Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi
Scalzi has a gift of coming up with some great ideas to hang a novel on. In Agent to the Stars a super-capable Hollywood agent gets the crazy job of figuring out how to get the world to accept with open arms the arrival of a race of alien creatures who look like the blob from the old horror movie (only smaller). It’s an impossible job, and that’s really the only problem with this delightful, funny, and thoroughly enjoyable novel. Our agent never really spends any time working on the problem. Most of the novel reads like the adventures of a Hollywood agent who just happens to know an alien creature. Much of the tension and excitement derives from our hero dealing with the clients that he was supposed to have passed off once he took on the alien race. And in fact, he only stumbles into his solution late in the book, rather than strategically planning it out. That being said, I enjoyed every word of this novel. Will Wheaton reads it with great feeling, maximizing the humor, the tension, and the occasional very touching scene.
The Dispatcher by John Scalzi
Science fiction is at its best when it makes you think and John Scalzi’s, The Dispatcher, will make your brain work overtime. In the future, the bodies of people who are murdered disappear from the crime scene and reappear—fully alive—in their homes. This outstanding novella explores the implications of this bizarre new fact of life.
One of those implications is the development of a new profession. Dispatchers are government licensed person whose job it is to kill individuals just before they would die a “natural” death so that they have a second shot at living. So dispatchers are now required by insurance companies to be present in many surgeries in case things go wrong. If the patient dies on the operating table they are dead, but if the dispatcher kills them a few moments earlier they disappear and wake up at home with their body in a state before the surgery began. Similarly, in a car accident. If a dispatcher happens to be nearby you can instantly recover without your injuries.
These are examples of benign legitimate efforts to take advantage of this new reality, but Scalzi also digs into the dark side—the many ways in which criminals and other people can take advantage of the new situation. Much of this is very troubling, but totally credible given the new rules of reality.
The story is built around the disappearance of a dispatcher. It’s a tight little mystery that gives the excuse to seamlessly explore this side of the new reality. I totally enjoyed this book.
The Dispatcher 2 Murder by Other Means by John Scalzi
John Scalzi’s Dispatcher stories read a lot like Isaac Asimov’s famous I, Robot collection. In Asimov’s tales, the robots appear to do something that violates the three laws of robotics and the trick to the story is to figure out why they didn’t violate them. In Scalzi’s tale, murders appear to violate the understanding of the new rule of death—people who are murdered wake up alive and naked in their homes 999 out of 1000 times.
In Murder by Other Means, Scalzi’s protagonist, Tony Valdez, is pulled into a mystery in which people with no reason to commit suicide are killing themselves. The common denominator appears to be Valdez, himself, and since the police seem to be focusing exclusively upon him as their suspect, Valdez has to solve the case to protect himself. It’s a very good story and continues to show how crazy the world has become after this mind-boggling change is introduced. I really like the story and I’m very proud of myself for figuring out very quickly how the murders were being committed. As in all well written mysteries, that didn’t dampen my enjoyment at all. There are always tons of little details to fill in and it’s the journey that gives a good mystery its reread value—something this story definitely has.
The B-Team (Human Division 1) by John Scalzi
Humanity is no longer united against the other races in the stars and no longer has the military might to be certain of defending itself against the most aggressive of the other races. This means that high stakes diplomacy has just become the last best hope for keeping the human race from becoming the victims of galaxy-wide genocide. When humanity’s best diplomatic team gets assassinated in a sneak attack, enter the B-Team—the closest set of human diplomats with any chance of pulling their specie’s fat out of the fire.
This is a fun, fast-paced, mystery that launches a new series focusing on the exploits of a group of diplomats who don’t appear to be anyone’s first choice for anything—but then in diplomacy appearances are so very often misleading, aren’t they?
Walk the Plank (The Human Division 2) by John Scalzi
Walk the Plank is another short story set in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War universe but not focusing on the military. I only read the original book in the Old Man’s War series, but really like the short story, The B-Team so I was anxious to see the diplomats in action again. Much to my surprise, there were no diplomats in this tale which features an injured survivor from an act of piracy who is being interrogated by officials of the colony that the survivor was bringing cargo to. The story is harsh and the ending is brutal, providing a window into the kind of risks many of the new colonists have to endure to start their new lives.
We Only Need the Heads (Human Division 3) by John Scalzi
Diplomacy returns to the forefront of John Scalzi’s Human Division series as negotiations proceed with an alien race even as the existence of a wildcat colony threatens the proceedings. This story was reminiscent of the original book in the series, The B-Team, and I enjoyed it more than the second story. Things are looking bleaker for humanity as the Colonial Union’s “disagreement” with earth continues, leaving it short of military personnel. Will they be able to stop this wild cat colony from breaking the peace?
A Voice in the Wilderness (Human Division 4) by John Scalzi
For the first time, the series of short stories takes the reader to earth where a struggling radio show personality is encouraged to reverse his declining ratings by championing the program by which elderly earthlings are rejuvenated and sent to the stars to fight for the Colonial Union. It’s a controversial move—the Union is not popular on earth at this time—and the results are…surprising.
