Sunday, February 6, 2011

They Stink Among Us: Another Classic from the First Nerve Library

FirstNerve commenter EdC has a knack for delivering book recommendations during the lull before the Super Bowl. Responding to last week’s item on Malawi’s proposal to outlaw public farting, Ed suggested I look at John Scalzi’s Agent to the Stars because “the extraterrestrials communicate by smell.”

Well, that sounded like just the ticket for a slow Friday night. Especially after a miserable week of navigating around potholes, through slushy intersections, and around mounded ice-banks, all freshly glazed with that depressing combination of snow, sleet and freezing rain known as “wintry mix.” Thirty seconds after seeing Ed’s comment, Agent to the Stars was on my Kindle and I was horizontal on the couch with a brewsky.

What a great book to kick back with. It’s a light but clever story about space aliens who discover Earth after picking up our television transmissions. They watch enough sitcoms to learn English and acquire a flawless ability for wise-cracking. Sensing from broadcast entertainment that Earthlings are ambivalent about aliens (Predator versus E.T., for example), they realize their introduction to humanity must be managed very carefully. So they decide to hire a top Hollywood talent agency to handle it. The job goes to Tom Stein, the story’s narrator, an up-and-coming agent whose sharp verbal sparring reminds one of Ari Gold in Entourage.

Scalzi has fun with Hollywood’s cut-throat, self-absorbed ways. The assortment of characters is satisfying: the ultra-bitchy actress, the beautiful but vacant one, the sleazy, client-poaching junior agent, and the creepy, stalkerish reporter for the universally despised industry tabloid. The collisions between Hollywood and the outsiders resembles those in Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty, except that it’s aliens instead of mobsters who mix things up.

The aliens in question are five-gallon blobs of protoplasm who, in their natural state, communicate with one another using smell. (Each “speaker” accompanies his olfactory message with a unique molecule that identifies him personally.) There are some good scenes where Joshua, the lead alien, hangs out with the neighbor’s golden retriever—they get along famously.

Soon after meeting Joshua, Tom Stein asks him what his species calls themselves. They are the Yherajk.
“It’s not our real name,” Joshua said, “but you couldn’t pronounce what we’re actually called.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Well, for one thing, it’s a smell,” Joshua said. “Would you like to smell it?”

I glanced at Carl. He shrugged. “Sure,” I said.

The room filled with a stench that resembled the offspring of a rotted sneaker and Velveeta. I gagged involuntarily.

“God, that’s horrible,” I said, and immediately regretted it. “I’m very sorry,” I said. “That was probably the first-ever insult to an extraterrestrial. I apologize.”

“No offense taken,” Joshua said, mildly. “You should come to a Yherajk get-together. It’s like a convention of farts.”
The Yherajk have an olfactory art form they call tivis, which loosely translates to “smell painting.” It consists of bits of crusty stuff in a shallow bowl equipped with wires as heating elements. (These shapeless aliens aren’t big on visual aesthetics.) The smells in a tivis are designed to evoke specific sets of major and minor emotions. Tom Stein experiences one for himself:
I smelled something acrid, but I was also immediately overwhelmed by a sense of wistfulness, with overtones of happiness but the slightest bit of regret. It was the feeling you get when you see an old girlfriend, realize that she’s a wonderful person, and that you were kind of an idiot to let her go, even is you’re happily married now.”
The host alien is dismissive of this particular example of olfactory art.
“This one is actually fairly crude—it’s just one primary emotion with only a couple of emotional harmonics. Any of us could have made it, actually. It’s the tivis equivalent of paint-by-numbers. Some of our tivis masters can create works of incredible emotional depth, layering emotion on emotion in unexpected combinations. You can get really worked up over a good tivis.”
Agent to the Stars may qualify as science fiction, but I’d call it a comic novel that happens to include space aliens. The dialog is snappy and the olfactory speculations are sprightly. Very entertaining.


EdC said...

For extra credit, get Vernor Vinge to add smells to the digital futures he writes about. E.g.,
(which, amusingly, is not available for Kindle).

Avery Gilbert said...


So far you're beating the pros.

A sci-fi editor I met at the LA Times Festival of Books recommended Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear. It's about saltatory human evolution--a big leap toward a new semi-species that communicates in part thru chromophores and odors. OK idea, but sad to say I found the plot labored, the dialog dull, and the writing pedestrian. Not impressed.

Scalzi's book is less sci-fi but far more engaging and well written as a novel.

EdC said...


Flattery will get you anywhere. Greg Bear is an important Sci Fi author but I read one of his earlier books & didn't get into it either.

OK, I'll recommend Larry Niven's A World Out of Time (1976) - my favorite use of pheromones in fiction. They're believeable because they're developed in the future & not assumed to be part of our current physiology.

(If you don't get into the story, go to the end and scan backward a bit for the pheromones.)