John Scalzi is a household name as character-driven sci-fi goes. The Human Division, 5th in his Old Man’s War series detailing the fate of the Colonial Union and it’s increasingly tenuous relationship with the Earth, is actually the first I’ve read. This sequel to Zoe’s Tale concerns the new diplomatic priorities of the Colonial Union as they try and stabilise their fractured alliance with Earth and stay on the right side of the alien federation known as The Conclave. Out-gunned, out-‘manned’ and undermined by shadowy agent provocateurs, THD is very much a book about stoically making the best of a terrible situation.
The book is well plotted, written and paced, but it was something else that really sold me on it. It’s always testament to the quality of a writer when they can orient a reader half way through without them feeling like they’re missing out. No doubt there were subtle references and call backs I missed for not having started at the very beginning, but I never felt I was punished for it or lacking the context necessary to enjoy the action.
So newcomer or Scalzi-fanatic, there’s a lot to recommend. Easily THD’s (and perhaps the Colonial Union’s) strongest assets is Colonial Defence Force Colonel Wilson, and the potentially disastrous — but hilarious — diplomatic incidents he inevitably, inadvertently engenders. Without spoiling too much, envision Wilson being somewhat under-utilised as a minder to anther human diplomat’s pet dog whilst visiting a crucial alien planet. Only, he accidentally allows it to get swallowed by a giant, semi-sacred plant, and in his usual implacable fashion volunteers to be similarly ingested to save it before the ambassadors return and negotiations become rather strained. Wilson is a capable, unusual protagonist committed more to the joy of finding a perverse solution to a seemingly insurmountable problem than any heroic impulse. His usual crew, the ‘B-Team’ of galactic diplomats sent in as last-minute troubleshooters are an eminently likeable ensemble cast. From the hard-bitten Ambassador Abumwe to Hart Schmidt, her rich-kid turned diplomatic aide happily slumming it along side her, Wilson’s co-workers are diverse and three-dimensional.
Under the surface of the fun and realpolitik games is a pertinent satire on xenophobia and expansionism. The space-bound Colonial Union brand themselves as protectors and pioneers of humanity, but in order to do so they ‘farm’ the septuagenarians of Earth, repurposing their bodies with tech into colonists and soldiers, while keeping Earth in a kind of techno-dark age. The denouement of the previous book sees this secret essentially outed by The Conclave, who represent to humanity’s home planet a viable alternative to the Colonial yoke. It’s this central diplomatic tension that makes so the action compelling, even when it almost veers into farce. The stakes are high, visible, and sufficiently infused with real-world parallels. The idea of an organisation keeping its citizens in the dark with clever rhetoric is hardly a reach. The general atmosphere of xenophobia and bureaucracy, along with plenty of references to the inanity of political grandstanding cleverly roots the galaxy hopping narrative in very real, relatable concerns.
One of my only real complaints about Scalzi’s prose is his over-fondness for the wry aside. He, and his characters are often surprisingly witty but eventually the end-of-paragraph-punchline becomes formulaic. Scalzi is a confident, extremely capable writer, and never gets bogged down in unnecessary exposition, letting the characters and action very speak for themselves. He’s witty, imaginative, and though his sci-fi is far from ‘hard’, bordering on whimsical, the overall premise, specifically that of humanity’s place in the galaxy is refreshing. In fact, it’s closer to the universe of hit videogame series Mass Effect than most contemporary novels. Also, a few side storylines are underdeveloped, but it keeps the central action fizzing along so it’s hardly a deal breaker.
The Human Division is great fun with some clever twists. It doesn’t over-reach or shy away from lightening the mood. The dialogue and wry asides do tend to stereotype but it’s a minor quibble in the face of things. Despite my penchant for the harder side of sci-fi, I quickly became invested in the fate of the Colonial Union and its unsung heroes of the lowest diplomatic rungs, fighting minute-to-minute to keep themselves, and the Union’s dreams of long-term survival, alive. I’ll definitely be checking out the rest of the series and happily recommending THD as both a jumping in point and a great, light-hearted sci-fi novel in its own right.
Written on 21st March 2016 by Danny.
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