Agent to the Stars, 20 Years On
Posted on July 21, 2017 Posted by John Scalzi 30 Comments
So, on July 21, 1997, which was a Monday, I posted the following on the alt.society.generation-x newsgroup:
Thought y’all might like to know. I’m happy, pleased, tired.
96,098 words, cranked out in a little under three months, working
mostly on weekends, grinding out 5,000 words at a sitting.
Learned two things:
a) I *can* carry a story over such a long stretch;
b) like most things on the planet, thinking about doing it is a lot
worse than simply sitting down and doing it. The writing wasn’t hard
to do, you just need to plant ass in seat and go from there.
I did find it helped not to make my first novel a gut-wrenching
personal story, if you know what I mean. Instead I just tried to write
the sort of science fiction story I would like to read. It was fun.
Now I go in to tinker and fine tune. Will soon have it ready for beta
testing. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
That novel? Agent to the Stars. Which means that today is the 20th anniversary of me being a novelist. Being a published novelist would have to wait — I date that to January 1, 2005, the official publication date of Old Man’s War — but in terms of having written a full, complete (and as it eventually turned out, publishable) novel: Today’s the day.
I’ve recounted the story of Agent before but it’s fun to tell, because I think it’s a nice antidote to the “I just had to share the story I’d been dreaming of my whole life” angle first novels often take. The gist of the story was that my 10-year high school reunion was on the horizon, and having been “the writer dude” in my class, I knew I would be asked if I had ever gotten around to writing a novel, and I wanted to be able to say “yes.” Also, I was then in my late 20s and it was time to find out whether I could actually write one or not.
Having decided I was going to write one, I decided to make it easy for myself, mostly by not trying to do all things at once. The goal was simply: Write a novel-length story. The story itself was going to be pretty simple and not personally consequential; it wasn’t going to be a thinly-disguised roman a clef, or something with a serious and/or personal theme. It would involve Hollywood in some way, because I had spent years as a film critic and knew that world well enough to write about it. And as for genre, I was most familiar with mystery/crime fiction and science fiction/fantasy, so I flipped a coin to decide which to do. It come up heads, so science fiction it was, and the story I had for that was: Aliens come and decide to get Hollywood representation.
(I don’t remember the story I was thinking for the mystery version. I’m sure death was involved. And for those about to say “well, you didn’t have to stick with science fiction for your second book,” that’s technically correct, but once I’d written one science fiction novel, I knew I could write science fiction. It was easier to stick with what I knew. And anyway I write murder mysteries now — Lock In and the upcoming Head On. They also happen to be science fiction.)
I remember the writing of Agent being pretty easy, in no small part, I’m sure, because of everything noted above — it wasn’t meant to be weighty or serious or even good, merely novel-length. When I finished it, I do remember thinking something along the lines of “Huh. That wasn’t so bad. Maybe I should have done this earlier.” In the fullness of time, I’ve realized that I probably couldn’t have done it any earlier, I wasn’t focused enough and it helped me to have some sort of external motivation, in this case, my high school reunion.
Once finished, I asked two friends and co-workers at America Online to read the book: Regan Avery and Stephen Bennett, both of whom I knew loved science fiction, and both of whom I knew I could trust to tell me if what I’d written was crap. They both gave it a thumbs up. Then I showed it to Krissy, my wife, who was apprehensive about reading it, since if she hated it she would have to tell me, and would still have to be married to me afterward. When she finished it, the first thing she said to me about it was “Thank Christ it’s good.” Domestic felicity lived for another day.
And then, having written it… I did nothing with it for two years. Because, again, it wasn’t written for any other reason than to see if I could write a novel. It was practice. People other than Regan and Stephen and Krissy finally saw it in 1999 when I decided that the then brand-new Scalzi.com site could use some content, so I put it up here as a “shareware” novel, meaning that if people liked it they could send me a dollar for it through the mail. And people did! Which was nice.
It was finally physically published in 2005, when Bill Schafer of Subterranean Press published a limited hardcover edition. I was jazzed about that, since I wanted a version of the book I could put on my shelf. The cover was done by Penny Arcade’s Mike Krahulik, who among other things knew of the book because I was one of Penny Arcade’s very first advertisers way back in the day, advertising the Web version of the book (those guys have done okay since then). Then came the Tor paperback edition, and the various foreign editions, and the audiobook, and here we are today.
