The Human Division

The Human Division Read-Along: Episode 3: “We Only Need the Heads”

Welcome to the read-along for John Scalzi’s The Human Division—each week, as a new episode in this serialized novel is released, you can use this space to talk about how you think the story’s going so far and put forward your theories about where it might be headed. You’ll also get behind-the-scenes info from Scalzi, as well as the occasional insight from his editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden… and maybe a few other special guest stars along the way.

Warning: Although I’ll strive to err on the side of caution when I talk about each episode’s plot points, this read-along is meant to be a zone where people who have already read the story can talk about it with each other. Expect spoilers.

Okay, then! Let’s talk about Episode 3: “We Only Need the Heads.”

Before we talk about what happens in this week’s episode, let’s take a quick look at the origins of The Human Division. As Scalzi recalls it, shortly after he delivered the Fuzzy Nation manuscript to Tor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden contacted him about doing a serial project—and had that novel in mind for it. “As it happened, I had also been thinking about doing something in that format as well,” Scalzi told me, “but preferred the idea of writing something ‘purpose built’ for the format—i.e., not just an already-written novel chapter by chapter, but something ‘native’ to the format, and designed to take advantage of it.”

That prompted him to revisit an idea he’d had a few years earlier about writing more Harry Wilson stories (as revealed in the Episode 1 read-along); after a few refinements, “I ended up pitching Patrick the idea of an episodic Old Man’s War novel, and we went from there.”

After last episode’s detour to the wildcat colony of New Seattle, we’re reunited with some of the novel’s central figures. First, Harry’s sidekick Hart Schmidt has a conference with his boss, Ambassador Ode Abumwe, who informs him of their new assignment: They’ve been asked to slow down negotiations with the Bula race long enough for the Colonial Defense Forces to evacuate a wildcat colony on the Bula planet Wantji. As it turns out, Harry Wilson’s been placed with the CDF team, but when they arrive at New Seattle, there are no longer any survivors to evacuate.

Instead, Harry makes a startling discovery that points to CDF involvement in the colony, involvement that Abumwe’s superior officers confirm in a separate discussion. The question is: Who else knew about the CDF presence in New Seattle, and why did they share that information with the Bula?

One of my first reactions to this episode was to notice how much Abumwe has grown as a character; when she first appeared in “After the Coup,” she was just a scowling figure in the background, a prompt to push Harry’s situation forward. I asked Scalzi about how he built up her character from those early broad strokes. “For me, who Abumwe is, a complete character, has always been in there,” he said. “It’s just a question of when is the right time to reveal aspects of her personality.”

“One of the nice things about The Human Division is that I know this is an ensemble piece, and I know that I’m doing thirteen separate episodes, so I don’t feel I have to be in a rush to frontload every aspect of every character’s personality. I have the opportunity to bring some characters forward for a particular story and move others into the background if necessary; over time they’ll all be fleshed out.”

In this case, “We Only Need the Heads” is the ideal moment to reveal Abumwe as more than just a cranky boss. “Even though she’s short-tempered and forbidding by nature,” Scalzi explained, “there has to be something there that readers can see suggesting she is actually qualified for the position she holds—that she has the intelligence, tenacity and the diplomatic skill that make her good at her job, even if she is poorly used by the Department of State.”

He takes a similar approach to every character in the story: “No matter how you use them—as comic foil, as tragic victim, as provider of exposition—if you bake into your thinking that have a life outside your use for them, it becomes much easier later to fill in all those blanks.”

I kept that in mind as I reread the section where Harry accompanies the platoon to New Seattle; the other characters aren’t just there to make Harry look good in contrast. Based on what Scalzi presents them, it’s not too hard to imagine that scene from the perspective of Lt. Lee, the platoon commander, or the rookie private Albert Jefferson. Our attention is focused on the adventures of Harry Wilson, but for these soldiers (and the others Harry ropes into helping him fulfill his mission) this is a highly unusual, and hugely inconvenient, deviation from their normal routine.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t go well for either Harry or Ambassador Abumwe. But we’re just shy of a quarter of the way through the series, and the few clues we’ve been given about the forces trying to sabotage the Colonial Union’s efforts haven’t coalesced into a solid answer yet. Let’s see what Episode 4, “A Voice in the Wilderness,” has to tell us.

Purchase and read The Human Division, episode 3: “We Only Need the Heads” at:

Art by John Harris.

Ron Hogan is a big Scalzi fan from way back. In addition to running the literary website Beatrice, he reviews science fiction and fantasy for Shelf Awareness and the Dallas Morning News.


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