Saturday, February 28, 2009

Do Androids Dream of Wild Sheep Chases?

I'll often attend an author's reading for a book that I've read.  More rarely, I'll start reading a book after encountering an author through a reading.  The Android's Dream may mark the first time that I've read a book because I missed an author reading.

Scott pointed out a while back that John Scalzi would be doing a book reading in The Mission.  I hadn't heard of him before, but the little research I did was encouraging.  He's a sci-fi author who operates below the mainstream's radar but has acquired a very vibrant fanbase and some critical acclaim.  I resolved to attend this reading, even going so far as to RSVP on his facebook page.  Then life intervened and I missed the date.

I still wanted to check him out, though, so eventually I got around to reading The Android's Dream, the main novel Scott recommended.  It's one of the most purely enjoyable books I've read in a while... a flat-out adventure yarn, with enough political intrigue and intellectual heft to keep you from feeling guilty.  It's kind of nice to take a break from authors who Intone Weighty Thoughts About The Human Condition and write really awesome fight scenes.


I think this book probably classifies as soft sci-fi, but it's on the edge.  Scalzi does seem to be technically literate, and writes far more intelligently about computers than I'm used to from anyone besides Stephenson.  A fair amount of the action takes place in cyberspace with people hacking into systems, building artificial intelligences, and otherwise doing cool-yet-abstract things.  Even though the book is set several centuries in the future, the computer networks Scalzi describes seem essentially like our own, down to the difference between wired and wireless nodes.  This is both good and bad... it makes it more comprehensible, but at the same time, given how much technology has radically evolved in the past few decades, it's hard to believe it hasn't changed that much in the next centuries.  Don't underrate comprehensibility, though.  These sections of the book are fun to read precisely because of how familiar they are.... people not upgrading their passwords, critical Microsoft patches going unapplied, honeypots, message board fronting, griefers... it's very cathartic to see bad guys get their comeuppance whether it's in real life or in fiction.

The political thriller element drives the main plot, and is very well crafted.  Scalzi keeps you on your toes, partly by pulling things out of his rear at critical moments in the plot, but most often by coming up with really clever plots and interactions.  The cast of characters is surprisingly broad, and early on it's a bit difficult to keep every person's name straight and recall what offices they hold, who they're officially working for, who they're secretly working for, and who they secretly hate.  So much of the book reads like a tell-all book by a Washington insider: you learn how policy decisions were driven by personal vendettas, inane power struggles, undue influence from think tanks, or dumb luck.  Again, it's strikingly similar to how our present world works, but unlike the technology, I have absolutely no trouble believing that government bureaucrats will behave exactly the same for generations to come.

Besides technology and politics, the third pillar of the book is, surprisingly, religion.  This is hardly the first time a church has played a prominent role in a sci-fi book, but I can't think of any other novel with something like the Church of the Evolved Lamb, and I think this may be the most interesting idea Scalzi posits in the book.  The Church of the Evolved Lamb is a religion deliberately founded on a hoax, whose members commit to carrying out scripture that they know to be false.  It's a bit like a more serious version of the Discordian Society.  This gets right to the heart of the irrationality that is, by definition, at the core of all belief systems.  By embracing this, the fictional Church becomes incredibly productive.  Anyways... it's a bit refreshing to have a church that isn't primarily defined by being hypocritical, genocidal, avaricious, or power-mad.

Ah, and let's not forget the action.  Now that I think back over the book, I guess there are just a handful of fight scenes, but still, they are the things that stick in my memory.  Scalzi has a wonderfully vibrant way of describing such things, creating really cool, elaborate set-pieces and then describing all the totally sweet things his heroes do in them.  It's easy to imagine these scenes in a movie. 


I feel a bit like I've been on a literary smorgasbord lately... tasting individual novels from a ton of authors, trying to get a sense for what's good out there.  The good news is that the answer is "Plenty".  I do feel a bit bad that I rave about these guys, then inevitably move on to the next tray to try that instead of coming back for more.  Still!  I have no regrets, and have been lucky so far.  It's great to build up a literary map and know in advance where I can confidently return for second helpings.

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