For various reasons that I won’t go into (although I’ll probably clarify later), I don’t usually write here about audiobooks. For some reason, I feel uncomfortable writing about books I haven’t read with my own very eyes as if I’m doing some essential disservice to the principles if I critique writing I haven’t seen for myself. Some may argue that the medium doesn’t significantly alter the reading experience because, in the end, the author’s words are still being conveyed, even if in a slightly different form. Others might claim that the book’s narration style profoundly impacts how it is received, and thus audiobooks should be entirely separated from books in general.
To all those people, I can only say they should continue to enjoy their debates. However, I’m here to talk about literature, and I don’t care about the method as long as it results in enjoyment. Nevertheless, I won’t ignore the elephant in the room, so a significant portion of this review will focus specifically on this book’s “audio” aspect.
So, if we may finally start after this long introduction, today we are talking about “Agent to the Stars,” the first novel written by science fiction author John Scalzi (known for “Old Man’s War” and “Redshirts”). Originally published for free in his (excellent) blog in 1997, it was acquired by the (also excellent, I must add) Tor Books only 11 years later, and it was released as an audiobook towards the end of 2010.
The book’s protagonist is Tom Stein, a young and promising Hollywood agent hired by a race of friendly aliens to represent them and plan their introduction to human society. Tom, who has worked with quite a few eccentric celebrities and has seen a thing or two in his life, finds himself dealing with challenging (and sometimes amusing) situations he never could have anticipated. Those with a keen eye might even find between the lines a light satirical critique of humanity and its relationships with itself and the environment.
That’s more or less the story, if I were to summarize it in two sentences. But there’s much more to it. Scalzi could have stuck to the framework story and the entertaining anecdotes he provides, but a talented writer like him cannot help but expand the world beyond the macro, so even if we don’t delve too far to the left or to the right during this short novel, the reader (or in my case, the listener) gets the feeling that there are characters with depth, with a personal history, even if it’s not explicitly explored in the story. This is especially the case when examining the main characters in the book. Other characters seem entirely flat, just like the Hollywood cliché they represent. I don’t know if this was intentional or Scalzi simply lacked the energy to develop these characters, but the lack of depth was particularly noticeable and, in some cases, it could have been improved.
I’m not sure if this book is more science fiction, satire, or just an interesting thought exercise. But what’s certain is that it’s an enjoyable work of fiction. My life hasn’t changed because of this book; my worldview and personal ethics remain intact, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget it, unlike the dozens, if not hundreds, of books I can’t even remember if I’ve read or not (the answer is usually yes). And that’s something. Because even if this book won’t win its author a Nobel Prize, it has something slightly different about it, something light-hearted and self-aware, and most importantly, it shows glimpses of John Scalzi’s burgeoning talent, which would later come to fruition in “Old Man’s War.”
I listened to the book narrated by Wil Wheaton, whom you may not remember from the movie “Stand by Me,” where he played Gordie Lachance, the main character of the movie and the one through whose eyes the story is told. You may also recall him from the TV series “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” where he played Wesley Crusher, the young teenager who irritated Jean-Luc Picard in the first season but later joined the crew of the Starship Enterprise. We’ll ignore his guest appearances in “The Big Bang Theory.”
I don’t remember many of Wheaton’s acting skills in front of the camera, at least not from his later, more adult days on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” but he’s one of the more enjoyable narrators I’ve had the pleasure of listening to since I caught the audiobook bug. I don’t know if he can sustain the reading of a dense, multi-character epic, but for short and entertaining books, his delivery is perfect.
The main drawback of this book is that it’s too short. That is, it’s not too short, and it would probably start to lose some of its charm if it were longer, but listening to this audiobook was so enjoyable that I was genuinely saddened when it ended. In short, it’s a fantastic book that will help you pass a few hours.
Four talking dogs and one completely transparent spaceship.
Agent to the Stars / John Scalzi / Subterranean Press
If you don’t already have a subscription to Audible (Amazon’s audiobook service), you can click here on this link and sign up for a free trial month, during which you will receive two free books – any book from their catalog without restrictions. Yes, including this book.
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