When I wrote the novel, of course, I had no idea that writing it was the first step toward where I am now. I was working at America Online — and enjoying it! It was a cool place to be in the 90s! — and to the extent I thought I would be writing novels at all, I thought that they would be sideline to my overall writing career, rather than (as it turned out) the main thrust of it. This should be your first indication that science fiction writers in fact cannot predict the future with any accuracy.
I’m very fond of Agent, and think it reads pretty well. I’m also aware that it’s first effort, and also because it was written to be in present time in the 90s, just about out of time in terms of feeling at all contemporary (there are fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors remaining, to pick just one obvious example in the book). At this point I suggest people consider it as part of an alternate history which branched off from our timeline in 1998 or thereabouts. Occasionally it gets talked about for being picked for TV/film. If that ever happens, expect some extensive plot revisions. Otherwise, it is what it is.
One thing I do like about Agent is that I still have people tell me that it’s their favorite of mine. I like that because I think it’s nice to know that even this very early effort, done simply for the purpose of finding out if I could write a novel, does what I think a novel should: Entertains people and makes them glad they spent their time with it.
I’m also happy it’s the novel that told me I could do this thing, this novel-writing thing, and that I listened to it. The last couple of decades have turned out pretty well for me. I’m excited to see where things go from here.
In case you’re wondering, the painting there is the cover of the French edition of Agent, done by Paul Kidby. I also own the pencil study of it, which hangs in my office, next to the original painting of the Old Man’s War cover (the paperback cover. I also own the original of the hardcover OMW art).
Hey, congratulations! That’s a pretty cool anniversary, and a pretty cool story.
It is one of my favorite books by you. It was funny, easy to read, and just a joy to read. I tell people, that don’t know you as an author, to either start with this book (to see your funny side) or OMW (to see your military side). I look forward to more books. I am also hoping we get to see flatulent aliens on TV.
Enjoyed hearing how it all began. Life takes interesting twists, turns & tangles, doesn’t it?
Happy novel writing anniversary! I’m so glad you shared this book with the world. I read this book about 2 times a year. I just love the overall tone, and it always makes me laugh. When I’m feeling down or stressed, this is my go to book, because it always cheers me up. Thank you so much for writing it!
Today I had an interesting idea for a setting and a couple of characters, and while I was running my lunchtime errands I thought about how it wouldn’t really be that hard to do some writing.
I’ve always tripped myself up in the past by setting these lofty goals like writing x-hundred words every day or doing nanowrimo or getting up early and writing, and I’ve never been able to maintain such things, which made me a failure and then I stopped trying.
This time I’m not going to give myself any targets or deadlines. Instead I’m going to add “writing” to my mental list of Stuff To Do When I’m Not At Work Or Sleeping, right there with “train the dogs” and “clean out the fridge” and “watch TV” and then sometimes I’ll pick writing instead of those other things and sometimes I won’t, but I suspect that the more I write the more I’ll choose writing, and maybe one day I’ll have written a book and that will be pretty neat.
I remember where I was when reading Agent. Mid-2003, a hurricane brought severe flooding to upstate NY. I was doing disaster relief in a town still getting water & groceries out of the back of a semi trailer. After 14 hour days, it was great to settle in to reading Agent before crashing into bed and starting all over again. Thanks for that.
“Agent to the Stars” was a great book, very entertaining. I hated that it had an ending! I read it not too long ago for the first time. I’ll get to re-read it again in a few years, God willing.
Agent to the Stars reminds me of the kind of sci-fi I loved as a kid, with aliens who were funny and friendly, and for that it’s one of my favorites of your books. The world needs more lighthearted sci-fi!
“Agent is my favorite Scalzi” guy checking in. Zany, witty, laugh out loud funny, with a dose of emotion that I don’t think has yet been equaled. As the books go on, I have my quibbles with that formula, but it’s in fine effect here.
I’ve had a few memorable (at least to me) encounters with it:
– I was one of those people who first read it online back in the day. Before or after OMW was out I cannot now recall, but pretty sure it was the first book-length fiction I’d read in that way, and definitely cemented in my head that this Scalzi guy was somebody to watch. Agent was the book I went around telling all my friends to read.
– I have copy #965 of the Subterranean Press hardcover, which I picked up in 2006 as one of my first conscious hardcover purchases and my first signed/collectable books. Still a favorite part of my bookshelf and one of the few I hauled off to library school with me.
