Monday, January 14, 2013

Scalzi, The Human Division, Episode 1: The B-Team

Novelist, satirist, blogger and SFWA president John Scalzi has returned to his Old Man's War universe with The Human Division, a serialized novel whose first "episode" (i.e. chapter) comes out January 15, 2013.  The good folks at Tor/Forge were kind enough to provide me advance copies of Episodes 1-3, so in an experiment of sorts, I'll be reviewing each of these chapters a day before their release. 


If you recall, I was disappointed with Redshirts, Scalzi's satire of logistical inconsistencies in the Star Trek universe, and TV/film science fiction in general. It's not that the book was bad, per se, but I found its self-referential "meta" humor to be a bit tedious. I couldn't help but wish Scalzi had, instead, produced something more like the serious yet darkly humorous Old Man's War series. That time has come.

For those who don't know it, the OMW series comprises a trilogy plus a fourth book retelling the story from the perspective of a child, Zoe, who figures heavily into the story arc. Many readers I've spoken with interpret the series as an uncritical homage to Robert Heinlein, and specifically, to the militaristic space opera Starship Troopers. But while there's certainly an element of homage involved, the OMW books are deeply critical of the jingoism and aggressive militarism at the heart of Starship Troopers and a lot of military SF. In that sense they are much closer to Joe Haldeman's anti-war classic The Forever War, which was also written as a response to Heinlein.

Let me explain: in the future, Earth's colonies have far outpaced the home planet in terms of technology and dominate it politically. Earth is overcrowded, while the Colonial Union controls a vast, galaxy spanning but sparsely populated dominion. However, it is in a state of constant warfare with other galactic powers. So the Colonial Union recruits poor people from impoverished, overcrowded countries on Earth and sets them up as pioneers on far-flung planets--at times without warning them that the planets are inhabited or claimed by rival powers. The Colonial Defense Forces, in turn, recruit primarily among the more developed countries, like the United States. But they also boast a 75% casualty rate, which would usually pose a serious recruitment problem. The CDF, though, has developed a way to genetically enhance its soldiers and regrow their bodies under super-resiliant, green skin. This, in turn, allows them to recruit soldiers and staff from senior citizens who, being old already, don't really care as much if they die in 10 years. What could possibly go wrong with that? 

The B-Team

Evidently lots. I don't want to spoil anything if you haven't read the original books, but I sort of have to point out that by the beginning of The Human Division, the Colonial Union has grown up a bit and, for the most part, gets along with its neighbors now. Unfortunately, that comes at a price. Earth, the source of the colonists and soldiers behind the Colonial Union's galactic expansion, doesn't want to play ball anymore, and given the high casualty rates for CDF personnel, now there really is a recruitment problem. And beyond the borders of the Colonial Union, hundreds of alien species have organized into the Conclave, a powerful political entity that enforces the galactic ban on colonization and views the Colonial Union with ambivalence bordering on hostility. Humanity, accustomed to bullying its way around the galaxy by force of arms, now has to rely on its diplomatic corps to ensure its survival through treaty and negotiation.

On just such a mission, a crack diplomatic team and its military escort go missing under mysterious circumstances. CDF Lieutenant Harry Wilson, technical advisor to brusk and unlovable diplomat Ode Abumwe, happens to be nearby. He is sent to investigate, while Abumwe is tasked with completing negotiations with the once-antagonistic Uchte. This "B-team" soon discovers that there is much more to this story than meets the eye, with potentially terrible implications for the Colonial Union and the galaxy at large.

So How Was It?

In a word? Awesome. After my disappointment with Redshirts, I'm happy to say that everything that I loved about the OMW series is back: the memorable characters, the crisp dialogue, the sharp but unfussy prose, the well-realized world and, most of all, the characteristic balance of humor and gravity. Of course, some of the things I didn't love about OMW are back too, chiefly, the overly American future it takes place in and the characters' occasional over-reliance on wisecracking and smartassery. On balance, though, The B-Team is an entirely fun yet still hefty piece of writing, which left me satisfied yet eagerly anticipating the next episode.

In that sense, it works like good serialized TV shows--think Battlestar Galactica (remake) or The Wire. You devour an episode and then are given a week to mull it over, discuss it over the watercooler, get in arguments online about what's going to happen next and start counting down the days until the next one comes out. That's obviously what Scalzi and Tor had in mind when they decided on this format.

Whether it works remains to be seen. An obvious problem faced by TV shows is viewership attrition. Take Lost, for example: it's viewership in Season 1 was considerably larger than it was in Season 4. Will readers stick it out to the end? Hard to tell at this point, though as a premier episode, The B-Team does everything it needs to do in order to keep the reader tuned in next week. I certainly will be.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for getting back to what made the OMW books so fun; +1 for successfully pulling off the serialization thing.

Penalties: -1 for "America in Space."

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10. "Very high quality/standout in its category."

Read about our scoring system, in which average is a 5/10, here