The Human Division

Every once in a while, a publisher has the bright idea to bring back serialized publishing. If it was good enough for Dickens, it’s gotta be good enough for Stephen King, amiright? Indeed, King dabbled with the serial novel form a few times in the mid-90s and early 21st century (remember those skimpy The Green Mile installments popping up in book stores?) Others have too, and there’s always been stories published in parts via magazines (often expanded when translated to book form, but still). I don’t think it’s ever truly caught on, but now that we’ve reached the internet age and digital publishing has established itself, it’s just a lot easier and at the end of the day, you don’t have 13 tiny books cluttering up your shelves (as I understand it, they generally come grouped together on your ereader).

With all due respect, I don’t care for this approach, which is why I waited until John Scalzi’s latest novel, The Human Division, had completed its serial run and made it’s appearance as a final novel. I don’t begrudge Scalzi the whole grand experiment, but I just don’t have the temperament to wait a week between chapters (even if the chapters are self-contained, more on this in a bit). I’m the same way with TV shows, though in some cases I catch up with the series and start watching serially from that point on because I’m really enjoying it. So I may have to put up with it sometimes (and in the case of television, I understand the various forces that conspire to keep a serialized structure), but I don’t generally like it. But enough kvetching about the method of publishing, let’s get to the good stuff.

I really enjoyed the book. It’s not perfect, and there is one thing I’m really annoyed by, but it’s still a really fun page-turner. By way of introduction, this one is the fifth book that has been set in Scalzi’s Old Man’s War universe… and by my reckoning, it’s the best since the first. Each book in the series has taken a different perspective on the universe. The first book focuses on the military grunts. The second book focuses on The Ghost Brigades, basically the special forces of this particular universe. It was a solid read and exciting and all that, but in my mind it was plagued by a galactic sized plot hole at the center of the story. The Last Colony is the third book, and it examines the colonists (through the eyes of characters from the first two books). It had some loose ends, but I liked it a lot. And the fourth book is Zoe’s Tale, basically a retelling of the third book, but from the perspective of the teenage daughter of the colony leaders. That’s a tricky approach, but I think Scalzi cleared the bar, even if it suffers from similar loose ends to the third book.

Being a serialized book, The Human Division is a bit more disjointed, but the main narrative thrust of the story is told from the perspective of the Diplomatic Corps. It picks up after the events of The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale, and without giving too much away from those earlier stories, the human factions of the story are taking a decidedly more diplomatic approach than they used to. Most of the stories surround the crew of the Clarke, a small diplomatic vessel manned by what is generally considered to be the “B” Team. They tend to bumble along most of the time, but during periods of extreme stress, they do manage to get things done.

The chapters of the book tend to alternate between tales of the Clarke, and other various one-off stories. The Clarke stories are the best of the lot, at least partly because we get to know those characters the best. Lieutenant Harry Wilson tends to be the one causing the most problems, or rather, discovering most of the problems and devising ingenious solutions. He gets into lots of shenanigans, and it’s all great fun. Wilson is actually a character from the first book, and it’s always great to return to him. The one-off chapters are a little more hit-or-miss. Some are great, some are just fine. Those “fine” ones (I’m looking at you, “A Voice in the Wilderness”) are sometimes almost completely irrelevant to the rest of the story. Most of them seem to center around a sorta shadowy conspiracy that hasn’t quite been defined just yet. They’re self contained and I liked all of them, but Scalzi doesn’t always come back to their characters. Given the episodic nature of the book, it’s not really a complaint, and I like it when the author lets the universe breath a little.

Each story is mostly self contained, yielding a feeling very similar to that of a television series (indeed, this seems to be what Scalzi was going for, calling each chapter an “Episode”). There is an overarching plot, mostly centering around that conspiracy, but the focus is more on each individual story and resolving those conflicts. There is some refresher courses on the events of the earlier books in the series (totally understandable), but also a little repetition amongst the episodes themselves, almost as if Scalzi was expecting people to skip around. That’s ultimately a very minor flaw though, and each story works pretty well in its own right. They’re all filled with Scalzi’s trademark witty banter and humor, but also with clever little mysteries or conundrums that spark that sensawunda feeling every now and again. Some of them are bit predictable (Checkov’s gun abounds here – if Scalzi mentions a long lost artifact in passing, you can bet that Wilson will probably stumble onto it by accident and almost spark a diplomatic disaster…), but that didn’t actually diminish the stories at all (for me, at least).

Also like a TV series, the ending of the book is something of a cliffhanger. The immediate conflict is resolved, but it feels like we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ultimate driving forces behind this book. It feels like the end of a season of TV, but that’s not necessarily that satisfying either. It’s not the worst offender in that respect (more on that in a later post, as I just finished a different book that basically just ran out of pages – apparently I have another 1000 page brick to get through to get any sense of closure at all). Anyways, Scalzi has announced that The Human Division has been renewed for a “Second Season”. Again I don’t begrudge him his cute experimental serial book as TV series metaphorical setup, but I really hope this second season finishes what has been started here. Scalzi is mildy prolific, so I’m hoping for a quick turnaround on this next season, but even then, we’ve probably got at least a year before the next book hits (I’m guessing it will be serialized as well).

Ultimately, I still really enjoyed the book and would recommend it. Even though it’s probably good as a standalone, it would be worth reading at least the original Old Man’s War (or all the other books in the series) first. Despite the cliffhanger, which was a little disappointing, I still like this book overall much better than the other sequels. This is mostly because I’m banking on an actual conclusion in the next installment and I trust that Scalzi can deliver something satisfying. I’d rather not have to wait for it, but such is life!