The Human Division by John Scalzi
The Human Division is a fast-paced roller coaster of a book. At the Nebula Awards this weekend in San Jose, California, John Scalzi politely informed me that this was the fifth book in a series, which starts with Old Man’s War. I haven’t read the other four (which I will be correcting soon) but I understood pretty well what was going on in this universe, although I may have missed some nuance.
The Colonial Union left earth to colonize space about two hundred years ago. During that time, space-faring humans met several other races who didn’t like humans very much. They also met some who did, or were at least willing to trade with us. From Earth, the Colonial Union recruited people over the age of seventy to create soldiers, decanting them into younger bodies with enhanced features like “smart blood” and a BrainPal computer in their skulls. Earth is also the source of the colonists who venture out into space. The CU protected — or perhaps I should write “protected” — Earth from hostile extra-terrestrials and gave Earth some new tech, but they also kept the home world a backwater. This worked well when the alien races were not organized and Earth was ignorant. Now, though, an alien coalition called the Conclave has formed, and Earth has discovered they’ve been lied to.
The” human division,” then, is the schism between Earth humans and colonial humans. Against this backdrop, various Colonial Defense Forces (CDF) staff; a former soldier who considers himself a “technical guy,” an ambassador, a starship captain and a sidekick who doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up, all struggle to have successful diplomatic missions with several alien cultures. This is difficult because someone, somewhere, is sabotaging every single mission.
It’s a strength of Scalzi’s strong, transparent prose that by the end of Chapter One of The Human Division I had a pretty good understanding of the CDF soldiers, the technology in use, and the background political problems. Scalzi eschews the lengthy data-dump for a one-or-two-sentence passage that explains things. He also starts off with explosive action, literally, as a CU starship is fired upon and destroyed.
“The Human Division” is also a nice play on words, since a division can be a sub-group within a department, branch or agency. I read most of the book interpreting the title this way; despite the nanobot blood, enhanced eyesight and hearing, green skin and an on-board computer, our main characters seem like regular guys trying to do their job, even though they can’t catch a single break.
Scalzi’s choice of structure also speeds the book along. It is almost a series of linked short stories. Most of them follow Harry Wilson, Colonial Defense Forces Lieutenant, his friend and sidekick Hart Schmidt, Ambassador Abumwe and Captain Coloma as they careen from one narrow escape to the next. Two other characters, Rigney and Egan, direct the missions from the relative safety of offices and conference rooms. Egan calls the group her “fire team,” but without telling them they are a fire team. Harry’s friends don’t seem to get a lot of information as they are sent off on mission after mission; nor do they get a lot of say in how things will go.
“Your crew is used to the ship by now,” Egan said. “And we do need another diplomatic ship in the fleet. Ambassador Abumwe and her staff had a list of assignments and no way to get to them. If you want the ship, it’s yours. If you don’t want the ship, it’s yours. Congratulations.”
Other sections, however, follow characters only lightly connected to the team, or not at all. In one, a soldier we met previously is captured by colonial insurgents on a supposedly safe planet, and affects an ingenious escape. In another, a right-wing talk radio host, blinded by ambition, makes a choice with some unpleasant consequences. The most tragic section follows a young spacer who survives when his ship is overtaken, only to land on the most dangerous planet you can imagine. Scalzi not only uses a more serious tone for this one, but yet another format. “Walk the Plank” reads like a transcript of a recorded conversation.
Each of the individual sections is available from Audible and Kindle as a stand-alone piece, which clarified why certain phrases were repeated throughout the book. By the way, Kat, who has been listening to this series on audio, reports that the audio version narrated by William Dufris is excellent. You can purchase each audio “episode” (chapter) for 69¢ or you can download the entire audiobook or purchase it in CD format from Brilliance Audio. Or you can do the Amazon/Audible Whispersync combination and get each episode in both the ebook and audio versions for $1.49 per episode.
Scalzi does not create particularly tortured, flawed or complex characters. People tend to be highly competent and have a range of positive traits. Abumwe is the closest we come to complexity, because she is a gifted diplomat who doesn’t seem to like people. Captain Coloma is practical, smart, clever, valiant and loyal. Harry is witty, clever, and smarter than most, even when he screws up royally, as in “The Dog King’ (and yes, that pun was intentional.) He is valiant and loyal. Hart Schmidt seems to wrestle with self-doubt but is still loyal, valiant and smart, and a later character, Harry’s “like interest,” is smart, brave, clever and… well, you get the picture. The book moves so quickly, and these characters are so likable, though, that I didn’t really mind this. I think they are about as developed as they need to be to carry the adventure. Abumwe is actually the character who gives a passionate and personal statement about the value of the Colonial Union, saying that her parents left Earth to avoid civil war and genocide. She reminds us of the fundamental motive behind immigration; the chance of a better life for one’s family.
There are a few tasty morsels for the liberals in the room. The talk show host is one example (Kat reports that this is hilarious in the audio version. You can find that in the episode called “A Voice in the Wilderness”), but an alien ambassador’s encounter with a colony of white supremacist bigots is sheer delight. A little fantasy-wish-fulfillment is nice sometimes, and this was perfect. Scalzi also adds the needed Star Trek references to please his fans, (“ ‘I have no idea, Jim,’ Lowen said. ‘I’m a doctor, not a private investigator.’”) and there is a lovely nod to Terry Gilliam’s movie The Fisher King.
At the end of the book, Harry is given a special assignment to carry out along with a soldier from Earth. Maybe I missed it, but there does not seem to be any good reason given for this assignment, which is basically a super-duper space-diving stunt. (The story is that the CDF is demonstrating this space-diving technique at a direct request from Earth, in an attempt to win them back.) How wonderful though, that a few pages later, when Harry has to rescue someone from a space station that’s under attack, he just happens to have a pair of space-diving suits. In a book full of plot contrivances, some by conspirators, some by the author, this may just be a space-jump too far for me.
Are there plot niggles? Yes. Did I care? Not particularly. The book’s a roller coaster. The story and the characters sweep me up, the wind is streaming my hair away from my face, and the car is hurtling down the wooden track. That’s what matters. The Human Division is one fine ride.
This is a nice collection of stories set in the OLD MAN’S WAR universe. It continues the plot, so you don’t want to miss it. I listened to the audio version which was very good. You can each episode separately or all together.
Old Man’s War — (2005-2015) Nominated for a Hugo Award. Publisher: John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the army. The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce — and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So: we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding. Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity’s resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don’t want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You’ll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You’ll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you’ll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets. John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine — and what he will become is far stranger.