Review: The Human Division, by John Scalzi

Posted: August 23, 2013 in Book Reviews, Science Fiction
Tags: , , ,


human division

(The Human Division, by John Scalzi; Tor, 2013, $25.99, 431 pp.)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Ideally, books in series should begin with synopses of previous books in the series. The Human Division doesn’t. Readers not already familiar with Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” series will find themselves at sea. References to events and characters in the previous books’ universe abound in The Human Division, but appear in fragmentary form, making it nearly impossible for the reader to reconstruct that universe.

As well, books in series should stand as self-contained stories. Unfortunately, they rarely do; most reach unsatisfying conclusions, and some simply stop midstream. “The Human Division,” the most recent book in the “Old Man’s War” series, provides an extreme example of this. It not only stops midstream, it seems to deliberately make its stopping point (“conclusion” or “ending” would be inaccurate) extremely unsatisfying.

The apparent intent is to build suspense to the maximum extent possible, and then fail to resolve the suspense, in order to entice the reader to buy the next book in the series. The Human Division does this by basing its entire narrative around a central, gut-wrenching question, and then provides not even a hint of its answer. This gimmick from 1930s movie serials, when cliffhangers resolved at the start of the following episode, hasn’t aged well. It was bad enough when resolution was a week away, and it’s worse here, where resolution (at least in print form) is a good year away.

As one would expect, Scalzi’s individual chapters are skillfully written. But the chapter structure seems somewhat disjointed; the chapters (termed “episodes”) seem more like individual stories set in the same universe rather than organic parts of a coherent novel. One real head-scratcher is Episode Ten (out of 13 total), which is devoted entirely to character development of a secondary character, and advances the plot not one iota.

The reason for the book’s curious structure isn’t apparent until you look at the small print on the copyright page and discover that the individual chapters (sorry, “episodes”) in The Human Division were originally issued as a series of e-“books”–e-chapters would be more accurate–and then slapped together into hardcover form.

There are indications within the book that the publisher is aware of its shortcomings: 1) the publisher mentions only on the copyright page, in tiny type, that the book is a collection of e-“books”; 2) there’s the odd substitution of “episodes” for “chapters”; 3) nowhere does the publisher refer to the book as a novel; 4) instead, the publisher bills it on the front cover as a “tale.”

And even that’s a stretch. “Tales” normally follow conventional dramatic structure, and have a beginning, middle, and end (that, among other things resolves the central problem). In that light, The Human Division could more accurately be described as “two-thirds of a tale.”

This book is a disappointment. It’s disjointed, it manipulates the reader, and is ultimately, and deliberately, unsatisfying. Not recommended.

(Two of Scalzi’s recent books I would recommend are his fine comic novels, Agent to the Stars and Fuzzy Nation.)

* * *

Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia.

Free Radicals front cover

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