Tom Stein is a rising star in a major Hollywood talent agency. One day, after securing a $12.5 million movie deal for his A-list client Michelle Beck, he's called into a meeting by his boss Carl Lupo. Carl introduces him to a blob-like alien named Joshua and explains that Joshua's people, the Yherajk, have traveled for many decades in their asteroid-turned-ship to initiate First Contact with humanity.
Unfortunately, after arriving and picking up on the latest media transmissions, they have realized that, to humans, they would appear as typical Blob Monsters despite their peaceful nature (the fact that they normally communicate via awful odors doesn't help). So, instead of going with the typical Take Me to Your Leader tactic, they have chosen to, first, hire a human agent to prepare humanity for the contact.
Since Carl is a well-known figure in Hollywood circles, he asks Tom to take on the entire Yherajk race as his clients. Carl also wants Joshua to move in with Tom for the time being. So, while trying to figure out how to make an unattractive alien race presentable to humanity, Tom has to keep a bored alien hidden from everyone else, fend off an annoying reporter, and keep his other clients (namely, Michelle Beck) happy. Cue hilarity.
The novel contains examples of the following tropes:
- Aerith and Bob: Of the spoken Yherajk names (translated from their "smell" language), some of the names are Gwedif, Ionar, and Uake. Then there's Joshua. This is justified, though, as he's a Half-Human Hybrid of sorts, whose name was given by Carl (in lieu of "Jesus").
- Alien Arts Are Appreciated: The Yherajk have something called "tivis", which are artworks made with smells. They are designed to trigger certain emotions when sniffed. Surprisingly, they also work on humans, despite our different biology.
- From the Yherajk standpoint, they are huge fans of human movies, TV shows and culture in general, partly because we are the first alien race they have encountered.
- Aliens Steal Cable: How the Yherajk first learned of humanity. It took them awhile to figure out that not everything they were looking at was a reflection of reality. They even thought that reruns were ritual reenactments of some important cultural events. This is also how the learned English, although, due to the time lag, they thought that "groovy" was still in wide use.
- Badass Bureaucrat: Miranda Escalon. She spend several years as a teenage gang member, then turned her life around, went to college, and became an office assistant.
- Blob Monster: The Yherajk are shapeless blobs with the ability to change their shape. They are, actually, a sentient colony organism with no specific organs. Their individual cells are fully interchangeable and do the tasks necessary for the moment. It's difficult to physically harm a Yherajk, although they are not immortal. According to Joshua, their natural lifespan is about the same as a human's (roughly, 90 years). As their method of reproduction is very similar to mitosis, all Yherajk are identical on a genetic level (which means they really do all look the same). Since learning that humans typically fear blob monsters thanks to Hollywood, they wish to first attempt to change humanity's view of such creatures before making first introductions. Should they fail, they are fully prepared to turn around and head home.
- Book Ends: Both in the first and in the last scene of the book, Tom is sitting in his office, talking to someone on the phone through a headset, and bouncing a little rubber raquetball against the window.
- Bungled Suicide: After being left alone with latex on her face, Michelle pulls out the straws from her nostrils in a teenage-like tantrum (of the "I'd like to see their reaction, after they find me dead" kind), before realizing that she was suffocating. By the time the paramedics arrive, she has been without oxygen for too long and has received significant brain damage.
- Casting Couch: Averted with Tom. It's mentioned that he first met Michelle, when she was working as a waitress at a restaurant, and he was a young hot-shot agent, looking to make this trope a reality. Michelle turned out to be too smart for that and convinced Tom to take her on as a client through determination alone. This is also what the agent who has previously worked with Tea Reader hoped before finding out that she was The Prima Donna.
- Contrived Coincidence: When talking to Roland Lanois, the director of Hard Memories, Tom discovers that Roland is planning to direct another Holocaust-related film, based on the life of a Catholic Polish poet, who was put in a concentration camp for helping Jews. Roland is having some difficulty getting the rights from the poet's surviving family. Tom recognizes the poet as Krysztof Kordus and explains that he has the rights to Krysztof's works, which were passed down from Tom's father, a literary agent.
- Death of Personality: The worst thing for a Yherajk is not physical death, although they fear that too. To them, their unique personality is all that distinguishes them from each other. As such, they consider their memories to be their soul. While not common, it's possible for a Yherajk to Mind Rape another Yherajk and overwrite its personality with another. This is called "soul death" and is tantamount to murder in their culture. For the most part, the Yherajk maintain mental defenses to keep that from happening. The only real way for a malicious Yherajk to do this to another is during their equivalent of reproduction, which involves two or more Yherajk joining their minds to create a personality for a new Yherajk. This requires all participants to drop their defenses, leaving them vulnerable.
- The Dog Is an Alien: Joshua eventually "inhabits" the body of Ralph, an old retriever, who suffers a heart attack. He explains that his people are normally against "inhabiting" the body of someone against their will, but he could sense that Ralph wanted it.
