“Agent to the Stars” by John Scalzi, 2005

Finished April 7, 2012

I read this one in three days, with “The Hunger Games” read in the middle. It’s a fun early book by Scalzi, whom I admire for his always intelligent, entertaining, and sensible blogs. Dude has a good head on his shoulders, no question. This was originally written in 1997, as “practice,” but seems to have some staying power, and Scalzi has updated a few references to keep it current.

Thomas Stein is a young Hollywood agent, with a knack for getting good contracts for the performers he represents. His boss handpicks him for a unique assignment: preparing humanity for first contact with an alien race that resemble giant gobs of snot and which communicate primarily through exceeding foul odors. They’ve been watching our broadcasts for many years and they realize they need someone to find an angle that makes them seem a little less loathsome and terrifying. Stein doesn’t come up with any brilliant ideas, but he is able to think well on his feet and thus is able to turn a dreadful situation involving the brain death of his best client into an opportunity for the gelatinous Yherajk.

The book suffers a bit from characters who are too clever and quick-witted. This is a problem I see a lot from sci-fi nerds who love a good in-joke and who harbour a quietly simmering contempt for non-nerds. As a nerd myself, I’m mostly OK with it, but it does get a bit tiresome sometimes. I haven’t read many of Scalzi’s books yet, so I’m going to assume this is merely due to this book being written very early in his professional career.

One thing that drove me a bit crazy was his description of a life-casting session in which an actress has her head coated in _latex_ in order to get a mould. Latex. And she has straws shoved up her nose. And she’s not allowed to move for THREE HOURS while it sets. *sigh* Maybe Scalzi got this idea from a tv show or magazine article written by someone who simply didn’t know what they were talking about. He name drops his copyeditor in the introduction so I’m just going to berate Arthur Hlavaty directly. I’m trying to imagine this process and I see a few little problems: 1) The latex appears to be be still very runny even half an hour after it was applied with a spatula. This would mean it would be puddling in her lap, not forming a usable mould on her head. 2) Latex is full of ammonia, and if you spread a thick layer on someone’s skin and left it to cure for hours they’d get a pretty nasty chemical burn. Not something you want on your lead actress a few days before going to camera. 3) It would rip out all her hair, in an excrutiatingly painful way. 4) She’d probably go blind at some point in the process. 5) Latex shrinks a lot, and warps. I’m a special effects makeup artist, so this really drove me nuts. I even berated Scalzi about it on Twitter. But I did go to a makeup school where I once overheard the owner giving a tour, and she was equally as ignorant of the process. Inexcusable in her, merely annoying in this book. But yeah, it distracted me. I’m trying to think how to rewrite it so it made sense, but since the story required that the actress be trapped in this mess for at least 40 minutes, and all real-world casting materials used for this process set up in no more than 10 minutes, I’m not sure how it could be done.

But that aside, I quite liked the book. Nothing serious or world-changing, but still entertaining. The aliens, despite their appearance, stench, and odd life cycle, had very human personalities. Plus there was a nice relationship between the main alien, Joshua, and a dog. Dogs make me happy.

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