Tales from The Clarke (Human Division 5) by John Scalzi
In the first story in this series, the Colonial Union spaceship, The Clarke, is damaged foiling an alien plot. In this story, we see its captain pulled into another conspiracy as she and her crew get the job of selling an old freighter to the earth in an effort to build some good will for the Colonial Union. But nothing is ever as it seems in this series and it will take brains and ingenuity to bring this mission to a successful conclusion.
The Back Channel (Human Division 6) by John Scalzi
So far, this series has primarily been about the divisions in human society, but it turns out that the aliens have their divisions as well—some of whom want war with the humans and some of whom want peace. The Back Channel is about a diplomatic maneuver to decide which faction—war or peace—will win control of alien policy.
The Dog King (Human Division 7) by John Scalzi
This is a quick and thoroughly enjoyable short story in Scalzi’s Human Division series. The Colonial Union attempts to resolve a two-hundred-year-old civil war on an alien planet in an effort to boost their credibility against their larger alien enemies. As the diplomatic maneuverings come to a close, something strange happens to the ambassador’s dog threatening to throw everything that’s been accomplished out the window.
Frankly, there is nothing in this story that is even remotely surprising except perhaps the ultimate solution to the problem. The first crisis and the surprise are totally predictable—and yet, that only enriched my enjoyment of the tale. It’s nice to occasionally see the problem ahead of the hero and figure out the complication as well. Scalzi makes the diplomatic crisis have a humorous tone that kept me smiling from beginning to end.
The Sound of Rebellion (The Human Division 8) by John Skalzi
In this eighth short story focusing on the consequences of the split between the Colonial Union and Earth, Skalzi takes us into the head of a lieutenant captured after putting down a nascent uprising on a Colonial Union world in which at least some of its citizens want to break away and join earth. It’s a great little tale, tense with danger, and featuring a smart protagonist who uses her wits to get out of a very bad situation. To make the story even better, she capitalizes on tech that’s been referred to in other stories, but uses it in ingenious ways. It’s just a great story all around and has me chomping at the bit to read the next one.
The Observers (The Human Division 9) by John Skalzi
The diplomatic team is back and once again up to their necks in political muck. What looks like a simple observer mission from earth quickly gets complicated when one of the observers dies unexpectedly and it looks like the Colonial Union bumped him off. This is a tight little mystery, but not the Ellery Queen kind in which you have all the clues and can identify who did it. Instead, the high-tech solution points to the growing seriousness of the situation between the Colonial Union and Earth. I am very curious how Skalzi’s going to pull all of this together by the last story.
This Must Be the Place (The Human Division #10) by John Scalzi
I think this was the weakest of The Human Division stories so far, but that didn’t mean I didn’t enjoy listening to it. The other stories clearly show the progress of the Colonial Union in dealing with the problem of an earth that has figured out how badly it has been used and treated by the Union and the problems this has caused the Union as they have now lost their unlimited supply of soldiers from earth, forcing them to change their foreign policy from one of military conflict to one of diplomacy. By contrast, this novel follows one of the minor diplomats as he returns home to his family for the holidays. His father and the rest of his family want him to abandon his diplomatic career and join their political colonial dynasty and he has to determine what to do. It’s a good story, but didn’t feel as “meaningful” as the others in the series have.
A Problem of Proportion (The Human Division 11) by John Scalzi
Once again, the Colonial Union’s backup diplomats end up being in a critical place at the wrong time, uncovering a plot that appears to be trying to push the Colonial Union and the Conclave into war. That was fine as far as it goes, but the real heart of this story is Wilson trying to save a man whose brain has been removed from his body and wired into a killer starship. It was genuinely heartwarming.
The Gentle Art of Cracking Heads (The Human Division 12) by John Scalzi
Tension continues to grow as Earth diplomat, Danielle Lowen, starts the story trying to find out why a Brazilian diplomat killed another member of their team before killing herself (in The Observers). It ends with her trying to figure out how the Brazilian consulate was bombed. Overall, it’s an exciting little story that further raises expectations for the final one in the series. Someone is messing with Earth, the Colonial Union, and the Conclave. Hopefully, Scalzi will pull it all together in story #13.
Earth Below, Sky Above (The Human Division 13) by John Scalzi
After reading Earth Below, Sky Above, I am forced to acknowledge that #13 (as in the 13th and final story in this series) is still an unlucky number. Scalzi didn’t even try to tie his many loose ends together. Instead, it is now clear that all 13 stories were written merely to springboard us into his next novel (or series of short stories). I would feel better about this if anything had been resolved, but instead, everything is much worse than it was and we really gained no ground in the entire 13 story series and that’s frankly a bit unfair. This wasn’t just another novel in his series which might be expected to end on a cliffhanger. This was a series of short stories laid out in a way in which the reader could legitimately expect some resolution—and there is none. The novella itself is enjoyable and well written, but the series structure sucks!