Monday, January 21, 2013

Scalzi, The Human Division Episode 2: Walk the Plank

Last week I reviewed the first "episode" in John Scalzi's serialized novel The Human Division. I liked it. A lot. In fact, I liked it so much that, in the days after finishing it, I had to resist the incessant urge to just keep going. But that would have made it impossible to assess how well the serialized format of the novel works, so I didn't.

As those days separating the finishing of The B-Team and the starting of Walk the Plank unfolded, I began to have some doubts. You see, I'm the type of person who reads in small doses, but everyday. I'm not used to taking a multiple day pause in-between chapters of a book, and it soon became apparent that I couldn't quite remember everything that had happened in The B-Team. Never fear, I thought, the fact that The Human Division was conceived of as a sort of prose television series surely meant that there'd be a "last week on The Human Division" style synopsis at the beginning, right? Wrong.

However, as I dove into Walk the Plank, most of the important stuff came back to me. There's a mystery from The B-Team that wasn't resolved (and if you haven't read it, I won't spoil it for you), but for the most part, the first episode serves as a set up--Wilson, Schmidt, Abumwe and the crew of the Clarke, having shown their mettle in one crisis, have been chosen as a "fire team" for future crises. Why? Not only because they're good at it, but also because they'd also make convenient fall guys if it all went to pot.

Walk the Plank leaves our heroes for the moment, and instead focuses on strange happenings at a wildcat colony (i.e. a private, unsanctioned settlement). It's written like an audio transcript, which is presumably what it is supposed to be. It also looks like a teleplay, and knowing Scalzi's penchant for self-referential meta-humor, this resemblance was probably not coincidental.

Does it work? To a degree, the answer is "yes." The narrative is easy enough to follow and, if my interpretation is correct, helps set up a couple central plot points. Plus Scalzi has a gift for dialogue. There are two mysteries--one that concerns the colonists and another that feels like a clue to the broader mystery presented in The B-Team. It's nicely done, and I admire Scalzi's restrained approach to revealing the book's central mystery. Plus I'm curious to see how the wildcat colony will figure into the main narrative as the book unfolds.

On the other hand, I'm not sure how much the teleplay format adds that the conventional prose narration utilized in The B-Team (and the rest of the OMW series) couldn't have done as well or better. Teleplays, after all, are written for actors we see with our eyes, located on sets or locations we also see with our eyes. Absent those critical ingredients, there's an unfortunate featureless-ness to Walk the Plank.

Then there's the length. At 90+ pages, The B-Team was the equivalent of a super-meaty two-hour premiere. That's a little much to expect from a typical episode, but the 24-page Walk the Plank feels like a jarring transition from from feature to sitcom-length. A small quibble, perhaps, but it did leave me wondering if I'd been sent all the pages (I was).

That said, I'm still very much on board and excited for Episode 3. The Human Division is shaping up nicely, and I'm keen to get back to Wilson, Schmidt and the rest of the gang.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for the sharp dialogue; +1 for the way Scalzi is revealing the central mystery, piece by piece.

Penalties: -1 for the teleplay format, which didn't really do it for me; -1 for being too short.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.