Year of Books: The Human Division

At the beginning of January I decided to start tracking how many books I read this year. I promised to report back and had planned to at the end of January but time got away from me. So, now, I shall report on my progress in January and February.

So far I’ve read over 20 “books”.

I have “books” in quotation marks because I’ve read a couple of novellas this year already, including John Scalzi’s very excellent serial novel The Human Division (which is currently on episode #7, which I both started and finished on my lunch break today). At the end of the year I think I’ll provide a full list of everything I’ve read but, for now, I think I’ll try to call out at least one book a month that really stood out for me. So, for January and February, that would be…

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The Human Division (Episodes 1-7) by John Scalzi

I gotta give a shout-out to my man Scalzi here. I’ve talked on this blog before about my love for him, but he’s doing really new and interesting things with this project. The Human Division is a serialized novel that basically apes the structure of a television season. That is, each weekly “episode” contains a mini-arc that is resolved by the end of the story but the whole collection of 13 episodes adds up to one long, overarching story.

If you don’t follow publishing, the serialized novel is getting to be a new fad (St. Martin’s released The Gin Lovers, Sylvia Day’s been doing serialized erotic romances for years now and other publishers are quickly filling the bandwagon). Scalzi’s publishing team is basically leading the charge in SF/F with The Human Division. It’s an interesting experiment and, so far, on the logistic and aesthetic end I think they are doing well. I can preorder every episode (and have) and then the stories automatically download on release day. Each episode has its own attractive cover and blurb. The episodes can be read out of order and (allegedly) each standalone plot-wise. It feels like a lot of work has been put into making The Human Division train run smoothly. So far that seems to be paying off for them in sales and happy customers. I think just about every episode has been a bestseller on the USA today list and Amazon.

So, I’ve talked about the packaging, but how does the story itself stand up? Well, the thought that keeps occurring to me as I read this serial is just how good a TV show this would make. The first episode especially imitates the structure and pace of a TV show pilot. (A really good TV show pilot). The B-Team sets up the recurring cast of characters, lays out what’s on the line for the universe at large, introduces enough dangling plot threads to want you to read on but not plot threads of such immediate intensity that they feel like a cliffhanger when they aren’t resolved. As John Scalzi says himself, “we’re not ending each episode on a cliff-hanger to make you tune in next week. Instead, we’re building the universe episode by episode, and inviting readers to explore that universe with us.” Of course, there is still the waiting for next week’s episode problem like you’d get with a good TV show, but that is the price we pay.

Scalzi’s trademark witty banter is in residence, though not quite so fast and furious as usual, but in such a short chunk of writing too much more humor probably would have been too much. So far I’ve been able to read every episode in one sitting on my lunch break at work. The action is fast-paced, characters are humorous and likeable and the overarching narrative arc is intriguing enough I’m in for the long haul even if a disappointing episode or two crops up. (So far none of the episodes have been disappointing. The stand out episodes for me, so far, are The B-Team, Walk the Plank, and A Voice in the Wilderness) I will say some of the characters were hard to distinguish from each other at first, but that’s about my only nitpick this time around.

(Very) Small Caveat: The Human Division is set in the same universe as Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series. I have read all the previous books in that series, but I don’t think newbie readers will have problems following along. Scalzi is good at getting the reader up to speed without infodumps.

On the whole, I would highly recommend this story, and I hope at least some of you will hop on this serial train and start reading The Human Division along with me. 🙂

BONUS: If you want a free taste of the Old Man’s War universe and a sneak peek at some of the main characters in The Human Division you can read this free short story of Scalzi’s, “After the Coup,” which I personally quite enjoyed.

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