Wednesday, September 21, 2011

John Scalzi: Android's Dream, an SF novel

John Scalzi’s Android’s Dream

Usually I select a book to read, excluding those chosen by a book discussion group that I belong to, on the basis of the author or perhaps subject matter or a recommendation. Seldom I select one because of its title. I hope this isn’t too discouraging or disappointing to writers who spend considerable time trying to choose the perfect title for their books. But, titles really don’t mean that much to me until after I’ve read the book. Then, I become aware of the significance, if any, of the title. There are, though, some exceptions to this rule.

John Scalzi’s Android’s Dream is one of those exceptions. I had already read Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, and while I enjoyed it, I wasn’t impressed enough to put Scalzi into my “must buy” category. It was the combination of the title and the cover art that made me decide to purchase and read this book. The title, as I have already mentioned, is Android’s Dream. The cover of the paperback edition that I have has a metal robot lying on its side with sheep floating above it; obviously this is what the robot is dreaming. A robot dreaming of sheep!

This could only be a reference to Philip K. Dick’s Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? More clues are inside the work. First, robots or androids play no role in the story. Secondly, we are told that the sheep are blue sheep—electric blue, to be precise and are called Android’s Dream, for some inexplicable and possibly “literary” reason. So, the android’s dream is of electric blue sheep. And, this isn’t the only reference to an science fiction writer in the novel.

The plot is straightforward—an SF thriller probably would describe it best. Earth is part of a galactic organization. One of the alien races, the Nidu, is undergoing a leadership crisis. It’s leader has died, and various clans on the planet are struggling to gain control, which means complete domination of the planet. The path to leadership is a bit strange: to become the Supreme Leader, the contenders must fulfill the succession ritual exactly as it has been specified by the previous leader. One of the peculiarities of gaining leadership among the Nidu is that the Supreme Ruler gets to determine the ritual for his successor, which presumably will give some advantage to his clan.

The ritual at the present time requires the blood of a specific type of sheep developed by human geneticists. The unusual pattern of its DNA results in blue-colored sheep. A rival clan has gone about enthusiastically killing all of this particular strain of sheep. If all of the sheep are killed, then nobody can gain power through the use of the ritual. Therefore the succession is determined by a power struggle among the clans. And, this rival clan has quietly managed to place a number of its members in positions of power in the planet’s space navy.

Harry Creek, a member of Earth’s State Department, has been assigned the task of locating one of the sheep as a favor to the clan presently in power. If one of the sheep could be located, the ruling clan would be able to fulfill the ritual, maintain control, and, no doubt, look very favorably on Earth. The Earth military forces , however, have a different plan in mind and are determined to prevent the State Department from delivering a sheep.

This all seems a waste of energy for it appears that all of the sheep are dead. Creek, however, discovers that the required DNA is not lost. Some criminal geneticists have been conducting experiments in which animal DNA has been implanted into humans. One woman who had the DNA of the sheep is now dead, but she had a daughter. Creek finds the young woman, who, strangely enough, owns a pet shop. The sheep DNA has not affected her in any way, as it is part of what is called junk DNA, that part which appears to play no role in human development, or at least, none found so far. Some of her blood would be sufficient to successfully pass the ritual.

Harry, and the young woman, are forced to go on the run, because both the Earth Military and the rival alien clan are determined to prevent her from reaching the alien planet. It is at this point that a third force enters the fray, a religious cult--.the Church of the Evolved Lamb. It’s Founder was “M. Robbin Dwellin, an early 21st century science fiction writer of admittedly modest talents and a man on the make. . . .” An SF writer who establishes a religious cult? L Ron Hubbard?

This is not a serious novel. Scalzi is enjoying himself by poking fun at a variety of targets. If a corporation can be called a person by the courts, then in a courtroom scene reminiscent of some of Heinlein’s forays into the legal system, a human woman can be ruled to be an alien species unto herself and, as the duly appointed ambassador of her species, has diplomatic immunity.

One small byplay among two of the characters on Earth referred slightingly to both the Washington Senators and my Chicago Cubs as the two worst teams in baseball.

One of the featured attractions is Takk, an alien who appears to be the animal? equivalent of a Venus fly-trap. Takk eliminates his victims by opening a fissure in his trunk and ingesting the unfortunate one. Takk is presently on a pilgrimage, learning (gastronomically as well as by other means) all about the various races that inhabit the galaxy. There is a touching scene near the end between Takk and one of his victim, for they find that they are religiously compatible.

Overall Rating: I’d give it a 4 on a 5 point scale. It’s basically a chase novel with due homage to two SF writers, both of whom rank high on the quirky scale: PK Dick and L. R Hubbard. The reader has to be alert, also, to pick up the sly jests and comments Scalzi scatters about.

Highly recommended.

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