LitStack Review: The Human Division by John Scalzi

The Human DivisionHuman Division
John Scalzi
Tor Books
Release Date:  May 14, 2013
ISBN 978-0-7653-3351-3

John Scalzi may just single-handedly bring me back to the “science fiction” half of the “science fiction and fantasy” genre.

I used to enjoy reading tales of space exploration and alien life; Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and of course, watching Star Trek.  That was when I was younger.  Then it seems like the stories all got really complicated, hard edged, serious, and full of consequence.  I found myself instead leaning towards, and then immersing myself in, fantasy, instead.  Whereas science fiction seemed to get, well, colder, fantasy was heating up, and I ate it up.  Occasionally I would read a space-based book, and sometimes those books would be good, but not enough to keep me from dismissing paperbacks with space ships blowing up things on their covers when I would be browsing in Barnes and Noble.

Yeah, superficial, I know, but there it is.

Then I started reading John Scalzi.  First The Android’s Dream, and then Fuzzy Nation.  I enjoyed both, immensely.  Why I didn’t pick up any of his “Old Man’s War” novels, I don’t know – possibly because I have more books to read than I know what to do with (go ahead  – envy me!).  But then I saw that his newest book, The Human Division, had made it to the final round of voting in the Goodread’s “Best Books of 2013” in the Science Fiction category, so I headed right out and picked it up at the library.

And I’ve fallen in love with space all over again.

I actually haven’t heard much about The Human Division, which is surprising, because I had heard a lot about Mr. Scalzi’s previous book, Redshirts.  That one won the Hugo Award, and the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction novel, but I haven’t gotten around to reading it, either, for unfathomable reasons that, well, I just can’t explain.  (Once again, I’ll punt on the “I have so many books to read…” excuse – it comes in very handy.)  But I think the reason why I hadn’t heard as much about The Human Division is that it isn’t a novel in the traditional sense of the word.

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.  Episodes were issued weekly from January 15 to April 9, 2013, and each came with its own amazing artwork by John Harris.  Each one 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 da! – you have The Human Division.

This book is also the fifth installment of works by Mr. Scalzi based on his “Old Man’s War” universe (the others include Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony, and Zoe’s Tale).  The allusion to old men and war is that in our world of the future, people 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, and they will leave behind anyone and everyone that they ever knew or loved or with whom they shared any kind of personal or familial history.  They will, in effect, start anew, completely and utterly, as a matter of protocol.  Their memories and personalities remain, but the division between what was and what is, is solid.

Oh, and then there’s the mortality rate.  Because of the situations in which members of the CDF find themselves (it’s a hostile universe, after all) there is a 75% mortality rate 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 home world Earth, and especially with 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 so uncommon for loopholes to be exploited or new threats to appear that threaten to upset the delicate balance sought after by the diplomatic corps.  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.

Enter into this universe the various characters of The Human Division.  With 13 stand-alone chapters (er, episodes), many memorable characters are introduced, but three of them have footing along the entire story arc (even though not necessarily a presence in each episode):  Ambassador Abumwe, a hard-nosed, no nonsense but extremely capable diplomat; Hart Schmidt, her wet-behind-the-ears deputy; and Lt. Harry Wilson of the CDF, a technical adviser attached to their diplomatic mission, purely as a trainer on the gear being offered as negotiation objectives – at first.  In Episode One, we see how a diplomatic and military catastrophe necessitates Ambassador Abumwe, her team, and the crew of their transport ship, the Clarke, being catapulted into a high priority negotiation that has been targeted for sabotage from unknown sources.  The team is out of their depth, but failure is not an option.

The writing in The Human Division is clear, crisp and witty.  While Mr. Scalzi keeps the reader guessing as to the action, the motives and the expectations in each episode, he does so without falling prey to over-fractalization of the story, or bogging the reader down in highly technical, ultra-modern mechanics and jargon.  The non-humans encountered are truly alien, but not in a freakish or 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 any kind of even imperceptible head nod in that direction; after a while I forgot that I was used to captains and ambassadors and heads of state being men, and was able to embrace the implied advancement of equality that is assumed in this future universe.

The same is true of his use of convention in his story lines.  It’s almost as if author Scalzi 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.

So, if the other books in John Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” series are just as good as The Human Division – and seeing how many awards and accolades they have received, I’m guessing they are – then I definitely know what I’m asking for this Christmas.  And if they haven’t materialized under the tree when all the dust of the holidays settle, well, then, I think I’ll just have to go get them for myself.