A classmate recommended I read some of Alan Dean Foster's non-Star Wars works (I have already read Splinter of the Mind's Eye, Star Wars from the Adventures of Luke Skywalker, and The Approaching Storm). I read the back of this one and thought it might be similar to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, an absolutely hilarious book. So, naturally, I bought it and read it.
The remains of a leftover cheese sandwich cause all the AIs to begin to contemplate the universe and search for an alien intelligence. One particular AI, a food processor that works at a retirement home on Earth, actually discovers an alien spaceship with the assistance of five of the retirement home's populace (Shimoda, Hawkins, Mina Gelmann, Victor Iranaputra, and Wesley Follingston-Heath). The six must discover a way to keep the humans from obtaining the ship, and the ship from possibly destroying the humans--or having the enormous fleet that is quickly approaching the ship destroy the human civilization.
Although still not as funny as Hitchhiker's, this is a rather humorous book. There were a few scenes that I absolutely keeled over. I particularly loved how Ksarusix talked, Follingston-Heath (probably my favorite senior, although Hawkins was a kick), and the Autothor in general. The plot was pretty intriguing and was the primary reason I kept plugging through when part of me wanted to give up.
Also, I enjoyed reading about the seniors. Too often books concentrate on the 20 - 30 set, which is far from representative of our society (particularly now when many of the baby boomers are hitting their later years). These five people were unique and although slightly caricatured, were enjoyable to read about. Each person spoke as I thought he or she would (with some slight exceptions on the part of Hawkins, who occasionally used words too advanced for his station).
Then, when the aliens do appear (finally!), I enjoyed reading the description of them (kudos to Foster for avoiding the bipedal stereotype!) and how they talked. It was amusing to think that they would sound similar to humans--partly the result of a translator and partly the belief that aliens wouldn't be all that dissimilar from humans.
First off, Foster probably wrote this book with a 3000 page thesaurus next to him. Words like "expostulate" crop up in Foster's world of everyday speech (particularly incongruous when you hear this from Hawkins, a retired blue collar worker). Yeah, I hear that everyday too. Not. And while the book was funny, I felt that Foster wrote in high society language (i.e. what I would hear from a word addict and not my best friend) so that when he delivered a joke, it came out even more funny. However, this grew very tiresome and even difficult to pick through.
Then, we have the fact that between about page 75 and 225 absolutely nothing happens. We are introduced to the problem of the mechanicals, the quest for non-human intelligent life, and the discovery of an alien ship by 5 senior citizens, then Foster apparently got tired and decided to have his five main characters sit back on a beach for days at a time. That is not only insulting to seniors--to say that all they could think of after discovering something as important as an alien artifact is to find a beach and sit there contemplating what's going to happen instead of finding out what's going to happen (which happens about five times if I counted correctly)--but also very boring. Over those 150+ pages, we instead get to see how the other nations have reacted to this. Yawn.
But even with these caveats, I was okay with the book (mostly) until about page 225. Then, we are introduced to Zabela Ashili, a hastily thrown together character that makes a miraculous change of heart in such record time, someone ought to call the Guiness Book of World Records people. She arrives in a rather interesting manner, but only Mina Gelmann has any qualms about her strange arrival, but these qualms promptly disappear over the next 5 pages or 7 days their time. Yup, Foster then skips over 7 days of bonding with new character, Ashili, and instead hastily summarizes the events. I figure by this time Foster's editor told him he had better'd finish this book soon. Either that or Foster couldn't think of anything else for the seniors to do on the beach (he already gave them sunshades and let them alter the temperature).
Anyway, back to Ashili. So, we are introduced and supposed to bond with a woman who is thrown into the book only 75 pages before the end. Like that is going to happen. And then feel her pain when the seniors are threatened. I'm sorry, but I hardly know this woman and most of the important bonding parts were skimmed over. I don't really care if she's having second thoughts about what she's doing. In fact, I would feel a lot better if the characters we spent knowing over the past 275 pages were doing the actions instead of hovering in the background.
Last problem with Ashili, I promise. The Candombleans had been portrayed as the ultimate fraternity/sorority. Up until Ashili, most Candombleans were either partying or hung-over. And we as the audience are supposed to suddenly believe that this culture can train up people like Ashili for undercover missions? I can think of one type of underCOVER mission they would be good for, but that wouldn't exactly gain her access to a spaceship, now would it?
Last beef: why did Foster throw that twist about Follingston-Heath? Other than strip him of what made him most exciting, it really served no purpose to the story. Furthermore, it felt forced and dropped in as if Foster thought, "Geez, this sounds cool. Let's try it out here."
There were quite a few da**, he**, sh**, and other foul words that I found a little surprising. Mina Gelmann is said to have several liaisons, the Candombleans are continuously dressed scantily (and at every opportunity described as such--Foster, what was on your mind, the story or the sexy women?), and the like. Violence is rather tame. A lawn mower threatens a human. That's pretty much the extent.
Hm. What do I say about this? Codgerspace had a very interesting premise. But I despised perusing this novel with a dictionary in close proximity. And having to imbibe copious quantities of caffeinated beverages while the octogenarians convalesced on the artificial coastline composed of ground granite, sodium chloride, and solidified, translucent sandstone. And having a character composed of corrugated carbon-based tree products foisted on me ¾ of the way through the book. I have a few other Foster books that I'll probably read, but this was certainly not what I expected from Foster's non-Star Wars works. 5 stars to plot, 4 stars to the seniors, 2 stars to the pacing, and 1 star to the hasty poorly done character addition. All in all, I say 2.5 stars rounded to 3 stars.