John Scalzi: The Android’s Dream

Review of the novel The Android’s Dream, by John Scalzi.

After finishing John Scalzi’s The Last Colony, I was excited to launch right into this one, which is unrelated to the Old Man’s War trilogy. Unfortunately, The Android’s Dream really wasn’t my cup of tea: It’s a very light action-adventure story with heavy dollops of farce

In the near future, mankind has joined a community of worlds, and one of its closest allies among the many alien races is the caste-bound Nidu, who communicate in part by sense of smell. One human diplomat harbors a long-standing grudge against the Nidu and sparks a diplomatic incident in a first chapter which is basically a long fart joke (with an equally-unfunny aside about meat consumption). Besides just not enjoying the chapter, it made it hard for me to take the rest of the book seriously.

Following that, Secretary of State Jim Heffer and his aide Ben Javna try to find a resolution to the dispute – the Nidu having Earth over a barrel due to the circumstances – and negotiate a deal to try to find a special breed of sheep needed for the upcoming Nidu coronation ceremony. Failure could lead to a breaking of the alliance, a result which some factions on Earth think would be a perfectly fine thing. Javna farms out the sheep-finding job to his friend Harry Creek, a low-level functionary in the government who’s actually a tremendously capable ex-soldier, and who is the book’s protagonist. Creek has the help of a cutting-edge computing resource, and in his search he meets Robin Baker, owner of a pet store with an unexpected relationship to Creek’s search. Creek and Robin are pursued by hired guns whose employers have different designs on the coronation, and there are a couple of other interested parties as well. The problems are solved with a little deus-ex-machina mixed with a little Gordian-knot-slicing.

Some of what I enjoyed about Scalzi’s other books is present here: Creek and Robin facing their pursuers in the middle of a mall is smartly written and inventively engaging. Creek’s background in the army is well-thought-out. The dialogue is sharp.

But the book is weighed down by its many frivolous and farcical elements. The Android’s Dream is filled with the sorts of ridiculous touches which turned me off of books such as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash or Max Barry’s Jennifer Government: The extreme conclusion of mixing our meat-consuming culture with our conservationist attitudes; a church created as a scam and self-consciously maintained in that spirit (sort of the anti-Scientologists); the endless parade of rather silly aliens. It all feels more dreary than funny.

Scalzi also employs the time-worn technique of giving many of the major characters – as well as the Church of the Evolved Lamb – a lengthy expository aside in which their backstory and motivations are explained, often for humorous effect. For some reason, this technique never works for me: The backstory, even if relevant, feels extraneous, and also falls into the trap of being a big “tell-don’t-show” exercise.

And, I was disappointed that, well, there isn’t anything in the book about androids dreaming; the title refers to the breed of sheep that everyone’s trying to find. (The cover features sheep, although it also features an android. It really has almost nothing to do with the story, and thus seems a little misleading.) Of course, the title plays off the title of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and some have said that the book has some stylistic similarities to Dick. I’ve only read a little of Dick’s writing (The Man in the High Castle and A Scanner Darkly), neither of which I enjoyed, so that’s not a selling point for me.

The book moves along fairly well after getting through the first several chapters, which set up the scenario and introduce Creek and his world, but the story just didn’t work for me. I really wanted to like this book, having enjoyed the Old Man’s War series as much as I have. But those books feature a light, bantering narrative set against a serious background with serious themes, while this book was a veneer of serious story set against a mostly-silly background with few serious themes. Not my thing.