Fiction Reviews

Android's Dream

(2006) John Scalzi, Tor (US), 6.99 / Can$8.99 / US$6.99, pbk, 396 pp, ISBN 978-0-765-34828-9

In this comedy adventure, a human diplomat kills a visiting Nidu alien diplomat in mid negotiations for a major treaty. Coincidentally the Nidu leader died a couple of weeks earlier. Now, the Nidu's ceremony of handing over of power contains subtleties to ensure that the heir is one of the right clan. As such this particular up-coming ceremony includes the sacrifice of a special, and rare 'Android's Dream' breed of sheep from Earth. And so the hunt is on for such a sheep to give to the Nidu. Complicating matters is that one agency of the Earth government was actually behind the Nidu diplomat's death as they wanted to impede negotiations (though the death itself was an accident), while another agency is trying to sort matters out. And so Harry Creek, working for the latter, has his work cut out for him. He needs help and so constructs the first real artificial intelligence from the brain recordings of an old friend. Then it is a race to find an Android's Dream sheep in time for the ceremony...

Now John Scalzi is known for his Hugo nominated novel Old Man's War. That was a military SF tale somewhat in the Heinlein vein together with a dash of Haldeman. Android's Dream is more slapstick SF comedy and as such is quite a different style with only hard SF and space opera elements being common to both. In short it is not at all similar.

Now humour is an individual thing and whether Android's Dream is your cup of tea may well be down to two main things. First, your taste in humour, and secondly, your nationality.

Taking the type of humour first. Android's Dream begins with a fart joke: the Nidu aliens use smells to impart nuance to communication and an Earth diplomat inserts a device into his rectum to generate odours that impart an offensive message to the Nidu but which are largely unnoticeable to humans and other Nidu who are less sensitive. All well and good and if you like a fart joke then this is there with the best of them. Indeed fart jokes are not to be sniffed at: some brilliant humorists have used them such as the Goons and Monty Python. However, while a raspberry at the right place can provide emphasis and punctuate humour, a fart joke that goes on and on for a whole chapter may for some be over-egging it just a tad: and here you will appreciate there is nothing worse than an eggy woofer. Scalzi devotes the entire 18-page first chapter to his fart joke and so you really had better like such humour. If you do you'll be in heaven. The book's humour also depends on the ludicrous nature of the situation on one hand juxtaposed with its seriousness in the form of the fate of humanity within the Galactic community. In this sense the humour is similar to that of science fantasist Robert Rankin gone hard-SF (see Concat's SF book review list) but without his toot (craic). What it means is that you do need to get a fair way into the novel before it begins to make some sort of coherent sense: such is the considerable preparatory groundwork to be covered. However, with such humorous novels a good one will at least deliver in its second half and something will carry you through the first half's establishing set-up.

The second factor in humour is often nationality. Now I have a feeling (as a regular SF reader) that this novel is packed with references of which the most obvious to genre readers is to Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, but I sense there were others but, as someone hailing from the British Isles, I may have missed them if they had US and North American origins. What this means is, that unless you really are on Scalzi's wavelength, this first half of the book may not at all speak to you. Furthermore, notwithstanding any cultural references, the book is very US centric: the Earth's government is effectively taken as the US government; the humans are all American as are the Earthbound locations, indeed Disney World is cited as being the happiest place on the planet. Therefore nationality is really a factor in reading this work.

Now it has to be said that apparently the book has gone down rather well in the US and so my reticence about this novel may well be either me or my cultural luggage. If the former then other Brit Cits may surmount the novel's first-half hump. If the latter then may be, like me, they will almost give up. In fact it was only my duty as a reviewer that kept me going mid-book. Fortunately half-way through the novel changes pace beginning with a rather remarkable description of a shoot out in a shopping centre (mall). From then on matters progress reasonably logically, if somewhat predictably given the intricate clockwork mechanism created in the book's first half. In short the novel's latter half saved it for me albeit with little of the sense-of-wonder to be found in Scalzi's Old Man's War series.

As said, the Android's Dream has gone down well in the States. To my knowledge it has not yet come out in the UK though I note that a number of bookshops have stocked it as an import and of course it is available on-line. Also reportedly there is some gossip to suggest that Scalzi will return to this universe again in future novels. Whether Android's Dream or its successor will do so well in Europe I personally cannot say, and by now you will suspect that I have my doubts. But you should not take my word for it as, again as said, humour is a personal thing. So, the first chapter notwithstanding, do not turn your nose up at this one just on my say so.

Jonathan Cowie

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