Is there anything more fun than finding a new favorite author? Is there anything more calculated to bring a family together than to have one family member say ‘you guys should read this, you’ll like it,’ and then you all do, and it’s great, and everyone’s all texting and stuff about what we’ve all just read. Thirty years ago, a beloved aunt decided she would drive from Utah to Indiana for my brother’s wedding; I was at BYU, and she invited me to tag along, with another aunt and a cousin. We’re just leaving Provo, and my Aunt Janice says ‘have you guys read any Stephen King?’ And we’re all ‘the schlocky scary guy? No?!?!’ She’s all, ‘you should read him, he’s terrific.’ So we hit a bookstore and bought like six Stephen King novels–all those early classics: Carrie, ‘salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand. It was the funnest, though quietest drive of my life; we shared all the books, and read the whole way, and the biggest drawback was that no one wanted to drive. And I’ve loved Stephen King ever since.
So my daughter Bekka–props to Bekka, everyone!–recommended John Scalzi a few months ago, specifically Red Shirts. And I read it, my wife read it, my son read it–we all couldn’t put it down. And that’s led to a John Scalzi-athon. So my self-appointed task for today is to tell you about his 2006 novel, The Android’s Dream, and to suggest it for your reading pleasure. Like his other works, it’s sci-fi, and like his other works, written in a deceptively breezy voice that masks a serious and thoughtful mind. And that honors the classic figures in sci-fi history. Scalzi’s ‘Old Men’s War’ series–five novels all told, with more to come–is very Heinlein in style and substance. The Android’s Dream is closer to. . . . but let’s see if you can guess.
Because of what do Androids dream? Sheep, obviously; specifically electric sheep. Right? And now if y’all are feeling all smart and all, please, explain the reference to the rest of the class. Here goes:
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a classic 1968 sci-fi novel by Philip K. Dick. It became the basis for a 1982 film by Ridley Scott, Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford. It also became a stage play, which opened in LA last year. The plot involves a bounty hunter chasing down six advanced androids, in a post-apocalyptic landscape where owning livestock is a sign of high prestige.
There aren’t really a lot of plot similarities between the Dick novel, the Scott film and Scalzi’s novel. But there are some. Essentially, Scalzi sets his novel in a future where inter-stellar travel is common, and over 600 worlds have joined in a sort of UN-type super-organization. Earth has joined too, as the lowest status, barely tolerated, technologically backwards organization member. But lots of other alien species live on Earth–it’s a popular vacation spot. The Nidu are our closest allies, one tiny rung up in the organizational structure–techologically superior to Earth, but backwards politically. Anyway, the Nidu need to coronate a new planetary leader, and their ritual requires sacrificing a special breed of sheep found only on Earth, and very rare here. So various government agencies are trying to find the right sheep, for various nefarious-or-benevolent reasons of their own.
The main character is a guy named Harry Creek, a diplomat with the US State Department who has the highly specialized job of breaking bad news to members of alien species living on earth. He’s tasked with finding, and protecting, the sheep in question. To which end, he creates an artificial intelligence artifact (sort of an android, I guess, though incorporeal), named Brian–his best friend from high school, now deceased.
The sheep, it turns out, is the novel’s love interest, a cute young pet shop owner named Robin Baker. Though she doesn’t know it, she is the biological daughter of a half-sheep, half-human construct; though she looks completely human, feels human, considers herself human, and was never told by her adoptive parents that she was ever anything but completely human, eighteen percent of her DNA is sheep. Which, for the purposes of the Nidu, is close enough for government work. And also the Church.
I forgot to tell you about the Church. There’s a Church in this, the Church of the Evolved Sheep; ironically built on the ‘prophecies’ of a con man and failed novelist, who they know was not in any sense actually inspired. They nonetheless build their theology on fulfilling his prophecies, on the theory that a prophecy that comes true has to be true, even if they themselves intentionally manipulated events so it would come through. So Robin Baker also becomes the object of their worship. Which means Takk worships her too.
I forgot to tell you about Takk. The bad guys in this book are evil government agent types, but they have allied themselves with a young Nagch named Takk. The Nagch are huge alien creatures with the capacity to eat and fully digest people. Mostly they don’t–they think it’s uncivilized to eat sentient creatures–but when young, they go on a culturally mandated ritual called the Ftruu, a moral journey in which they’re expected to experience as many aspects of existence as possible, including the unseemly. Sort of a Nagch Rumspringa kind of deal. Takk is there to conveniently dispose of the bodies of victims of the bad guys, but then he discovers, and converts to the Church of the Evolved Sheep. With fascinating consequences. Because it looks like Earth and the Nidu are about to go to war, over farting.
I forgot to tell you about the farting. That’s what starts off the whole novel; a murder, accomplished via farting. The Nidu, it seems, are extremely sensitive to odors, and have an entire vocabulary of scents, including insulting ones. So an Earthly diplomat rigs a way to focus and enhance his own farts. And then, drinks some milk. And he’s lactose intolerant. And. . . death ensues. Which isn’t necessarily permanent. As Brian’s presence in the novel suggests. In addition to the presence of the AI of a three hundred year old billionaire.
And so on. It’s a rolicking comic masterpiece of a novel, endlessly inventive and smart and fun. Written with Scalzi’s usual wit and energy. It’s an easy read. But there’s a lot more going on than just a breezy funny sci-fi novel. Good stuff, not as meta-fictional and awesome as Red Shirts, but densely referential and really really cool. Try it.
I forgot to tell you about the three-hundred year old billionaire. . . .