one of Hollywood's hottest young agents, gets tapped by his boss for the hush-hush project of a lifetime. Introduced to the Yherajk known as Joshua, Thomas is granted carte blanche to drop as many of his client list as he can manage without drawing attention, and focus upon the most unusual client ever to grace Hollywood, all in secret.

Of course, life goes on, and one client Thomas can't drop is one of the biggest starlets around, Michelle Beck, a pain in the ass action heroine better known for her good looks than her acting abilities. She may have just signed on to the next big summer blockbuster for an obscene price tag, but she has ambitions towards (gasp) serious acting, and she's making Thomas's life difficult as a result. Not only does he have to juggle her and Joshua, but he has to navigate the usual shark-infested waters of Hollywood, dealing with rival agents, pesky former clients, and a gossip rag reporter with delusions of serious reporting. As Thomas learns more about his alien client, he stumbles across a plan that might just work, but it's going to take some cooperation, an unexpected sacrifice, and the best negotiating any agent has ever done. Is Hollywood ready for real aliens?

Agent to the Stars, John Scalzi's first written novel and second to be published, has been available in various formats since 1999, but the Tor edition is the first time it has been released in paperback, making this something of a new debut for the book. Thought-provoking and entertaining, it takes a hard look at our own cultural attitudes and prejudices towards that which is alien to us. It's really a great idea, and a logical thing to address, this thought that we naturally make "good" aliens attractive or cuddly and "bad" aliens ugly or unsympathetic. I love the idea that the aliens are friendly and curious enough to want to get to know us, and considerate and cautious enough to seek a makeover before dropping onto the White House lawn. There have been enough first contact stories where the aliens didn't come in peace, or exhibited a superior, even condescending attitude, that it's nice to see aliens who don't want to eat/enslave/destroy/economically exploit us (even if they've seen those Saved By The Bell reruns we keep broadcasting into space...)

If anything, the Yherajk may be too humanized, too culturally adept. But rest assured, there are reasons for that, addressed in the course of the story, and as it so happens, they differ from us on some fairly serious issues. Those differences prove crucial for much of the plot's later development.

The humans of this piece make for a nicely memorable cast. There's Thomas, of course, trying to survive in the treacherous wilds of Hollywood, and his faithful (if long-suffering and occasionally sarcastic) assistant Miranda, who keeps him in his place. There's Michelle Beck, a highly-paid actress who's better off as set decoration, even if her ambitions towards serious acting outstrip her skills. Then you have Jim Van Doren, the afore-mentioned gossip reporter who catches wind of the story that could finally grant him legitimacy... if it doesn't get him punched in the face, first. Scalzi grants them all interesting depths, making for an interesting read.

Thoughtful and down-to-Earth, Agent to the Stars is a thoroughly enjoyable work, reminiscent of Robert A. Heinlein or Spider Robinson, and a nice change of pace from the less optimistic SF out there.

Copyright © 2009 Michael M Jones

Michael M Jones enjoys an addiction to books, for which he's glad there is no cure. He lives with his very patient wife (who doesn't complain about books taking over the house... much), eight cats, and a large plaster penguin that once tasted blood and enjoyed it. A prophecy states that when Michael finishes reading everything on his list, he'll finally die. He aims to be immortal.

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