Friday, February 08, 2008

Book review of John Scalzi "Android's Dream"

Many people post book reviews on their blogs, but I usually post reports on reading group discussions. In my general opinion, a survey of what a bunch of people said about a book is more informative than my opinion alone. While it is often true, sometimes we have discussions that are not very informative. This usually happens when instead of analyzing a book in depth, people chat about various cute, trivial bits of it that they liked. (Usually it happens with books that are not very deep themselves. :-)) As a result I sometimes look at the discussion report and realize it contains no clue whether a particular novel is worth reading. So once in a while I'll haughtily assume that my own opinion may be more informative than a survey of others' opinions. Today is one of such days, and John Scalzi's "Android's Dream" is one of those books.

I got started on this book in a skeptical frame of mind. The cover blurb clearly showed this lighthearted space romp did not exemplify "literature of ideas", the kind of SF I like best. Indeed, if you check out its summary on Amazon --

"An interstellar scandal explodes when a human diplomat assassinates an alien diplomat by farting at him, albeit using a scent-emitting communicator. To forestall interspecies war, the government enlists former war hero and current uberhacker Harry Creek. His mission: to placate the aliens by finding a unique form of sheep used in the aliens' upcoming coronation ritual."

it becomes obvious that the value of this novel lies mostly in the humor. The fact that it opens with a very elaborate fart joke also didn't encourage me to read further. The only reason I read it was because John Scalzi is the Guest of Honor at the upcoming ArmadilloCon.

But I liked it! It's a really fun book. There is humor, there are unexpected plot twists, there is irony, there is neat technological trivia. Scalzi very humorously merges the familiar with the alien, the mundane with the high-tech. Harry Creek and his damsel-in-distress Robin escape the Earth on a cruise liner; later, its endless buffets, slow elevators, plush lounges and obnoxious picture-snapping tourists provide a comical backdrop for our protagonists' fight against lizard-like alien marines.

Then there is the way kosher laws provide inspiration for the legal argument that established Robin's citizenship status. That was a brilliant, or at least a very funny, twist. Using something so quaint and irrational as kosher laws to make an argument about legal implications of genetic engineering, is an example of what makes this book more than a source of cheap chuckles.

Neither the humor, nor suspense abates until the very few last pages. This thriller did a very good job in keeping me guessing how Creek and Robin are going to get out of all the tight spots they found themselves in.

By the way, it's not for nothing that I called Robin a damsel in distress. That's one real issue I take with this book. While Robin is tough, spunky, witty and unflappable, she does not have an independent role in the book. She just goes along for a ride with Harry, who calls all the shots. Her only purpose of existence is to be rescued by him. It's a bit of a throwback to how women used to be portrayed in SF of a less enlightened era.

Other than that, it's a really fun read.

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