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A personal adventure travel blog

The Human Division - book review

Christian Anderson


Is how each part of John Scalzi's experiment in Dickensian Science Fiction would end if the author had stuck to Chucky D's well-established method of chopping what we now know as classics into weekly or monthly episodes - "please sir - can I have some more?" Next week, child, next week - assuming you can pony up another 99c for Audible.

But no – Scalzi wants to have his cake, eat it and still have the abs of a Men's Health cover model. The Human Division consists of 13 weekly parts (the week now officially runs, Monday, Scalziday, Wednesday, etc) which the author is hoping will work both as an overall narrative arc when read in sequence, but also on their own as standalone shorts.

We can't accuse the man of thinking small...

Oh, just one small detail. Fair's fair John - if you get to deliver the story in multiple parts, then we get to slice up our take on your novel. Go with throttle up people - here's part one of my review.

Episode 1, The B-Team, cold opens in space with a Colonial Union diplomatic ship arriving early for an inter-galactic meet 'n' greet which plays out as a far less pleasant rendevous than expected and thus our titular B-Team are dispatched to find out more.

Chronologically, the Human Division sits after the Old-Man's-War-trilogy-plus-spin-offs, starting with a double-length opener as Scalzi's got some serious backstory heavy lifting to do.

In line with the "standalone" ethos, those who haven't read Old Man's War et al get the basics explained to them - a BrainPal definitely isn't the back-office system for an online payment empire. And, while Earth and the Colonial Union aren't quite in couples counselling, Earth is considering lessons with that handsome Conclave tennis coach, whilst the Colonial Union sort-of realises his life will be over if he lets Earth slip away, but still can't stop being emotionally manipulative and secretive. This all works just fine - it feels more like the repeat listen of a greatest hits CD than a full-on, cold-cocked InfoDump.

As the story unfolds we get a tense race against the clock to figure out who wants who dead - if not the why, then certainly the how is key here and The B-Team delivers a quality B-Movie sci-fi matinee experience as well as kicking-off the longer plotlines.

From this opener, the episodes go far and wide - from a very non-spacey Earth-based radio show, through the fear and pain of a pointless death on a wildcat colony, to a nice, played partly for laughs "she's a wreck but we can get her going" episode.

We get a lot of Scalzi's trademark one-liners and arched eyebrows delivered by a couple of old-hands from the past, as well as the expected set of new cast members. This reviewer didn't quite stick with the rules though, saving up six episodes from Audible before going straight through them netflix-gluttony style. 

So, almost half-way through, are there any parts where Scalzi's structural integrity is failing?

Well, not really - I only got to call BS once - a delegation from Earth voyages out into space to accept what is probably the most important technology transfer in human history, and guess what - they're all from the United States or Canada. I get why we need to accidentally lose France's invite in the post, but are those galaxies far, far away really NAFTA-only in ScalziLand? Minor fail John, minor fail.

However, this is a relatively minor quibble and neither am I going to judge if The Human Division succeeds on its "all things to all men" mission statement until the end of episode 13. So far this is a well put together piece of modern scifi which, though laced with Scalzi humour, can handle the straight-faced stuff as well with a surprising degree of emotional power, particularly in the second piece, Walk the Plank.

I'll stick to the rules from now and find out if one episode a week delivers the same satisfaction as the "all-at-once" approach. So that's part one of the review, what can I say except: