Daniel M. Kimmel's obvious and sincere appreciation for the classics of science fiction cinema shines through his first novel, "Shh! It's a Secret." A fixture at Arisia and other SFF conventions, Kimmel's day job is a movie reviewer for a variety of magazines, dailies and blogs. I know him primarily through his moderation of a "Year in Movies," panel at Arisia, a task he handles with grace and good humor but he's also the author of "Jar Jar Binks Must Die," a collection of essays and appreciations of the science fiction genre that was a finalist for a Hugo award. It's this deep reservoir of knowledge that animates "Shh! It's a Secret," his first fiction novel, and gives it a wry, self-aware brand of humor.
Earth is contacted by an alien race known as the Brogardi (which I took as an allusion to the Golden Age of Hollywood) who offer fantastic technology and peace coexistence with humanity in exchange for…our anesthesia. Despite possessing amazing ships (basically spinning tesseracts on stilts) capable of leaping the distance between our planet and theirs, medical technology is apparently backwards on their home planet. Once humanity and Brogardians dispense with the pleasantries the world continues to spin on much as it had before. Politicians give speeches, reporters write stories, and Hollywood continues to make movies. Jake Berman, an executive for the Graham film studio, a company mostly known for a series of movies involving intrepid animatronic ducklings takes all of these disruptions in stride until one day his boss Sly "Junior" Graham informs him that a Brogardi, Abe, has come to the studio with the intention of starring in a movie. The project could easily become a massive hit for the company and a powerful step forward in human/Brogardi relations. As long as it can be carefully and covertly shepherd through intense media scrutiny to the box office, a task falling to Berman.
Some science fiction books explore the meaning of humanity under the encroachment of technology. Others grasp at the nature of reality itself. Then you have books that wonder what would happen if an alien tried to become a movie star.
Okay, so "Shh! It's a Secret," is obviously not a first contact story in the same mold as "Mote in God's Eye," or "Rendez-vous with Rama." Actually, this is not much of an obstacle as the novel is a lot of fun. Written in a chatty, confidential style, Kimmel puts his "behind-the-scenes" knowledge of the movie industry to the service of describing a different sort of alien invasion.
At its heart, the novel is a pleasant, gently comedic look at one of the oldest, if not the oldest, comedy set-ups: the fish out of water scenario. Brogardi are sufficiently anthropomorphic that they can breathe Terran air, eat Terran food, and communicate more or less freely. They wheeze when they laugh, have little trouble staying under water, and don't always get human jokes. Some of the best episodes in the book occur when Abe is clearly attempting to fit into human norms while still preserving his own unique character. An experience, one imagines, as Elmore Leonard suggested in "Get Shorty," not all that different from an outsider trying to break into Hollywood's insular and risk-adverse universe.
The movie industry described in the book is slightly anachronistic: seedy and chauvinistic in the Mad Men mode. Actually, I feel like this book might have been better served if it was written as alt-history, portraying the Hollywood of the Rat Pack and Marilyn Monroe grappling with an alien actor. That would make the distress Jake expresses over Abe's fraternization with one of the movie's lead actress's a little more plausible.
A different setting would also work better considering that the titles of the movies used as chapter titles were by and large taken from movies produced during the middle of the last century, and the Brogardians themselves are a bit of a throw-back, creature design-wise. They are blue, possess gills and don't like lying. Although I typically prefer my aliens to be as extravagantly inhuman as possible, the Brogradi worked for me precisely because they seemed such a deliberate homage to the "My Favorite Martians," of yesteryear. I also appreciated the "Great Society" liberalism inherent in the story. The Brogardi represent a challenge to humanity, but one that's embraced instead of feared. Almost without exception, the conflict in this story is about how to preserve the secrecy surrounding the project rather than overcoming some great prejudice over the aliens.
Which gets into my basic criticism with the book:it could use a lot more conflict. Not of the ray guns and explosions variety but consistent tension between the characters. Everyone in this story gets along really, really well. Everyone seems to know their place within the grand scheme of things, and while Kimmel takes pains to point out the cynicism and sausage-making aspects of Hollywood, nothing really jars or disturbs. I would have liked Abe's father, a Brogardi described as being very traditional and conservative, to be more of an active foil during the course of the story. I would have liked Berman's job complicated by some intrepid but unscrupulous investigative Parade journalist. "Shh! It's a Secret" is not "Get Shorty" in science fiction drag but it would have benefited from a few Leonard-style train wrecks during the course of the story.
But none of the criticisms should take away from the basic pleasure in reading this book. There's a lot to be said of a book that sets out a few goals: describe a new civilization and form of life boldly exploring that most peculiar of Earth institutions: Hollywood.