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 st...
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 dange