LitStack Recs: Speedbumps & The Human Division

The Human Division,  by John Scalzi

This is one of my favorite science fiction books to give as a Christmas gift.

The Human Division is divided into 13 “episodes”, very much like 13 episodes of a television series.  It  first appeared as a serial e-book issued by Tor Publishers, as an experiment on new ways to interact with readers.  Issued weekly, each of the stories could stand on its own and yet, when combined with the others, was part of an overarching plotline that was the sum of all its parts.  The episodes were combined into one novel, and  -ta dah! – you have The Human Division.

This book is also the fifth installment in John Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” series. The allusion to old men and war is that in the future, those who turn 75 have the option of signing up for service in the Colonial Defense Forces, wherein they will be genetically and mechanically altered to appear younger, with enhanced senses and strength, allowing for superior soldiering abilities and a resistance to aging and the various elements they may encounter.  These recruits also are fitted with a BrainPal chip, somewhat like a smart phone synched with all the Colonial Union’s military interfaces, and access to the highest in military technical advances.

There are drawbacks, however.  CDF members will leave Earth, never to return, leaving behind anyone and everyone that they ever knew or loved.  Then there’s the mortality rate – 75% for CDF soldiers in their first 10 years of service.  And that’s putting a positive spin on it.

The hostility that CDF forces have to be ready to encounter include the unknown, deep divisions between the Colonial Union (planets colonized by humans) and Earth, and the Conclave, a cooperative of disparate races determined to consolidate power throughout our galaxy.  Diplomats are continually trying to work out agreements, undermine adversaries, and camouflage backdoor maneuvers.  While it’s rare for treaties to be broken, it’s not uncommon for loopholes to be exploited or new threats to appear that threaten to upset the delicate balance.  But it’s not all gloom and doom – there is a genuine curiosity about other races and other cultures, a respect for the marvels of the universe,  and good and honorable beings on all sides.  Usually.  Sometimes.  Maybe.

The writing in The Human Division is clear, crisp and witty.  While Mr. Scalzi keeps the reader guessing as to the action, motives and expectations in each episode, he does so without falling prey to over-fractalization of the story, or bogging the reader down in highly technical mechanics and jargon.  The non-humans encountered are truly alien, but not in a sensational way; their environs and customs are wholly unfamiliar but intrinsically so.  It works, gloriously.

The characters are very strong.  While Mr. Scalzi definitely keeps literary tropes in play, he gives each conventional player enough personality and internal moments to keep them fresh and unique.  The growing fraternal relationship between young, privileged civilian Hart Schmidt and the cheeky, world-wise, pragmatic soldier Harry Wilson is especially entertaining.   And it was incredibly refreshing to see so many female characters filling the roles of high level personnel, without there being even an imperceptible nod in that direction; after a while I forgot that I was used those in power being men, and was able to embrace the implied advancement of equality that is assumed in this future universe.

The same is true of Mr. Scalzi’s use of convention in his story lines.  It’s almost as if he starts with the expected framework of traditional space-based science fiction, but then deviates from and plays with the details even as he keeps the story line tightly woven around the unknown, danger and drama.  There is enough of the familiar for us to feel like we have a footing in these worlds, but enough difference to throw us a bit off kilter, in a delightful and exciting way; we’re not playing catch up, but we definitely need to pay attention.  We’re never quite sure how Wilson, Schmidt and company (or whoever is involved in whichever episode) will extricate themselves from the fine mess that they find themselves in – and there is definitely a (well deserved) fear that even if the mission may prevail (even if!), there will be grave losses – but wherever the action takes us, we’ll be happy to go along.

Definitely, a worthy gift to give – or receive! – this holiday season.

—Sharon Browning

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