The Human Division by John Scalzi
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!
For the review of a freestanding novella, see Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.