- Doing It for the Art: Despite just landing a $12.5 million deal to star in a sequel to her Alien Invasion blockbuster Murdered Earth, Michelle Beck is determined to try to get the lead role in a relatively low-budget biopic about a Holocaust survivor/civil rights advocate named Rachel Spiegelman. This is despite the fact that she barely has any idea what the Holocaust even was and that she looks nothing like the real Rachel Spiegelman, not to mention that her acting ability is average at best. She wants the role to work on her "craft", not wanting to be stuck doing sci-fi flicks for the rest of her career. Unfortunately, the Spiegelman family has veto power over the role of their late relative, and they don't believe that a twenty-something blue-eyed blonde like Michelle Beck deserves to play someone they consider a saint.
- First Contact: The Yherajk decide to postpone doing that, until humans at large are ready to accept a Blob Monster-like race on good terms. It finally happens during the Academy Awards, as "Michelle Beck" (actually, Joshua) is receiving her Oscar for playing a Holocaust survivor, she makes a grand speech about universal acceptance before becoming transparent (although retaining the shape of Michelle) and announcing that humans are not alone. It works.
- The unofficial first contact took place when Gwedif called Carl's cell phone and introduced himself, asking him to turn on the pool lights. Gwedif's pod then landed into the pool and dissolved. Gwedif then spoke to Carl. After coming to (he fainted), Carl spoke to Gwedif and found out what the Yherajk wanted. Gwedif and Carl then went up to the Ionar to meet the rest of the crew.
- Genre Savvy: Thanks to intercepting human broadcasts for decades, the Yherajk know enough from human movies and TV to realize that they would never be accepted by the human society, if they simply landed on the White House lawn and asked to see the President. Besides, they also know that the President of the United States does not speak for the whole world... but Hollywood does.
- Half-Human Hybrid: A variation. After making contact with Carl, a Yherajk named Gwedif explain that they wish to create a new Yherajk who has both the collective memories of the entire crew of the Ionar (about 2000 individuals), as well as a human (Carl), in order to serve as a bridge between the two races. Carl agrees, and Gwedif serves as a conduit for Carl's memories to the rest of the crew (Gwedif himself does not participate in the melding, but he explains that he will write the epic of this historic event). The result is a Yherajk, whom Carl names Joshua after his father (he rejects the Yherajk original idea of "Jesus" as being too offensive for a large percentage of humanity, instead opting for a translation of the same name). Joshua's first words to Carl are "Hi, pop". Compared to Gwedif (who mostly learned English from watching human TV), Joshua speaks English with perfect ease and understands American culture.
- The Holocaust: Despite the modern setting, the Holocaust plays a big role in the novel. First of all, the story centers around Hard Memories, a biopic about a Holocaust survivor, who went on to become an important figure of the Civil Rights Movement in the post-war US. Tom is himself familiar with two people who have been in concentration camps during the war: his own grandmother and a Polish poet, who was put there for harboring Jews. The film is used to revitalize the idea that hating someone for simply being different is just plain wrong, which is the moment Joshua uses to reveal himself to the world.
- I'm a Doctor, Not a Placeholder: Tom asks Carl how "the stuff in the aquarium" can talk. Carl responds with "I'm not really sure about the physics of it, Tom. I'm an agent, not a scientist".
- Intrepid Reporter: Jim Van Doren of The Biz. He spends much of the novel being a thorn in Tom's side, writing ridiculous articles about him, right at the time Tom needs the spotlight to be as far away from him (and Joshua) as possible. Unfortunately, Tom's secretiveness only piques Jim's interest. He ends up accidentally hitching a ride to the Yherajk ship, and Tom gets him to agree to hold off on writing anything about the aliens until the official First Contact. Jim reluctantly agrees and, eventually, ends up cashing in on the reveal by writing a book on his experiences aboard the Ionar. He also agrees to relive Michelle's last memories, with Gwedif being used as a conductor, in order to determine if she really did intend to kill herself. He proves that it was all a terrible mistake, which convinces the Yherajk to try letting Joshua "inhabit" Michelle's brain-dead body.
- Manly Tears: Anyone guy who witnesses Michelle/Joshua's performance as Rachel Spiegelman is invariably driven to tears. It helps that Michelle/Joshua is working with the personal experience "downloaded" from Tom's grandmother, who is herself a Holocaust survivor.
- Mental Fusion: The Yherajk are capable of melding with one another to transfer memories. This is done as a method of teaching and for reproduction (to create a new personality from bits and pieces of the "parents"). On their homeworld, they also do it with animals to control them via tiny (so thin, they've invisible) tendrils they insert through orifices into the brain. This also works on terrestrial creatures, including humans, although controlling another sentient being is a great taboo among their people. After becoming Michelle Beck, Joshua is taken to meet Tom's grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, who has lost the ability to speak after her stroke. Michelle/Joshua melds with her to discover what that horrible experience was like in order to ace Michelle's casting for Hard Memories. It works beyond all expectations, as "Michelle" plays the role of a Jewish woman in the Warsaw ghetto as if she herself was there.
