Review: The Human Division by John Scalzi

The Human Division by John Scalzi
Audible Frontiers, 2013

The Human Division is at equal measures a thrilling absolutely engaging novel and at other times wholly frustrating. By and large the latter wins out over the former and I’m willing to say that The Human Division is Scalzi at the top of his game. Originally published as a series of e-book “episodes” from January through April of 2013 The Human Division was released in its entirety in May. The Human Division encompases both the tradition of the serial novel and the advances in the series format prompted by the changing world of media entertainment (primarily television but there is a moment here and there that reminded of “the issue where the X-men play a team sport”). The Human Division typically follows a stable cast of characters with relatively few diversion from the core protagonists typically Colonial Union’s diplomatic outcasts of the Clarke advised by CDF officer Lieutenant Harry Wilson.

The Human Division takes place after the events in The Last Colony with the revelation that the Colonial Union has been keeping the people of the Earth in the dark about what is going in the galaxy at large. The opening of The Human Division lays out the major problem without the Earth and her resources the humans of the Colonial Union are in dire straits and if they continue the aggressive actions of their past they will ensure their own destruction thanks to the unifying power of the alien Conclave.

The impetus of events in The Human Division is the Colonial Union’s sudden diplomatic zeal. The refocusing from purely military objectives and colonial expansion to the forging of bonds between human and non-human civilizations. Over the course of the novel Scalzi examines this in some impressive detail detailing both the grand and minute in each aspect of the Colonial Union Diplomatic Corps. There is the grand, such as Lieutenant Wilson’s use of a shuttle to disarm a booby trap and the minute, such as Lieutenant Wilson’s being drafted into watch a high-level diplomat’s dog (I actually listened to that section while gardening which perhaps made it all the more enjoyable). Even more than that Scalzi carefully weaves in the Colonial Union’s penchant for internal compartmentalization as a further factor in the novel; one the rears its ugly head to toss and monkey wrench in our heroes’ plans.

While the focus of most episodes is on the crew of the Clarke extra time is spent on both Lieutenant Wilson and Hart Schmidt (the diplomatic team’s lowest ranking member and thus the person often assigned to assist Wilson on any special assignments). Captain Coloma, who commands the Clarkee, also features at least twice on her own. The strong focus on a smaller subset of character makes for an engaging read and quick attachment to the characters involved. The buddy humor between the constantly aggravated Schmidt and the ever cool and collected Harry Wilson is amusing and quickly endears you to both characters. The diplomatic crew of the Clarke may occasionally snipe at one another but through it all Scalzi manages to convey the tightness of the diplomatic vessel’s crew and staff.

While much of the focus during the novel remains on the diplomatic “B-Team”, either together or on their own, Scalzi deviates several times to describe events happening on Earth or in the Conclave. These moments are interesting sections in their own rights and work well in introducing new characters whose presence serves to further reveal the larger picture. I particularly enjoyed one episode involving a mercenary and boisterous radio talk-show host and felt that the Conclave centered episode was particularly inspired and laced with just the right amount of humor. (Churros! And the poor goat!).

In typical serial fashion The Human Division has a bombastic and thrilling final chapter which serves to set the stage for future adventures in the Old Man’s War Universe. It unfortunately does little to wrap up many of mysteries revealed over the course of the novel and despite being a conclusion to this part of the story it feels like it only introduces more questions. While it has been a while since I’ve read Old Man’s War I feel like compared to The Human Division the previous novels in this universe don’t feel quite as grand or sweeping. There is something about the story in The Human Division that feels like it operating on a much larger scale than in previous books. The audiobook version, read by William Dufris, is well produced and while Dufris isn’t a stand out narrator he is quite versed at conveying tone. Thankfully Tor has “renewed” The Human Division for a “second season” and we’ll all get to find out what happens next. The Human Division is military science fiction and its sweeping best and I for one can’t wait for more.

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