John Scalzi's latest addition to his Old Man's War series, The Human Division, opens with a bang. A diplomatic ship skips into a system in preparation for a high level meeting with an alien race, only to get blown out of space by an unknown attacker. What follows is a Heinlein-ian thrill ride that tilts the balance of power in the galaxy - that's just the first episode.
Taking place after The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale, The Human Division is notable for a couple of reasons: it’s a long-awaited addition to the popular series, which left on a somewhat ambiguous note. The book – I’d hesitate to call it a novel – is also an experimental one that pulls in the digital and audio logistical footprints in ways that haven’t really been possible before now. And finally, the book is notable because it is an interesting, exciting, and somewhat more mature addition to the series.
The Human Division picks up just months after Earth was confronted with an Alien fleet, led by Major John Perry, who revealed some disturbing truths behind the planet’s relationship with the Colonial Union. Faced with intense competition from over six hundred alien species and the rise of an organized group known as the Conclave, the Colonial Union, which relied on humanity’s home world for a large supply of recruits. What follows in this set of stories is the aftermath.
The sheer scale of The Human Division lends itself to be a difficult one for a conventional book, and this is where the novel’s structure comes in handy. Rather than chapters, we’re treated to thirteen episodes, bookended by two double-size episodes. Over the course of the spring, each of the thirteen episodes have been released on a weekly basis for those with e-readers and the various online retailers. If eBooks aren’t your thing, each episode was available in an audio file through Audible and iTunes. In this way, the episodes don’t necessarily form a linear course like you might find in a novel. Rather, they’re thirteen individual segments of the story that, when placed together, give you a coherent story. It’s not too dissimilar from what you might find with a television series. Indeed – there’s too much for a single novel, and the cliffhanger ending is reminiscent of what you’d find in most SF TV shows at the end of the season.
I like this format. We’ve talked a little about serialized science fiction already, and with the rise of mobile devices and eReaders, it’s a format that works well with the available technology. The story that Scalzi’s presenting is far-reaching, and there’s excellent coverage for the various ramifications of the events in Colonial Union-held space. We see diplomats under fire, hijacked space ships, political discourse, paranoid radio talk-show hosts, terrorist bombings and a truely epic finale.
The central focus of The Human Division the crew of the Clarke: Colonial Defense Force Lieutenant Harry Wilson and Colonial Union Diplomat Hart Schmidt, Captain Sophia Coloma and Ambassador Ode Abumwe, and a handful of other regulars. The Clarke stories are the backbone of this tale, and if this were the television series the format emulates, they would be the main cast listed on the opening credits. The side stories draw in other characters: General Gau (seen in prior books), members of a wildcat colony, a CDF fire team, the survivor of a hijacked ship and a political talk show host who finds himself in much deeper waters than he thought. There’s generally a point in most episodes where the characters stand around and explain what’s happening to one another, which is a little annoying when you remember that this isn’t a television show, but a work of prose fiction. It works, in this context, but it feels as though it plays more towards the strengths of a motion picture, rather than a book, which seems to limit the characters a bit (but not so much the action). But, where they have their flaws, they also add in quite a bit of side material that adds to the main action’s context, which was very helpful.
When it comes to the non-Clarke episodes, some are engaging, such as The Sound of Rebellion, which carried forward a couple of interesting, underused characters. Walk the Plank, seemed to exist only to put a couple of things into action. It, along with This Must Be The Place, felt like under-utilized space. These are all small story fragments that in and of themselves are solid, but taken on their own, don’t do much. There’s also points where some of the details are redundant, because each episode is designed to somewhat stand alone. It’s when they’re assembled that a pretty interesting, overarching story comes into focus, and that’s where the real strengths of The Human Division are apparent.
I worked to sample the series in all of its incarnations: audio tracks, downloadable segments, and finally, the full novel, and overall, this works best reading it from start to finish in book form, but the individual ebooks/audio tracks are well worth picking up as well. Reading all of these in conjunction with one another, on a variety of platforms, highlighted the multi-purpose strength of this novel, which is what makes it the most notable literary experiment of its kind. The final version has some added material that doesn’t really add much to the overall storyline, but it was nice to see it included. I also found that while the book was designed to be accessible to newcomers to the series, it helps to have at least read Old Man’s War and more importantly, The Last Colony. They’re not essential, but when I went back to read TLC, a lot of plot elements fell into place, and provided some much-needed context. (Up to this point, I’d only read OMW.)
The most frustrating part of The Human Division lies with the overarching story, and with its similarities to a television show: there’s some good forward movement with the Clarke episodes, but there’s little resolution with the overarching story. Fortunately, a second ‘season’ of The Human Division has been commissioned, and we’ll be seeing more from the story in short order. But fans expecting a clear-cut novel will face a wait until the next book is released. Personally, I can’t wait to see what Scalzi has in store.
The bottom line: The Human Division flat out rocked. It’s a smart space opera novel that weaves together politics, characters and action that surpasses its predecessors in the series. For an experimental novel (and this isn’t the first online attempt at a serialized story), it seems to have mostly worked, and at points, worked incredibly well. More than just an experiment in the delivery medium, this is a fine read, and an excellent addition to the series. Season/Book 2 can’t come soon enough.