Scalzi’s second published science fiction novel already features his signature humor and themes, which would permeate many of his more mature works. Even though it lacks polish and changes directions rather unexpectedly, it is still a fun short read for a series of dreary winter afternoons.
The universe if a busy place. There are hundreds of species, and humanity is not among the important ones. In fact, despite its colonies, mankind is close to the bottom of the totem pole, dealing primarily with other minor species. One of them are the Nidu, who trade with Earth, and who need a very specific resource from time to time: a specific breed of genetically engineered sheep, which is instrumental to their coronation ceremony when a new leader it about to assume the throne. If that leader fails to secure the sheep, anyone else who is able to do so will become their new king.
There is currently one issue with that sheep: all sheep with that genetic makeup are found dead, and if Earth is unable to source the required animal, the Nidu will declare war and conquer the planet. The man tasked to find a suitable sheep is Harry Creek, an unassuming low-ranking employee of the State Department, who harbors a few secrets. He is a highly decorated combat veteran, and he is the only one to have successfully created an artificial intelligence. He uses the latter to locate the last remaining sheep, and the former to defend her. It turns out that the sheep is a woman, Robin Baker, whose mother was a genetically engineered human sheep hybrid used for rather disgusting pleasures.
The two must face attacks from a group of mercenaries, as well as from a faction within the Nidu, which wants to use Robin for its own coronation. They are eventually captured, brought to the coronation ceremony, but through last-minute surprises manage to secure the leadership role for Robin herself, save the Earth and become fabulously wealthy in the process.
The book is a fun read, showing some idiosyncrasies Scalzi would later be known for. Most notably, the entire story structure is what the author would be using later with his other comedic space political operas (now there’s a sub-niche of a sub-genre if you want one). It works as follows: the damsel in distress is helped by an unassuming but very capable hero and an omniscient sidekick. While the enemies gloat for being overly clever, in a sudden turn of events at the very end the damsel humiliates the enemy and comes out on top, in front of a large crowd of witnesses. If you recognize Scalzi’s Interdependency trilogy here, congratulations; you have just received the synopsis for that as well.
Unlike Interdependency, however, there is precious little interaction between the two opposing parties, until the very end. They seem to follow their parallel lines, which takes away some of the fun watching them outwit each other along the way (there is one scene when a different character wins a legal battle against the Nidu, setting up some crucial events later on, but this was too short to leave a lasting impact on the reader). The story itself is very short and could be condensed into a novelette; the bulk of the text consists of humorous back stories and insightful flashbacks. Both further enhance the entertainment factor of the work, especially those dealing with alien peculiarities, but there’s so many of them that occasionally I felt like watching an episode of Family Guy.
As fun as the read was, however, it is evident that Scalzi wasn’t as experienced a storyteller back then than he is now. The story left many loose ends and quite a few Chekhov’s guns. Most annoyingly, however, the book features several completely unexpected twists, which I’d appreciate were signaled ahead of the time. I may not need to know what would happen, but when the surprise is sprung, I’d like to slap my head and exclaim “of course!” The final revelation was one such twist: there was a very subtle peculiarity to the coronation ceremony, which was never hinted on. As a result, it read more like a cop-out by the author, and even the subsequent explanation (as well as the reason for the Church of the Evolved Lamb to even exist in the book) seemed like an afterthought. Scalzi would get better at this.
Finally, on a personal note, I’d like to touch on the book’s title. It is highly evocative of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and even though there is a tenuous connection, there is absolutely no relation between the two. I picked this book fresh from a re-read of Dick’s novel, so personally I felt cheated by Scalzi. If you keep that in mind, however, this will be one less disappointment you’ll experience.
Overall, The Android’s Dream is an easy, light-hearted read. It is humorous, provides for some outrageous visuals, and its writing style allows for a quick read-through. Any mistakes can be chalked down to the author’s lack of experience, and they may only be noticeable due to the higher quality work he produces these days. It is not on my list of books I’d be returning to, but I don’t regret being entertained by this novel for a few evenings.