– During my brief time in Army basic training in 2015, I ran across a paperback copy of Agent in our small unit library, which made me extraordinarily happy until I realized that someone had cut a hole in the middle of the book to hide a cell phone, because that’s what people do in basic. I wasn’t much enthused to hand it over to the Drill Sergeants, but the laughs (or the ones I could still read) were much appreciated during what ended up being a very long three months.
Which is all to say thanks for a great read and some fun memories.
Speaking of which, thank you for posting this. I’d have to toss a coin to pick favorites but this made me nod a few times, smile throughout and laugh out loud at least once. (The second noise may have been more of a laughing snort than a laugh.)
<3 This makes me smile. A lot.
I remember reading it on-line, and when I read”…maybe I should have said DiMaggio.” I nearly fell out of my chair laughing. I couldn’t BELIEVE someone could actually get away with incorporating that joke into a book – AND MAKING IT WORK!!
It’s been a great 20 years for us too (your fans). Thank you Mr. S
Good grief, it’s been 20 years?! How it flies. What is it with you and fart jokes, anyway?
It was my gateway Scalzi.
Another “Agent was my first Scalzi book and one of my favorites” reader here. I got worried when the OMW universe took over (I’ve mentioned that I got in trouble with my 85-year-old WWII veteran father when he saw me reading the book with THAT title) and was relieved when I heard that Android’s Dream opened with “a fart joke”. Since the passing of Douglas Adams we have desperately needed more seriously unserious science fiction, and if you can continue making every third-or-fourth book heavily wacky, I for one would appreciate it. Also, at a time when Deadpool and Squirrel Girl are our best comic relief in the superhero comics, I’d love to see a SuperScalzi.
The advertisement on Penny-Arcade was how I found both that book and this blog. Agent was the first book that truly made me laugh outside my mind when reading.
Loved it. Still love it. And you had no idea you were writing a classic. Love that, too!
That was the first fiction piece of yours I read. It was gentle and funny and an utter joy to read. Happy anniversary.
I really liked ‘Agent to the Stars’ when I first read it, and I still do; it has a Roger Zelazny vibe, and that for me is praise of the highest order…
A ‘fun’ read but enough ‘serious’ background to engage at many levels. With an Oscar-winning reveal to boot.
One of the endlessly re-readable SF stories. I found OMW in the local library
and went looking for more books by Scalzi – I don’t think “The Ghost Brigades”
was out yet. Came across the title and bought a copy on Abebooks (I’m in
the UK) and have re-read it intermittently ever since, the last time a week
or so ago.
For someone outside the USA / Hollywood I don’t think the time-slip is
a problem, or even noticeable.
Happy anniversary! I really loved everything you’ve written, the only exception possibly being Zoe’s Tale, which I merely enjoyed. Not because there was something wrong with it, but, as I myself were surprised to discover, I found it difficult to relate to the tone and state of mind of the sixteen (or whatever) years old main character, being a straight white dude in my early forties. But I believe it was a fun exercise for you and you pulled it off admirably, despite all that.
If anything, your books are too damn short! Even with limited time for reading, I usually devour any one of them in a very short time, desperately wanting more when it’s over! But I am grateful nonetheless. Thank you!
I’m looking forward to the next 20 years, and being intrigued by your books. Stay safe.
As soon as I saw that I wondered if it was a Kidby! Thanks for confirming. ^_^
I remember reading that and howling with laughter at the alien who was a Gelatinous Cube. I must confess to losing track of who the author was and definitely did not connect it to OMW.
This book was my first introduction to you (a lucky ‘let’s try a new author’ pic). Glad it happened.
I have read it after reading “Old Man War” series and the wonderfull “The Ghost Brigade”.. I guess I looked at the things from some perverse angle, since I was very much bothered by Michelles fate, and the others profitting from her being robbed of her personality er body and even her choice to die, made it so much worst. I guess I somehow connected to her more then to the protagosnist. May be I prefer “loosers”.
Hey! *I*’m a novelist!
Oh, wait. Maybe you implied the novel had to ultimately be publishable.
Anyway, I read Agent To The Stars after RedShirts and didn’t notice it being particularly dated.
I’m not among those wishing you wrote longer. I really appreciate having novels that aren’t all weighty tomes or striving to pack seven books in a trilogy.