Book: The Android's Dream by John Scalzi

Imperfect tone, but still good

John Scalzi
The Android's Dream
Tor, 2006
ISBN-13: 978-0-765-30941-9
ISBN-10: 0-765-30941-6
394 pages

Rather unlike his two previous science fiction books, Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades, which were pretty universally praised, John Scalzi's recent book The Android's Dream, has gotten mixed reviews. I'm pretty sure I know why.

The Android's Dream is a semi-comic or occasionally-comic novel. Making a book that has some funny parts and some serious ones work is a pretty serious challenge for an author. In Mr Scalzi's case, the situation isn't made better because tone in which he writes (in general and in the book) isn't particularly well suited to comedy. Here's a bit from a recent blog post of his about bad hamburgers:

    Don't get me wrong, I'm glad Chuck in Chicago enjoys
    his White Castle. I just feel sorry for him that those
    insidious little squares of minced rodent and sawdust
    have so disfigured his tastebuds, so crushed and
    denatured them and inured them to a life of deprivation,
    that when they were confronted with an actual burger, a
    superior burger, his brain simply couldn't decipher their

He's talking about the relative merits of two different kinds of fast-food hamburgers and he uses the rhetorical equivalent of a scorched-earth campaign.

Of course, Mr Scalzi only seems to be taking the matter over-seriously and he's doing that for comic effect. But I've been reading his blog, Whatever, for some time and I have trouble remembering a single instance where he treats a subject with a light touch, whether the subject is funny or not. Probably he's done that a few times that I just don't remember, but as a general rule Mr Scalzi's tone is serious even when he's joking. And comedy usually works better with a light touch.

My guess is that most people who don't enjoy The Android's Dream have trouble with the difference between some pretty funny, even silly, things in the book and the entirely serious narration.

Of course, it's possible that I have a tin ear for tone and and I'm wrong about that. But it seems that if my mind's ear is tin, that fault may be shared. The New York Times's reviewer, Dave Itzkoff (who liked Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades), says of The Android's Dream:

    The book is, I think, supposed to be a sci-fi send-up of the
    standard diplomacy potboiler

and then a little later:

    It's as if Rudyard Kipling woke up one morning and decided
    he wanted to be Benny Hill.

I take those to mean that Mr Itzkoff is not entirely sure that parts of the book is supposed to be funny and that he finds the silly parts jarring. That sounds a lot like the serious tone is putting him off.

That's what I think the book's only serious flaw is. If you can get past it or ignore it, there's a good deal of fun to be had reading The Android's Dream.

Any science-fiction fans worth their salt will know that the "android's dream" of the title must refer to an electric sheep. In this case, an electric blue one. They're found only on earth and one is needed by aliens for an important ceremony. But some people are killing them while other folks are trying to find one alive. The one that can be found doesn't turn out to be just what anyone was expecting. And, of course, the fate of the earth hangs in the balance.

Early in the book, we have a reptilian alien who dies of an aneurism brought on by rage that was provoked by insults in his caste's scent-language. The scent-language was delivered by means of subtly-modified human intestinal gas. An unsympathetic reader might call that a fart joke. A little later, there's a person in charge of a mall amusement area who has occasion to regret handing out special jumping shoes in advance of some customers' turn. And then there's the whole idea of aliens' requiring a blue sheep.

The novel also has serious elements. There's the aftermath and the lessons to be learned from a horrible battle. There's a pretty exciting escape from a spaceship and various other events. All the parts are good fun. If the tone doesn't put you off, the whole can be good fun too.

There appears to be a small editing error. I doubt that Mr Scalzi meant to write:

    Brian the soldier's body flew backward, landing back
    in the grass with a solid thump; two seconds later he
    began to scream." (p. 305)

Posted: Sun - February 11, 2007 at 05:26 PM   Main   Category: