Jul 262013
 
Martin Reviews: The Human DivisionThe Human Division (Old Man’s War #5) by John Scalzi
Published by Tor on May 14, 2013
Genres: Adult, Science Fiction
Find the book: Amazon, Goodreads

Following the events of The Last Colony, John Scalzi tells the story of the fight to maintain the unity of the human race.

The people of Earth now know that the human Colonial Union has kept them ignorant of the dangerous universe around them. For generations the CU had defended humanity against hostile aliens, deliberately keeping Earth an ignorant backwater and a source of military recruits. Now the CU’s secrets are known to all. Other alien races have come on the scene and formed a new alliance—an alliance against the Colonial Union. And they’ve invited the people of Earth to join them. For a shaken and betrayed Earth, the choice isn't obvious or easy.

Against such possibilities, managing the survival of the Colonial Union won’t be easy, either. It will take diplomatic finesse, political cunning…and a brilliant “B Team,” centered on the resourceful Lieutenant Harry Wilson, that can be deployed to deal with the unpredictable and unexpected things the universe throws at you when you’re struggling to preserve the unity of the human race.

With the rise of serial ebooks on Amazon and other outlets, there is a new cast of offerings for thirsty readers, and John Scalzi’s latest effort, The Human Division, is no exception. This work, released as thirteen individual short stories between January and April of 2013, is the fifth installment of the Hugo Award nominated Old Man’s War series and Scalzi’s first experiment with a serial format. Scalzi mentions that the challenge in writing in this fashion was that each chapter, or single, had to succeed as a stand-alone story. Whether or not this contributed to a coherent whole (the book is marketed as “A New Tale in the Bestselling Old Man’s War Universe”) is up for debate.

The human division in Scalzi’s series, describes a future in which the Colonial Union (CU), a group of human-colonized planets, has gone through a diplomatic separation with Mother Earth. Earth, upset after learning it has long been exploited by the CU as a farm for soldiers and colonists, has threatened to join the Conclave, an alien organization antagonistic to the interests of the CU. The book jumps from vignette to vignette, each story orbiting around a central theme…that the CU’s survival hinges on mending relations with Earth.

Lieutenant Harry Wilson is a character under the spotlight in many of the chapters. He is a snarky, ninety-year-old “genetically improved” officer in the Colonial Union’s Colonial Defense Forces (CDF), and is capable of handling any task given to him, whether it be to further negotiations with an alien delegation (the boardroom dialogs in this book are frequent and, at times, draining), salvage a “black box” from a CU ship lost in hostile territory or take care of a few barroom tuffs in the ship’s commissary. In the book’s climax, Wilson parachutes to Earth from a space station, rescuing a young and attractive Earth envoy in the process.

This collection of stories was rushed to print not more than a month after the final installment was released online, and one wonders if it might have become a casualty of an overly ambitious publishing schedule. Consequently, the work suffered.

One concern is, that if a reader is unfamiliar with the Old Man’s War backstory, this collection can make you feel like you have been left out of the loop. While some history is inserted here and there, it was cursory and forced. The issue of how much backstory to include in a series edition is always a balancing act, but it might have been better handled in this case.

Another concern with this book was inadequate editing. Even though the book was assembled by Tor, arguably the leading science fiction publisher in the business, it felt at times like they decided to throw up their hands and let the interns run the show. In my version, the eleven-dollar and four cents Kindle ebook purchased online, I was surprised find a passages such as this (and there were many) at location 454:

Egan said nothing to this but instead fired up the display, turning to it. Phoenix Station floated in the display, the limb of the planet Phoenix below it. At a distance from Phoenix Station, CDF and trade ships floated; their names appeared in labels hovering aside them in the display.

And this at 551:

“Lieutenant Wilson, a word with you,” Abumwe said, as the room began to clear. “You too, Schmidt.” The room cleared except for the ambassador, Hillary Drolet, Schmidt and Wilson.

“Why did you ask about why there was a rush?” Abumwe asked.

And this at 3423:

When the Conclave was formalized and the Grand Assembly was created, with representatives from every member of the Conclave crafting the laws and traditions of the newly-emerging political entity comprising more than four hundred separate races, General Gau promised that every Sur—every forty standard days—he and those who followed him as executive would stand in the well of the assembly and answer questions from the representatives.

If you are not confused or have not fallen asleep by now, I commend your fortitude. But this is punishing prose at best.

As a Hugo-nominated author, Scalzi owes it to himself to be more diligent. The serial novel is trendy now and it provides a broad platform for marketing to a new set of readers and fans, but this is no excuse for diminishing one’s art. I think this book would have been better served had it gestated for another six months and had been given more thorough editorial oversight. As it stands it is a hastened and inferior product.

Scalzi is a considerable figure in the world of science fiction. He is the former president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, a wellknown blogger, a former advisor to the “Stargate Universe” televison series and an activist for progressive causes. His charity work is commendable. This book, however, leaves much to be desired.

Perhaps we should be expecting more of this kind of experimental output from mainstream authors. Publishers are trying whatever they can to make ends meet and to keep up with evolving reader trends. I forgive Scalzi this temporary setback…but beware your brand, dear sir. Beware! (Or at least drop the ebook price by eight dollars and five cents and I won’t feel as rooked.)

About Reviewer: Martin Fossum

An occasional reviewer at Workaday Reads, Martin Fossum is the author of Faking Smart!, Beyond Asimios and Ildarim’s Arrow.

He currently lives in St. Paul with his wife, Emily, and their irascible and lovable terrier, Max.

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