Ineluctably American SF

The Android’s Dream — John Scalzi
The Android's Dream, book 1


2006’s The Android’s Dream takes us to a near-future where the Earth is unified (in the sense that the US does whatever the hell it wants and the rest of the planet has to live with the consequences), Earth is among the most minor of the minor powers belonging to the galaxy-spanning Common Confederation. Given that Earth is to the mightiest powers of the Galaxy as modern Paraguay is to NATO, the sensible course of action for Earth as a whole is to concentrate on maintaining a low profile while building up its economy and military.

Of course, there’s often a huge gulf between what’s good for a polity as a whole and what’s good for individuals within it.

While the alien Nidu are also pretty low in the interstellar pecking order, they’re more powerful than Earth (think Nidu = late Czarist Russia and Earth = Serbia). In general humans don’t think all that kindly of the Nidu: they’re hidebound and socially stratified aliens. It’s just too bad that they are our closest allies.

About the only thing that would be worse for Earth than having Nidu as allies would be facing Nidu as Earth’s enemies. They’re not all that powerful in the general scheme of things, but they could stomp Earth flat if they wanted. Rather to the consternation of level-headed humans, someone seems to be working very hard to destabilize human-Nidu relations, beginning with an act of diplomatic sabotage that leaves two diplomats—one human and one Nidu—dead and human-Nidu relations on the brink of collapse.

All is not lost: Earth is in a position to do the Nidu’s ruling clan a great favour, great enough that one dead Nidu diplomat could be ignored. All the Earth has to do is to supply the Nidu with a sheep from a very specific genetic line and all will be forgiven. Rather inconsiderately, whoever it is who is working to sabotage human-Nidu relations already knows the significance of that particular sheep lineage. By the time talented underachiever Harry Creek is put on the job to find and deliver one of the sheep, the Other Side has already used biological weapons to kill every known herd and every known individual of the lineage.

Every known individual…

Aided by an artificial intelligence emulating his dead friend Brian Javna, Creek discovers that the line of descent of that very special sheep lineage took a rather unexpected and fairly unseemly detour a couple of generations ago, The result of that peculiar event is still alive and well. Although, unless Creek is really on the ball, alive and well only for about as long as it takes the Other Side to discover their oversight and correct it.


As a Canadian of American ancestry, I would like to begin this review by saying: damn, Americans are weird. Take, for example, John Scalzi, who seems to be viewed by paleo- and neo-conservative SF readers as a combination of Karl Marx and the mirror universe Eleanor Roosevelt. To a Canadian, the politics in Scalzi’s books seem hardly distinguishable from those seen in Niven and Pournelle’s CoDominium, Gerrold’s Chtorr books, or even certain Heinlein novels (specifically, Star Beast minus the acknowledgment of Africa).

Case in point: The Android’s Dream is, like Old Man’s War, American SF intended to appeal to Americans (although unlike Heinlein’s intentions for Expanded Universe, Scalzi doesn’t vocally object if non-Americans read his book). Although this was published in 2006, not exactly a high water mark for American global diplomacy [1], this work cheerfully embraces the idea that the US is the only country that matters on the Earth. In fact, aside from occasional references to the UN and a comment to the effect the rest of the planet wasn’t exactly keen on the way the US stepped in as the Voice of Earth to the galaxy, there’s not a lot of evidence that the rest of the planet exists.

One might well wonder whether Scalzi is cynically exploiting his readers’ expectations, or, like Niven in the 1960s and Heinlein in the 1940s, is simply unable to imagine an Earth that isn’t the US plus some other, minor nations who stay politely off-stage.

(This may seem a trifle harsh. Be glad I am not reviewing the Chtorr books.)

While I am cane-waving, I must say that I wondered about the postulated existence of a hybrid organism that is 18% sheep and 82% human. Thanks to the wonders of evolution (or to be more exact, common descent) we share surprisingly large fractions of our DNA with organisms that you wouldn’t necessarily think have all that much in common with us. As the old adage goes, we share 50% of our gene sequences with bananas. Sheep and humans diverged a lot more recently than humans and bananas. If you were to gene-sequence a random sheep, just how similar would its genome be to a human genome?

I was trying to keep track of the collateral damage in the book (all the little people who get smashed) but I lost count at the mall scene. Hint to readers: if you want to enjoy action and adventure stories, It’s best not worry about the bystanders who have the bad luck to get in the way of the plot [2]. If those people had wanted to stay alive and healthy, they should have been spear carriers in a different genre. A cozy mystery perhaps. Except not the Pennyfoot Hotel Mysteries because not even the staff is safe in those.

One of the tricks in SF is to create prose that successfully avoids both the Charybdis of the unreadable quasi-illiteracy typical of a certain MilSF publisher and the Scylla of erudite literary prose that will baffle and terrify the more delicate SF fans, evoking nightmares of Faulkner and Delany. Scalzi’s prose steers a competent middle path, one that I would consider typical of detective fiction—which is generally held to a higher standard than SF and outsells it by about ten to one.

The plot moves along at a good clip, although I will say that, even taking into account how much SF loves court cases [3], I was a bit surprised at how often the plot turned on legal minutiae. I was also surprised that Common Confederation and terrestrial law are similar enough that the two systems can interface [4]. Rereading this book leads me to suspect that it could well have been the court case in Little Fuzzy that appealed to Scalzi and led to the recent reboot.

I don’t know that fans outside the US would necessarily enjoy this novel, but I don’t think Scalzi is really trying to deliberately engage anyone outside the US [5]. American SF fans should find this novel diverting.

1: I myself would not pick the US diplomatic services as likely to duplicate the successes of Mongkut and Chulalongkorn.

2: Something I discovered while watching a Bond film; once you start keeping track of collateral damage in fiction, it’s really hard to stop. Bear that in mind the next time you see an action film or read a pew pew pew-style milSF novel.

3: I got this book from the library. Whoever had it before me had opted for a printed out receipt rather than an emailed one. They left the receipt in the book, so I can reliably assert that at least one person who checked this out also checked out Jack Vance’s Demon Princes, Scalzi’s own Fuzzy Nation, and Demako’s Guide to Canadian Law. Note the overlap between SF fans and law fans. (I explain the choice of Demon Princes as an examination of what happens when there is no legal means to remedy torts.) Perry Mason missed a good bet when he failed to strap on a jet-pack and zoom over to Astounding or perhaps Galaxy.

4: Just like the film Independence Day, in which it is shown that human and alien computer systems miraculously work the exact same way!

5: Canadians are a special case. Living in limbo as we do (until such time as the Americans conquer and forcibly assimilate Canada), we have had an unparalleled opportunity to develop extraordinary powers of insight into the USA. Mainly, that insight is that they’re nine times more numerous than we are and spend more on their military than the rest of the planet combined.

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