The Human Division, by John Scalzi

15698479I consider John Scalzi to be an outstanding science-fiction writer, a decent human being, and an owner of cats (that’s not just a fact, it’s a sign of character), so it pains me to say that The Human Division is not a good book. It’s a very Scalzi book, which means that despite its weaknesses it still merits two stars for some funny dialogue, clever shenanigans, and occasional stabs at profundity. But absolutely nothing of significance happens!

The basic story is about a mysterious conspiracy that leads to lots of surprise bombings and other miscellaneous acts of sabotage. You will find out basically nothing about this conspiracy. Instead, Scalzi gives us a lot of speculation, mostly in the form of endless expository dialogue between characters positing that the conspiracy is intended to pit the Colonial Union against the Conclave in a battle for the loyalty of otherwise-unaffiliated Earth. But that’s pretty obvious right from the beginning. (I mean, shadowy forces blow up a diplomatic ship and try to pin the blame on an innocent party!) What’s interesting is who is behind the conspiracy, what their ultimate aims are (chaos, or something more concrete), and what exactly their devious plan is. You will find none of these interesting details in The Human Division.

Instead, Scalzi gives us a lot of setup, and (my other problem) a lot of filler. The book was released in a series of thirteen “episodes” of varying lengths. About a quarter of them are basically useless: I’m thinking in particular of “Walk the Plank,” “A Voice in the Wilderness,” “The Dog King,” and “This Must Be the Place.” Are these stories totally disassociated from the main plot? I would guess not. But the connection is pretty tenuous, and there certainly would have been better and less tedious ways of getting across the same points.

Apparently Tor (the publisher) was so pleased with sales of The Human Division that it’s commissioned Scalzi to write a Season 2 that continues the story. In a way, I wish he’d just started there. The Human Division is less of a first volume than a preview episode for a series that hasn’t even really begun yet.

★★☆☆☆

Haunted, by Chuck Palahniuk

22288I don’t get the point of this book. It’s ostensibly a collection of gross-out stories billed as the sickest you’ll see in print. But it’s not even close. Maybe I’m jaded but despite being relatively sheltered from the depravities of online forums like 4chan and parts of Reddit I didn’t feel nauseated even once reading these stories. It’s a little funny citing this as a weakness (I generally prefer my reading to be at peace with my eating), but I approached this book and its hyperbolic marketing with the thrill of the forbidden and it ended up being a bunch of warmed-over camp tales.

The first story – the most infamously gross, I gather – is about an unfortunate onanist whose autoerotic swimming pool exertions lead a vent to suck his intestines out of his ass. This is a genuinely grotesque thought, but that’s all there is to these stories: they mix sex and excretions and nasty little people and expect the mix to shock you. Later stories somewhat up the ante by having people abuse each other in horrible ways. A shameless journalist fabricates a horrible child porn fetish about a source and then kills him after strewing incriminating evidence all around. A progeriac adolescent swindles women into sleeping with him and then uses that single act of indiscretion to blackmail them into more degradations. Etc.

Like I said: unpleasant. But if the purpose of the collection is to gross you out, these stories pale in comparison to the shock material available in the dark corners of the Internet (see the last paragraph of this article, for example). And if the purpose of the collection instead is to say something profound about the debasement of the human condition, then the stories still fail to live up to the horrors that real life has to offer: North Korean prison camps; the Rwandan genocide; Unit 731; children held in hopeless captivity for years; etc. etc.

Whether your goal is titillation or a better understanding of the nature of evil, you’ll find better sources for these objectives than Haunted.

★☆☆☆☆

Orbus, by Neal Asher

8721074With Orbus, the Spatterjay trilogy ends up so far from its thrilling beginning that this last book might as well be from a different series altogether. What made the original book so great was that it pitted fragile humans against horrible creatures on a planet full of freaks. Orbus, though, takes place entirely off that planet and removes the human element altogether. What’s left are the horrible creatures, who are left to duke it out in spaaaace.

Actually I’m getting ahead of myself because the duking doesn’t even start until the second half of the book. The first half — good god, but it crawls. Essentially Asher spends a few hundred pages getting all of his characters to the same place: the DMZ between the Prador (psychotic space crabs) and humanity. As I hinted at above, all of his characters are disgusting, from good old mutated Vrell, to the equally grotesque Prador king, to the Golgoloth, who rather unbelievably ups the ante on Prador insanity. (He raises little crablets for the sole purpose of harvesting their limbs and organs.) For a while I thought the sadomasochistic Old Captain Orbus might be the only feeling member of this circus, but no — as Asher reminds us in graphic detail, the poor man once carved up and ate a child while he was in Prador captivity.

After a lot of pointless maneuvering, the war between all of these miscreants becomes well and truly joined, but then Asher feels the need to introduce another element (SPOILER ALERT!): apparently the Spatterjay virus actually hides an aggressive nanomachine civilization called the Jain that decides this is the time to come out and play. What the duck?! Putting aside the fact that some of my best friends are Jains, so it’s weird to see a galaxy-swarming machine intelligence with their name, there had been zero hint of this lurking threat in the first two books of this trilogy. I mean, yes, the Spatterjay virus has been badass, but for other reasons that Asher has apparently forgotten.

Granted the resulting monster fight is not too bad (though Alastair Reynolds did a better job with a nearly identical enemy in his Revelation Space series). My problem is that it’s not what I was looking for in this book. Is Orbus unreadable? No. Is its story terrible? No. But Asher commits the cardinal sin of ignoring what was so great about his original idea, leaving us with…this.

★★☆☆☆