Contrary to what some of you might think, I do not in fact receive a gift box of freshly baked cookies from the Scalzi household every time John publishes a book. Not that such payola would help you out around here anyway. Though, now that I think about it, I would encourage writers and their publicists to give serious consideration to the whole "fresh cookies for reviewers" concept. On general principles. In the interests of making the world a better place and all.
No, it's just that John has an annoying habit of writing jolly good books that work, thus screwing up the curve for everybody else. Which is why he has a Campbell Award with matching tiara and you don't. He's also caught on to the wisdom of trying your hand at something different now and again to avoid losing that edge, a lesson lost on, say, China Miéville when he essayed the dreary Iron Council. Scalzi's fourth novel is a smart move. He's gotten well away from the Heinlein-inspired universe of his military action-adventures Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades, and written an outright comedy.
The Android's Dream reads something like an SFnal James Bond spoof by way of South Park. Scalzi isn't exploring anything particularly deep thematically here. The name of the game is satire, and he does some of the most spot-on political wit this side of the old British sitcom Yes, Minister. Scalzi also makes fine use of the seemingly inexhaustible comic potential of biology, particularly the subcategory "Orifices, Substances Emitted from". It's just the right mix of highbrow and lowbrow that makes for the funniest stuff. And yes, it's all about sheep. Sheep are funny. They are.
It's like this. The Earth is a low-on-the-totem-pole planet in the Common Confederation, comprised of a whole menagerie of alien worlds. Earth has a shaky alliance with the Nidu, an arrogant and reactionary race who communicate by scent (remember this) and whose only clear superiority to Earth is its military. Naturally, there are factions on Earth who cannot stand the Nidu, and this is not mere xenophobia: the Nidu suckered Earth into getting involved in suppressing a rebellion on one of its colony worlds. The result was a disastrous defeat for Earth. There are some who would love to provoke an incident that would cause the Nidu to lose their minds completely, but in a way that would prompt the CC to intervene, thus damaging the Nidus' overall stature within the CC and enhancing Earth's.
In an opening scene sure to go down in posterity as the "Terrance and Philip chapter," chaos ensues at a trade delegation conference when the Earth delegate, secretly working behind the scenes with an anti-Nidu faction, farts a series of unforgivable insults in the general direction of the Nidu delegate with the aid of a customized device implanted up his chute that translates his gastric emissions into silent-but-deadly Nidu scent-speech. The incident leaves both delegates dead — read it yourself to find out how — and sets both planets on the path to war. This is every bit as completely hilarious as it sounds.
The Nidu offer Earth an olive branch: help them locate a rare species of genetically engineered sheep, known as — you guessed it — "Android's Dream," for use in their upcoming coronation ceremony (in one week) and all will be forgiven. In Washington, Harris Creek, one of the few survivors of the infamous battle mentioned above, is now a professional problem-solver for the government. It's his job to deliver bad news to twitchy aliens and generally do the lousy jobs no one wants. Creek is tasked with locating this rare Ovis, a job rendered difficult by anti-Nidu groups who are wiping out every flock of sheep they can find with viruses. But Creek manages to locate one...in the least likely place imaginable. The backstory of this discovery is one of the most outrageous things I've ever read.
From this premise the book explodes into a frenzied and funny race-against-time thriller whose colorful cast includes an apologetic and philosophical man-eating alien thug; a religious group of sheep-worshipers only kinda-sorta-somewhat inspired by the Scientologists, except these people are some of the most sensible in the story; and an artificial intelligence perfectly named Brian, about whom Scalzi writes the best line of his career: "He might be a disembodied virtual consciousness, but at least he wasn't some fucking geek."
Naturally, the action-storytelling chops Scalzi has honed over his previous two books haven't been sidelined. We get a doozy of a fight scene in a shopping mall, and a swell 007-ish escape from a luxury liner spacecraft. And for all the farce being played out, when it's time for John's villains to get nasty, he pulls back appropriately on the cartoonishness. Sure, it's all surpremely silly at the end of the day. But it's smart-silly, if you take my meaning (and if not, then smell this). The Android's Dream is just the right gene-splicing of fast action and furious comedy SF has been needing for ages. So read it, then drop me a note of thanks later. And if you want to throw in some fresh cookies, by all means, feel free. Except ginger snaps. Those give me gas.