The Human Division by John Scalzi. Book review

human divisonTHE HUMAN DIVISION by John Scalzi, Tor U.S., hardback, $25.99, www.tor-forge.com

 Reviewed by Richard Webb @RaW_writing

The Human Division follows (sort of) the story of The Old Man’s War; it is set in the same universe and references key moments (Roanoke) and characters (John Perry) from that series. The book trails the ‘B-Team’ of the diplomatic corps of the Colonial Union – human off-Earth colonies – and the thankless missions they are tasked with: fixing near-breakdowns in diplomacy with the threat of full-scale war should they fail. Several characters are recurring, in particular the wiseass-but-proficient techie Harry Wilson and the acerbic ambassador Abumwe.

This is not a novel as such, though it may look like one. It was initially released in serial format over thirteen weeks with a new chapter each week, released only in eBook format. This structure informs the narrative as well as the success/failure of the book – which is actually a series of short stories more akin to episodes of a TV series. Although approximately chronological, chapters do not transition directly on to the next, but stand as isolated incidents with a set-up, intervention and conclusion, very much a ‘this week’s episode’ premise.

As such, chapters/stories are of varying length, quality and relevance; on the one hand this format succeeds in portraying an array of perspectives around a conflict – we see not only the agents and actions of Colonial Defense Force, but also Union civilians, Earth dwellers and various alien species of the Conclave, a confederation of different non-human intelligent life-forms. Scalzi focuses on the fragments rather than the whole, scenes from the periphery, all the more fascinating because this is the ‘war-behind-the-war’; rather than the super-soldiers of previous entries in the series, this is the war taking place across secret negotiating tables, in off-the-record conversations and exchanges that ‘never happened.’ The effect is a kaleidoscope of viewpoints, the chaotic multiplicity of minor disputes which have far-reaching ramifications.

A side-effect is that we spend less time with characters and can’t see how events change them. Much of the drama is in dialogue rather action and though we read of the importance of characters’ actions, we seldom feel it – jeopardy seems conceptual rather than actual; actions taken perhaps save lives but from threats abstractly described rather than depicted. This unemotional quality is furthered by Wilson who shoulders his burdens lightly and whose flippancy is often met in kind by various aliens…sarcasm is universal in Scalzi’s universe.

This reader had not read any of the Old Man’s War series and so couldn’t tell whether this helped/hindered reading The Human Division; to the book’s credit, it was not difficult to get into, due to the light sprinkling of ‘back-story’ without resorting to info-dumping.
A few chapters hit bum-notes: The Dog King was a riff on clunky ‘golden-age’ sci-fi yarns but strays too far to be fetched, and This Must Be the Place is nothing more than a pleasant detour which should have been bumped to the ‘extras’ at the back of the edition. Other than those, chapters are consistently engaging, gripping at times and often sizzling in dialogue exchanges. Scalzi’s trademark wit (read his blog) is frequently evident, though some characters not being quite so sharp-mouthed would have been welcome. It is easy to imagine an audiobook version doing justice to these scenes and characters though.

When the sarcasm abates, there are philosophical moments of questioning: how would humans on Earth interrelate with space colonies? What place does humanity have amongst the myriad species depicted? How would we share/control resources, technologies, rights of access? In other words, issues foreign policy grapples with in our increasingly cosmopolitan world. More pauses for thought would have raised the book’s impact.

The book ends…without an ending, abruptly. Those seeking a coherent conclusion to the Old Man’s War series here might be disappointed. We see hints that there is a force at work trying to scupper the diplomatic efforts as various attempts to frame one or other side are uncovered, but there is no resolution; instead an intriguing sense of a mystery/crisis deepening. But this is an entertaining and pacey serving of canapés rather than the main course: bite-sized nuggets that whet the appetite without really filling the belly…always leave your punters hungry for more, John?