- Mind Control: The Yherajk are able to exert control over lesser beings (i.e. animals) by sticking tiny (invisible to the naked eye) tendrils through their orifices into their brains and instructing them directly mind-to-mind. Back on their homeworld, they use this means to control a large frog-like animal (with more legs), their version of a beast of burden. When Tom shows his distaste for such method, Joshua points out that it's more humane than whipping or spurring an animal to get it to obey. They are strictly forbidden from doing that to other sentient beings, though.
- Mood Whiplash: The first half of the novel is fairly light and involves plenty of humorous moments. Then Michelle has an accident and ends up brain-dead. The rest of the novel is notably much more somber and darker, although there are some lighter moments.
- No Periods, Period: Menstruation is mentioned a total of one time, when Gwedif explains to Miranda the reason why Joshua needs to literally dig around inside her brain to figure out how to control a female human body. As Gwedif points out, a human male brain doesn't know how to handle things like menstruation. Miranda quips that this is true on so many level, and Gwedif agrees, presumably aware of the trope from watching TV.
- One-Gender Race: The Yherajk don't have a concept of sex or gender, given their nature and method of reproduction. However, for ease of communication, the pronoun "he" is employed. Additionally, Joshua behaves in a more masculine manner than the rest of his kind, but this is likely because Carl (a human male) is one of his parents and is the one who named him Joshua. Joshua's manner changes slightly after becoming "Michelle", and Tom makes it a point to refer to "Michelle" as "she".
- Organic Technology: The landing "cubes" used by the Yherajk are grown when necessary and dissolved into usable organics after.
- Planet Spaceship: The Yherajk ship, the Ionar, is a converted asteroid. It can only move at sublight speeds, so the journey from their homeworld took them several decades.
- The Prima Donna: Tea Reader is a semi-popular singer, represented by Tom, although it's revealed that nearly half of the revenue from her albums comes from teenage boys buying them just for the cover picture of her coming out of the pool. She's also a complete bitch, who treats everyone around her like crap (apparently unaware of the teenage boy demographic). After Tom asks a rookie agent named Amanda Hewson to take over as Tea's agent, Tea shows up and drives the inexperienced agent to tears. Tom then puts Tea in her place by pointing out that he's the only good agent willing to work with her, so she better shut up and treat Amanda nicely.
- Sarcastic Confession: Maybe. At one point, Jim Van Doren asks Tom directly what he's up to, and Tom tells him the truth, knowing fully well that Jim will think he's mocking him. It isn't mentioned how much, if any, sarcasm there is in Tom's tone of voice, though.
- Sexy Secretary: Miranda Escalon is Tom's assistant. Besides being attractive, she is very good at her job, and her relationship with Tom has traces of Sassy Secretary. While in a vulnerable state, Tom ends up kissing Miranda, and she responds in kind. She later finds out about the aliens and even allows Joshua to rummage around in her brain to learn how to control a female human body, although she demands that Tom not be present during this. During the montage at the end, it's mentioned that Tom and Miranda got married and are expecting a baby.
- Small Name, Big Ego: Inevitable given the Hollywood setting. Tea Reader is the most prominent example, being a moderately successful singer most well known for looking like a real life Barbie doll. Also mentioned but not seen are a character actor who refuses anything less than leading roles after being nominated for Best Supporting Actor once, and a Telenovela star who wants roles in English speaking media but refuses to learn the language.
- Starfish Language: The Yherajk communicate with one another by emitting complicated smells, with the identity of the "speaker" stated by a unique molecular marker. To a human, it all smells awful. The considerate Yherajk make nose plugs for all visiting humans, although even thoes fail during heated arguments or loud cheering.
- Symbiotic Possession: A variation. Tom later discovers that the Yherajk are able to "enter" other living beings and control them from the inside. This first happens during a hike Joshua takes with Ralph, an old dog that belongs to one of Tom's neighbors. During the trek, Ralph has a heart attack, and Joshua is forced to "inhabit" him to save him. However, in doing so, Joshua absorbs Ralph's personality, and his body is slowly taking over, as Ralph's cells are dying. Eventually, nothing is left of Ralph besides parts of his personality in Joshua's mind. After Michelle's accident leaves her brain-dead, Tom convinces Joshua to do the same thing to her.
- Talk to the Fist: Tom's reaction after finding out that another agent in a neighboring office has stolen several of his clients, after deliberately sabotaging him in an article. After walking in on the guy, in the middle of a meeting with a Playboy playmate, he walks around the desk, and breaks his nose with a single punch before warning him to never poach his clients again. He then sits in the vacant seat, smiles to the playmate, and asks her if she needs an agent. She runs away screaming. Tom does later admit to his secretary Miranda that his hand hurts like hell.
- The Un Reveal: Thanks to "Michelle"/Joshua revealing her/himself to the public, it's never revealed if Hard Memories wins the Best Picture category at the Academy Awards.