September 03, 2013

BOOKS: The Human Division, John Scalzi (2013)

First, congratulations to Scalzi for winning this year's Hugo Award for his novel Redshirts, which I thought was absolutely terrific.

The Human Division returns Scalzi to the universe of his Old Men's War and its sequels, and it's an interesting experiment in story structure. The residents of Earth and of its many colony planets make up the Colonial Union, a political and military organization which protects humanity from the universe's many hostile alien races. But Earth is beginning to realize that the vast majority of the Union's resources, money, and soldiers are coming from Earth, and Earth's politicans have begun to resent that they are being asked to defend everyone else. So when Earth is invited to join The Conclave, a powerful alliance of alien cultures and planets, the diplomats and soldiers of the Colonial Union find themselves struggling to keep Earth in the fold, because without Earth, the Union will collapse.

Against that background, Scalzi tells his story in thirteen "episodes," which were originally released as separate e-publications, and each of which is designed to stand on its own as a short story while coming together to tell a complete story. So rather than a strong plot or narrative throughline, the book plays out as a series of vignettes set against the backdrop of the Union's fight to hang onto Earth. There are recurring characters, a second-tier diplomatic crew whose missions always seem to play into the larger story in unexpected ways, but about half of the episodes feature their own characters who don't reappear elsewhere.

Styles and tones vary widely, from "The B Team," a classic bit of space opera in which our diplomatic crew has a dangerous alien contact problem to resolve; to "A Voice in the Wilderness," a look at a Limbaugh-style rabble-rouser for whom ratings are the most important goal, which reminded me somehow of Shirley Jackson.

For those readers who've already purchased the individual stories in e-format, Scalzi includes a pair of bonus stories set in roughly the same period of his future history. "Hafte Sorvalh Eats a Churro and Speaks to the Youth of Today" is a sweet little charmer of a story that brings the book to a delightful end.

I'm not convinced that the stories work together to tell a single novel-length story. The reader is left to assemble that larger story for himself by putting together the background details of each individual piece, and by filling in the gaps between stories. And even after doing that assembling, the story never quite reaches resolution; there's at least one more novel's worth of story waiting to unfold. But I appreciate Scalzi's continuing willingness to experiment with how stories can be told (Redshirts ended with three short-story "codas"), and the individual stories are all delightfully entertaining. Even if The Human Division is less a novel than a story collection, I'm certainly happy to have read it.

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