Coming into the 1940s, some American authors developed a two-bites-of-the-cherry strategy. The market in magazines for short stories was strong. They therefore worked at that opportunity first, churning out as many stories as possible in the shortest possible time. In those days, the word-rates were low so authors were only self-financing through volume. However, instead of writing indiscriminately, the more cunning authors would actually be developing one or more novels in parallel. Whenever they had enough building blocks to fix-up into a novel, they would get paid a second time for the short stories edited to make a coherent story. The best at this was A E Van Vogt with The Weapon Shops of Isher and many others leading the way. These books are actually fun to read in a roller coaster style, i.e. it’s all highly episodic with regular exciting climaxes. I’m therefore experiencing an interesting flashback to see this approach recreated by Tor. It’s going one step further than publishers like Curiosity Quills Press which persuaded their authors to allow books to be published in whole or part as first-draft serials on their websites (the completely revised books being published later). Here John Scalzi wrote a series of “self-contained” short stories that were individually published. These were then fixed-up into The Human Division which is Book 5 in the Old Man’s War series.
The resulting whole demonstrates an important feature of the writer’s craft. Some authors feel most comfortable when they can allow the plot to develop organically. They write character sketches and create an initial situation. Once the set-up is complete, they set the characters “free” and see where they go. Obviously, there has to be some guiding intelligence, but this method can allow authors to achieve considerable credibility in the way their characters act or fail to act. The brief for John Scalzi obviously went as far in the opposite direction as it’s possible to go. Every last feature of the overall plot had to be nailed down before the author started the first story so that the individual parts could be fitted together to make the whole.
What makes this particular fix-up interesting is the discontinuity that would have been apparent to anyone reading the individual segments as they were published. In one or two instances, we jump to completely different points of view with little or no obvious connection to what has gone before. In retrospect, there’s complete continuity, but I can sense the sly sense of humour at work in the way readers are sometimes left hanging. For those of you who have not read any of Scalzi’s work, the humour is always likely to rear its head in all his work. While this book is not quite as amusing of some of the Retief stories by Keith Laumer, it’s better than the majority, many of which are rather laboured. More importantly, Scalzi is writing today so his brand of humour is more accessible than the now quite dated humour of Laumer. That said, there’s a clear overlap. In both, we have a group charged with a diplomatic mission to the stars. There’s a balance between “diplomats” and those who are not afraid to fight if it becomes necessary. This leads to the key difference. The career “diplomat” in this book is effective whereas Retief is continually called on to rescue his missions from the incompetence of those nominally in charge. To be clear, I’m not suggesting anything more than a coincidence in the basic plot idea. The executions are significantly different.
Taken as a whole, The Human Division is great fun with the title appropriately growing ever more relevant as the book unwinds. I can do no more than applaud John Scalzi for pulling off a difficult trick. As with many of the early fix-ups, you can see the joins between the different parts stitched together. John Scalzi makes a feature of those differences. Sadly, the pulp writers were less sophisticated and just bolted the bits together, not caring whether anyone noticed the losses in continuity. That means Scalzi’s technique prevails and anyone who enjoys the older style of space opera should read this!
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
It’s always interesting to observe the growth and development of jargon — a kind of insiders’ language, a code people can use to impress strangers. Today, I’m particularly interested in the idea of a fix-up novel — one that has been created from a group of short stories. In the days of the pulps, authors would throw off as many stories as possible to keep the dollars coming in. Some never caught the imagination. Others spawned related stories or sequels. Given a growing accumulation of such stories, authors would then edit then for consistency and, more often than not, write new connecting material to create a novel. Whether apocryphally or not, the neologism is attributed to A. E. van Vogt, one of my favourite authors of the so-called Golden Age. The best example of a fix-up is The Voyage of the Space Beagle, later plagiarised in part as the film, Alien (and its sequels).
By accident, I have read two very similar books back-to-back. The first was The Bone Key by Sarah Monette which is a thematically linked collection of short stories about the same protagonist. The second is The Guild of Xenolinguists by Sheila Finch which is a thematically linked collection of short stories about the same organisation. Monette’s book is, in essence, a fix-up without the frame. In other words there is a kind of progression from one story to the next so that, if we close one eye, it can read as a form of picaresque novel, episodic in nature but focused on a single “hero” figure”.
Finch’s book is, as they say, a very different kettle of fish. For those of you interested in epistemology, what we know and how we came to know it can be of critical importance. It gives us a basis upon which to make rational decisions, to assess the credibility of evidence, and so on. Monette’s book gives us multiple and reinforcing images of the same thing. Because of the internal corroborations, we can feel the “truth” of the character even though the linearity of the telling may not be confirmed. Finch has written a number of short stories about the same organisation but there only one overlap of character (between “A World Waiting” and “The Roaring Ground”) and there is no general attempt made to edit the stories to achieve coherence or internal consistency. All we have are eleven different stories plus one non-fiction piece that just happen to be about the role of interpreters in a multilingual extraterrestrial culture. After the first two or three stories I had to stop because I was approaching them in the wrong way. Rather than reading them as stand-alones, I was trying to fit them together to create my own fix-up novel. I suppose there was a deliberate decision made to exclude the kind of background information available at http://www.sff.net/people/sheila-finch/fullhistory.htm
Trying to follow this way leads to frustration because the stories do not fit comfortably together. To that extent, we have to distinguish between this book published by Golden Gryphon which bravely keeps going with its specialisation in collections, and Reading the Bones, which is a fix-up “novel” published by Tachyon Press. This includes the complete text of the title novella, which won the Nebula for best novella of 1998, and then continues with an Interlude to bridge into a second novella “Bright River of Talk”.
But, if you enjoy short stories on their merits, there are some very good stories in this collection. The one which many will know is “Reading the Bones”, but there are some very affecting ideas, well explored as in “Stranger Than Imagination Can” which carefully exposes stereotypes and prejudices. There are, as in any collection, one or two where the ideas are a little threadbare and the execution flat. Overall, this is enjoyable so long as you are not expecting a fix-up.