Title: The Human Division
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Tor Books
How would humanity fare in a universe filled with other sentient races and the technology for all of them to interact? If human history is any indication there would be conflict. That conflict would be between many groups that saw themselves as people and the rest as monsters. What that universe and those interactions would look like is a key theme in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series. The latest offering, The Human Division continues to dig deeply into a wide range of questions about what makes someone a person and how people treat one another at their best and worst.
It’s been five years since the publication of the last book in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, Zoe’s Tale. That entry saw Scalzi explore new ground with his first juvenile. The newest Old Man’s War book is another first for Scalzi. The Human Division was released on the web as a serial prior to being published in a complete volume in hardback and as an ebook. This was planned from the start and made for an interesting experience as those who chose to purchase chapters as they came out worked through the book together.
I have to admit I skipped out on reading the chapters as they were released. It seemed like a fun thing to do but I wanted to see what it would all cost in the end. Scalzi repeatedly said that the fully compiled story would cost the same as buying it in parts but I wanted to see how it would play out. So I avoided on-line discussion of the chapters as they were released and when it became available about a week ago I purchased the e-book version. The price was basically the same, though buying the complete book was a couple bucks cheaper and did include some extra content. I’d already read a big part of that extra content as it had been available earlier via Tor.com.
From what I’ve read on Scalzi’s blog, his experiment with serializing the book was a success from a busienss standpoint. And I got the impression that most readers enjoyed the process as they went along, though I did try to avoid most discussion as it was happening to avoid spoilers. Publishing stories in this manner has been around for a long time, but I think the results may encourage others to do the same and we may see more of this in the near future. Scalzi has already agreed to do season 2, or the next book, in the same fashion.
Reading it all at once, I could still appreciate that it was written this way. Each chapter is self contained to a large extent. There are glimpses into the lives of various characters, changes of setting, and some wonderful storytelling. It all fits together and is certainly a novel, not a collection of short stories, but much more episodic. I thought it allowed for a nice amount of flexibility in the flow of the story and I appreciated the end result even if I got it all in one package at the end.
Aside from interest in the method of delivery, I was very excited to read The Human Division for the story itself. I hadn’t enjoyed Scalzi’s last sci-fi outing, Redshirts and was really looking forward to his return to my favorite universe he has created. The Old Man’s War series, fitting into the military sci-fi genre, has of course brought many comparisons between Scalzi and Heinlein. I imagine part of the enjoyment I get from Scalzi’s books are that he does have some commonality with R.A.H. who is one of my favorite authors. But really Scalzi does have his own voice, style and message and this comes more and more to the fore as the series moves on. The Human Division has all of the excitement, action and wit that makes reading Scalzi so fun. I think his ability to put together strong dialogue is unparalleled. And it is still military sci-fi, with our main protagonist being a soldier. Yet the world is so much more complex and rich than a simple kill or be killed scenario that moves from one point of action to the next. And even what would be slow points in a book that used action to carry a lack of plot, are full of rewarding interaction. We get to know and care about characters, lose some all too quickly and feel a sense of real people engaging one another as opposed to cardboard cutouts.
I wouldn’t put the Old Man’s War books into the hard sci-fi category but they aren’t just fantasy dropped into space either. Scalzi obviously gives some thought to settings and technology and so I find it easy to overlook some of the issues that are skipped over for the sake of story. In the end it is entertainment and interesting questions about people and society that draw me to these books, more than a desire to learn more about physics or astronomy.
I did read follow on comments after the series was complete and noticed a few people who felt that there was a cliffhanger ending. While the book does end with some larger scale issues unresolved, I think that to call it a cliffhanger is not really accurate. I found the ending to be an appropriate point of closure, to step away from the characters. As I would tell me kids if they have to pause a movie, it was a “good place to stop.” If we followed everyone to the completion of all that was going on in their lives, the book would be immense. As it is, it is already a solid read. It might feel a bit abrupt to some as it does set up some questions that are left unanswered that normally would be in a more formulaic treatment, but I’m glad Scalzi left them rather than a hasty or awkward finish.
As I mentioned, there are two extra stories in the newly published compilation of all 13 chapters. They both involve characters from the book and I thought that they both were a lot of fun. One is After the Coup which can be read on its own at Tor.com. The other, Hafte Sorvalh Eats a Churro and Speaks to the Youth of Today is shorter but very sweet and let me finish the book with a smile.
I’ve enjoyed every entry in the OMW series and I am very pleased to see it continue strongly. While reading the previous books is not necessary to enjoying this one, I can’t imagine not wanting to read the other four. If someone is unsure, feel free to start with The Human Division and if they enjoy it, jumping back and reading the others will still be very enjoyable. There will be some spoilers but I don’t think they’ll take much away from Scalzi’s real strengths in these stories, which are much more driven by character than plot. I think Scalzi will stand as a sci-fi great for some time to come and it is a lot of fun to get to watch it happen rather than just idolizing the masters of the past.