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Book Review: The Human Division 115

stoolpigeon writes "How would humanity fare in a universe filled with other sentient races and the technology for all of them to interact? If human history is any indication there would be conflict. That conflict would be between many groups that saw themselves as people and the rest as monsters. What that universe and those interactions would look like is a key theme in John Scalzi's Old Man's War series. The latest offering, The Human Division continues to dig deeply into a wide range of questions about what makes someone a person and how people treat one another at their best and worst." Keep reading for the rest of stoolpigeon's review.
The Human Division
author John Scalzi
pages 432
publisher Tor Books
rating 9/10
reviewer stoolpigeon
ISBN 978-0765333513
summary Following the events of The Last Colony, John Scalzi tells the story of the fight to maintain the unity of the human race
It's been five years since the publication of the last book in John Scalzi's Old Man's War series, Zoe's Tale. That entry saw Scalzi explore new ground with his first juvenile. The newest Old Man's War book is another first for Scalzi. The Human Division was released on the web as a serial prior to being published in a complete volume in hardback and as an e-book. This was planned from the start and made for an interesting experience as those who chose to purchase chapters as they came out worked through the book together.

I have to admit I skipped out on reading the chapters as they were released. It seemed like a fun thing to do but I wanted to see what it would all cost in the end. Scalzi repeatedly said that the fully compiled story would cost the same as buying it in parts but I wanted to see how it would play out. So I avoided on-line discussion of the chapters as they were released and when it became available about a week ago I purchased the e-book version. The price was basically the same, though buying the complete book was a couple bucks cheaper and did include some extra content. I'd already read a big part of that extra content as it had been available earlier via Tor.com.

From what I've read on Scalzi's blog, his experiment with serializing the book was a success from a business standpoint. And I got the impression that most readers enjoyed the process as they went along, though I did try to avoid most discussion as it was happening to avoid spoilers. Publishing stories in this manner has been around for a long time, but I think the results may encourage others to do the same and we may see more of this in the near future. Scalzi has already agreed to do season 2, or the next book, in the same fashion.

Reading it all at once, I could still appreciate that it was written this way. Each chapter is self contained to a large extent. There are glimpses into the lives of various characters, changes of setting, and some wonderful storytelling. It all fits together and is certainly a novel, not a collection of short stories, but much more episodic. I thought it allowed for a nice amount of flexibility in the flow of the story and I appreciated the end result even if I got it all in one package at the end.

Aside from interest in the method of delivery, I was very excited to read The Human Division for the story itself. I hadn't enjoyed Scalzi's last sci-fi outing, Redshirts and was really looking forward to his return to my favorite universe he has created. The Old Man's War series, fitting into the military sci-fi genre, has of course brought many comparisons between Scalzi and Heinlein. I imagine part of the enjoyment I get from Scalzi's books are that he does have some commonality with R.A.H. who is one of my favorite authors. But really Scalzi does have his own voice, style and message and this comes more and more to the fore as the series moves on. The Human Division has all of the excitement, action and wit that makes reading Scalzi so fun. I think his ability to put together strong dialogue is unparalleled. And it is still military sci-fi, with our main protagonist being a soldier. Yet the world is so much more complex and rich than a simple kill or be killed scenario that moves from one point of action to the next. And even what would be slow points in a book that used action to carry a lack of plot, are full of rewarding interaction. We get to know and care about characters, lose some all too quickly and feel a sense of real people engaging one another as opposed to cardboard cutouts.

I wouldn't put the Old Man's War books into the hard sci-fi category but they aren't just fantasy dropped into space either. Scalzi obviously gives some thought to settings and technology and so I find it easy to overlook some of the issues that are skipped over for the sake of story. In the end it is entertainment and interesting questions about people and society that draw me to these books, more than a desire to learn more about physics or astronomy.

I did read follow on comments after the series was complete and noticed a few people who felt that there was a cliffhanger ending. While the book does end with some larger scale issues unresolved, I think that to call it a cliffhanger is not really accurate. I found the ending to be an appropriate point of closure, to step away from the characters. As I would tell me kids if they have to pause a movie, it was a "good place to stop." If we followed everyone to the completion of all that was going on in their lives, the book would be immense. As it is, it is already a solid read. It might feel a bit abrupt to some as it does set up some questions that are left unanswered that normally would be in a more formulaic treatment, but I'm glad Scalzi left them rather than a hasty or awkward finish.

As I mentioned, there are two extra stories in the newly published compilation of all 13 chapters. They are After the Coup and Hafte Sorvalh Eats a Churro and Speaks to the Youth of Today and both can be downloaded for free at Tor.com. After the Coup actually takes place prior to the events in The Human Division and was originally made available earlier. It can be read before or after the book. Hafte Sorvalh Eats a Churro and Speaks to the Youth of Today is shorter but very sweet and let me finish the book with a smile.

