Review of The Human Division by John Scalzi
The Human Division
by John Scalzi
I had trouble describing The Human Division to friends, because the Old Man’s War universe is military science-fiction, but this particularly novel isn’t so heavy on the “military” aspect. Following the events in The Last Colony (which I haven’t read yet), the Colonial Union has to let military operations take a back seat and resort to democracy to get what it wants. The State Department is suddenly important, meaning that even the diplomats who don’t get the crucial negotations—the “B-Team”, if you will—have a job to do. As the plot develops across the stories in the volume, it becomes clear that not everyone wants them to do it.
The Human Division explores the fallout that could happen when a political entity comprising the various colonies of humanity discovers that its homeworld, Earth, no longer trusts it. Having used Earth for decades as a source of colonists and soldiers, the Colonial Union is tilting into panic mode now that this source has virtually dried up. Meanwhile, it feels the pressure from the diplomatic and military juggernaut that is the Conclave, a union of over 400 alien species all interested in cooperating to continue colonizing the galaxy.
Most series tend to feature the same protagonists across a number of books. With this series, John Scalzi bucks that trend, focusing on different protagonists. Characters from previous books return, in an expanded or reduced capacity (depending on their schedules, I assume), but Scalzi chooses his cast based on the story he wants to tell, rather then telling a story centred on the cast he wants to use.
The majority of tales in this book follow Colonial Defense Forces (CDF) Lieutenant Harry Wilson, Ambassador Ode Abumwe, Hart Schmidt, and Colonial Union Captain Sophia Coloma. These characters form a combined military, diplomatic, and civilian backbone to show that, when it comes to being decent and heroic, no one type of person or vocation can lay claim to that mantle. Each of these characters get a chance to shine multiple times throughout the book.
Wilson is probably the runaway protagonist here, though it’s hard to say. Scalzi’s writing is, as usual, always humourous and occasionally hilarious. Unfortunately, his characters have a tendency to come off as one-note. That is to say, most of his characters are clever and witty and sarcastic—but that all such characters are clever, witty, and sarcastic in the same way. Hence, though The Human Division can at times be laugh-out-loud funny (or simply, “shake your head in rueful appreciation of the awesomely clever writing”), it lacks strong and diverse voices for its characters. Wilson’s voice—the way he talks, the way he slowly explains each step of his clever realizations—is aggravatingly similar to the way the alien Sorvalh explains why a racist colony leader is going to surrender:
“I want to talk to your leader,” Sorvalh said. “I believe his name is Jaco Smyrt.”
“He won’t talk to you,” said the first colonist.
“Why ever not?” Sorvalh asked.
“Because you’re a xig,” he said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
“That’s really unfortunate,” Sorvalh said. “Because, you see, if I am not talking to Mr. Smyrt in ten of your minutes, then those particle beams I mentioned to you will cycle through their targets, and you’ll all be dead, again. But I suppose if Mr. Smyrt would rather you all be dead, it’s all the same to me. You might want to spend those moments with your families, gentlemen.”
Scalzi does a great job coming up with diverse, non-humanoid descriptions for his aliens. But they sound, for the most part, like humans. Despite their alien customs and traditions, translation seems to overlay a human sense of humour and ennui as well. There’s something to be said for a writer’s style, of course, but in this case it’s a little more extreme, and it starts to grate.
I quite liked The Human Division’s focus on the relationship between Earth and the Colonial Union. It shares the trait with the other books in this series in that, although ostensibly involving stories about conflicts between humanity and other species, the book is more about how humans treat each other in a universe where space colonization has become commonplace. The introduction of a shadowy, third-party nemesis with unclear motivations lays the ground for further books in the series that will no doubt continue to threaten the uneasy peace between Earth and the Colonial Union and the Conclave.
The book’s structure as a serial of thirteen stories does not adversely affect its quality as a complete novel either. The stories are self-contained, to the extent that The Human Division is not a serial in the Victorian sense that Dickens would have recognized. In About Writing, Samuel R. Delany is sceptical of treating chapters of a novel like they are short stories, particularly opening chapters. He insists that the two formats have very different requirements—and he’s correct. Nevertheless, Scalzi pulls off a series of short stories that are also a novel with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and plot and character development along the way. The structure of the Old Man’s War universe itself helps with this task: Scalzi has created a universe that feels comfortable, drawing as it does on established tropes (like “skip” or jump drives for faster-than-light travel) that are refreshed through some new terminology and polished exposition.
The overall result is a novel that is enjoyable and accessible. Scalzi maintains that one doesn’t need to have read previous books in the series to understand or enjoy The Human Division. I have The Last Colony sitting around at home—in Canada, that is. I could have waited until the summer so I could read both books in the “proper” order. I took Scalzi at his word, however, and it pays off. There are some spoilers for The Last Colony, naturally, because this is set afterwards. However, they are spoilers to the book as the first three Star Wars movies are spoilers to the prequels: you know what’s coming, but you don’t know how you are getting there. Anyway, if you haven’t read previous books in this series, don’t let that deter you from giving The Human Division a try.