Fiction Reviews

The Human Division

(2013) John Scalzi, Tor, £7.99, pbk, 493pp, ISBN 978-1-447-29047-6


This is widescreen space opera and military SF. It is the future and humanity has left Earth to discover that the Galaxy is teeming with intelligent life. Indeed, so much so that real estate – habitable planets – is a scarce commodity to be fiercely protected and, if possible, acquired by almost any means. It is dog-eat-dog out there, rather more accurately alien-eat-alien. The military that soon went into space acquired knew knowledge and technology to establish a self-reliant force. Well, almost self-reliant, a steady supply of troops were still needed and Earth was the source. Meanwhile Earth itself was both kept at distance from the battles, so as not to alarm those at home, and the troops the military recruited almost invariably never returned. This last was not a problem as the recruits were the old and sick for whom the military offered a chance for a healthy life and for some the possibility of a healthy long life, as their consciousness were transferred out of their infirm bodies and into genetically enhanced ones… This then is the premise behind the Hugo-nominated Old Man's War (2005) for which The Human Division is the fourth sequel.

What has happened, as recounted toward the end of The Last Colony (2007) (and paralleled in Zoe's Tale (2008)), is that most of the alien species have formed a peaceful, non-expansionist coalition called the Conclave that will jointly attack any alien species taking over a new world. Meanwhile, Earth's citizens have found out about the hostile galaxy and feel aggrieved at being held back by the independent human military – the Colonial Union – off-world. This division is the 'division' in the title of this novel: 'division' here does not refer to a military 'division' as 'brigades' did in the second book, The Ghost Brigades (2006).

Now, The Human Division is not a straightforward novel but is in fact a series of thirteen loosely connected stories all set around the time when humanity divided into two factions in the face of a largely (if not out rightly) hostile galactic spiral arm. Though these stories are separate they are all at the same time and there is a progression of developments as events in one place affect what will subsequently happen elsewhere. Nearly all of the stories are told from the perspective of the Colonial Union and also have Harry Wilson, Hart Schmidt and Ambassador Abumwe as principal protagonists.

Harry, Hart and the Ambassador are charged with convincing a disaffected Earth that its best interests lie with the Colonial Union and not the Conclave coalition of alien species (that includes a wildcat human colony). Here, one of the strengths of this set-up (as is perhaps more clearly discerned when reading the other books in this sequence) is that philosophically neither of the principal groupings are necessarily 'good' or 'bad' per se (though the Earth is still seen as fractured into various nations that tend to squabble) and the Conclave as having some not entirely willing member races who join for protection and everyone resents the Malthusian constraints on expansion (there are not enough vacant worlds to go around). However, as the stories in The Human Division progress, we discover that there is an unknown party that is playing off the human Colonial Union against the Conclave and even, it transpires, the Colonial Union against Earth…

The Human Division is a great read and a proverbial page-turner. It could be that Scalzi is thinking ahead with his 'Old Man's War' series. Here, while the other novels could all be turned into feature films, The Human Division could be adapted to 13 episodes within a single season of a possible spin-off television series. Now that would be something!

Some of Scalzi's humour aside – the humour in the dog and crown story did not work for me but then I have had problems with Scalzi's humour in the past (which I accept could just be me) – the stories are nearly all good so that you nearly always leave one with the momentum borne of enthusiasm propelling you into the next (as opposed to getting frustrated and wanting to try the next in the hope that it might be better). Indeed this, and the plot progression together, made me want more.  Fortunately, more is what we will get as the next novel in the series, The End of all Things, is out soon in Britain. In fact, it came out in the US last year and SF² Concatenation team even cited it as one of its best SF novels of 2015.  If that recommendation is not good enough for you, remember from above that the first novel in the series was Hugo-nominated. Needless to say that I concur with both commendations and affirm that The Human Division is up there among the finest of this sequence of books.

Jonathan Cowie

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