I've enjoyed every entry in the OMW series and I am very pleased to see it continue strongly. While reading the previous books is not necessary to enjoying this one, I can't imagine not wanting to read the other four. If someone is unsure, feel free to start with The Human Division and if they enjoy it, jumping back and reading the others will still be very enjoyable. There will be some spoilers but I don't think they'll take much away from Scalzi's real strengths in these stories, which are much more driven by character than plot. I think Scalzi will stand as a sci-fi great for some time to come and it is a lot of fun to get to watch it happen rather than just idolizing the masters of the past.

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Book Review: The Human Division

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 29, 2013 @03:45PM (#43853581)

    Those vast distances are probably the only reason we haven't been wiped out. Humans are very annoying.

  • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) * on Wednesday May 29, 2013 @04:31PM (#43854113)

    Or pretty much anyone who lives far away in a different culture for that matter.

    Not really. I have traveled widely, and found that people are almost always open and friendly toward strangers. They reserve their worst hatred for their neighbors. Can you tell a Hutu from a Tutsi? Or a Pashtun from a Tajik? Or a Serb from a Croat? Yet they hate each other with murderous intensity. During WWII, even the Nazi SS often complained about the excessive brutality of their Croatian Ustase allies toward the Serb population.

  • by swb ( 14022 ) on Wednesday May 29, 2013 @05:01PM (#43854413)

    I'm pretty sure that people who demonized gays, blacks, Jews, etc also demonized pedophiles and people who fit the functional definition of terrorist ("kills innocent civilians to pursue political agenda") in whatever time period they lived in.

    The implication of your post indicates that as we progress we will advance our thinking such that we no longer demonize grown men who cornhole little boys or people that blow up things in public in order to scare people.

    I'm fairly certain that this is not an advancement of humanity but instead a sure sign of its decline.

  • by erroneus ( 253617 ) on Wednesday May 29, 2013 @05:39PM (#43854679) Homepage

    Extremely insightful.

    The fact is, there will be a time when new monsters will arise while other will be given special care and pitied as formerly discriminated groups currently are.

    But I think by examining what people would do in a multi-life-form environment will show quite clearly why all of this "diversity" push is actually quite counter-productive. To put things in a "fair and equal" context, such integration invariably requires that everyone give up something of themselves in order to promote a kind of integration which literally removes individuality. And you can demonstrate this in just about any direction you like. One hot topic these days is integration of muslim people with non-muslim people. What does each side have to give up? A lot! What does each side have to tolerate? A lot! And what happens when friction occurs? A lot of terrible things.

    Even now, the integration of black people into white society or white people into black society has not progressed as far as people would like to see. I think an important key here is to respect each others need to be different and to be who they want to be. And especially where those differences clash to the point where life and limb are at risk, we need to be mindful of the how and why of it. But more than that, we have to understand certain things about "equal but different." I think we all understand which side has more or less of what. And the "cost" of getting access to more of whatever is wanted may be to give up a part of your identity to participate. For example: A "long haired hippy" will not easily integrate into high society and big business. He would have to give up his long-haired hippy ways (or at least hide them) in order to gain access into this other world of expecations and acceptabilities. We all pretty much accept this. But when it comes to ethnicity, we just don't seem willing to accept it.

    By examining this in the context of "earthlings vs extra-terrestrials" I think some things will become more evident about our own troubles here on earth. While we can all pretty much breathe the same air, even this can be an area of contention among different groups of humans. ("OMG! Did you smell that guy?! What has he been EATING?!")

    I hope, at some point, we all begin to arrive at the conclusion that we won't all be able to get along all the time and that complete integration is not merely impossible, but attempts to do so are outright dangerous. I hate to put it like this, but if we were to try to integrate with a rattle-snake, the best answer is NOT to and to respect that this creature needs to be avoided and given his own space. It should never be a question of who would win in a fight -- both sides are lethal to one another. Best to just avoid it.

    Back in the day when the question of integration was about different kinds of white people, it worked itself out pretty well...eventually... It was not easy. It was painful and often deadly. But the end result and best answer WAS, in fact, to give up a lot of our individual identities and cultures as a cost of admission into the melting pot. But we shouldn't FORCE IT. Let those who want to join us in the melting pot understand that the cost of admission is to give up much of themselves. The melting pot should not change as much as the new entries should and that's the way it has always worked.

    So in the "Black entering white society" issue, I seriously love and admire black people who have chosen to get educated and kick ass in the world of work and business. The same is true of other groups which present that challenge. But forcing such issues is demonstrably bad.

To be a kind of moral Unix, he touched the hem of Nature's shift. -- Shelley