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.



Redshirts, by John Scalzi

7238735-LThis is a book that really shouldn’t work but then really does. Its basic concept is a joke about the hapless crew members of sci-fi starships who always end up dying on alien planets while the clearly identified main cast survives against all odds. This is a well known phenomenon that became famous during the various iterations of Star Trek (which gave rise to the actual term “redshirt,” due to these expendable crewmembers’ uniforms) but has a long and sordid history throughout fiction due to authors’ and other creative types’ understandable reluctance to kill off their protagonists. (There are related tropes, such as Black Dude Dies First, that are motivated by even more sordid concerns but there’s no need to get into that here.)

The basic premise of Redshirts is that the redshirts are the protagonists of this book. They slowly start realizing the extreme hazards of their menial positions, as well as the confounding invincibility of the captain, science officer, chief engineer, etc. And, as new crewmembers quickly discover, there is an informal and very creepy assignment system to ensure that the guaranteed-to-be-fatal Away Missions are given to the newbies who haven’t yet copped to the problem.

So far this sounds like a pretty thin basis for a story — and it would be if that’s all there was. But Scalzi does a couple of things. First he takes the story on a bizarre meta-fictional turn that many people won’t like; I was only lukewarm to it myself. But then, in the midst of this postmodern twist, he reaches for the heart strings and really scores a punch.

What I’ve always liked about Scalzi is his total lack of fear about big emotions. He doesn’t care about being melodramatic or mushy or whatever. He just swings for it, portraying love, loyalty, passion, what have you — without irony, and with complete conviction in the rightness of his characters’ feelings. Sometimes it doesn’t work and you end up feeling a little bit left out. But more often than not his novels end up feeling big and warm and emotionally fulfilling, and it’s all because he’s ballsy enough to have his characters feel, and feel hard.

This book is no different. All sorts of characters, in all sorts of bizarre ways, get the opportunity to confront their deepest fears and desires (that’s why the book needs “three codas,” as its subtitle promises). It’s artificial and manipulative — and, for reasons that escape rational explanation, effective. Redshirts won’t work for everybody, but it worked for me.