Welcome to the Tor.com 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 4, “A Voice in the Wilderness.”
This is another episode which, like “Walk the Plank,” steps away from Harry Wilson and his colleagues from the Colonial Union’s diplomatic corps to tell what seems to be a side story—but one that’s likely to tie into the main narrative at some point. We’re introduced to Albert Birnbaum, “once the fourth most popular audio talk show host in the United States,” now needing to apply some quick brakes to his career’s downward spiral before he becomes “a has-been in the national political conversation.”
Along comes a mysterious guy named Michael Washington, who knows much more than he should about Birnbaum’s personal and professional business, with a proposition: a futuristic variation on William Randolph Hearst’s “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” All Birnbaum has to do is start suggesting on his show that maybe the Colonial Union aren’t the bad guys—maybe they’re “the best thing that ever happened to the planet Earth.” The effects are nearly instantaneous: In one week, his live audience grows from less than a million to 20 million listeners.
As we’ll see, though, this bargain he’s cut is Faustian in the extreme, and eventually Michael Washington will come to collect.
So: Who is Michael Washington working for? He (and Scalzi) deliberately muddy the waters at the end, but does it really make sense that he’d be working with the same faction that we’ve seen disrupting the CU’s efforts further out in the galaxy? And I’m still not 100 percent sure those are the people responsible for the seizure of the Erie Morningstar and/or the massacre at New Seattle. Which of the explanations he tossed out in that conversation strikes you as the most likely?
One thing I especially liked about “A Voice in the Wilderness” is the humor, which I see as more akin to the Scalzi of stories like Agent to the Stars and Redshirts than to the Old Man’s War world. That’s been changing—take the diplomatic ceremony where we first meet Harry and Hart in “The B-Team,” or the wacky action film fight scene scenario that set off “After the Coup” way back when—but I’ve always felt that the OMW novels were, even though they’re flecked with humor, slightly more earnest in their overall tone. The comedy here isn’t “cynical,” exactly, because deep down I think Scalzi still shows a belief in the fundamental capacity of people for goodness, but there’s definitely a kind of knowingness to the jokes here. I’m going to table this idea for now, but I might want to circle back to it, if we get a particularly funny episode later on….
Now, when “Walk the Plank” premiered two weeks ago, there was some pushback from readers about its short length in comparison to “The B Team,” and a minor flurry of outrage from folks who didn’t feel they’d gotten their 99 cents worth out of the story. Some of those people went to Amazon and gave the episode one star strictly because of the pricing issue, and were ready to declare the entire serial a failure. Well, as Scalzi noted when I broached the subject with him, both episodes were among the Kindle store’s five best selling science fiction titles. “If this is failure,” he said, “I would like to fail some more at this level, please.”
(Scalzi also noted that he’d made other, even shorter stories like “Questions for a Soldier” and “After the Coup” available in digital format at a similar price; “they’ve sold nicely,” he observed, “and neither their length nor price has been an issue.”)
He also emphasized that the range in episode lengths has never been hidden from readers during the buildup to the series:
“Both I and Tor have been pretty clear about this variation, and it’s intentional that it’s there—we wanted to mix up lengths and characters and situations. Some readers appear to be annoyed with this variation, and that’s fine; another data point for us to consider on what is an experiment. Speaking from a creative point of view, however, I wrote each episode to be the length the episode’s story required. When it’s at the right length, it’s at the right length. Adding more words won’t make it better, it’ll just make it longer.”
I mentioned an idea that I’d had, inspired by the reactions to “Walk the Plank,” that maybe it made sense to think of The Human Division not as a serial in the episodic sense that we generally use that term, but a set of 13 interconnected short films. Scalzi didn’t bite. “I think that is a serial,” he wrote back, “in the sense that when all the episodes are put together, you do have a narrative arc that runs through all of them, so the description fits.”
He added, though, that while “series” and “episodes” were “useful to give a general idea of what we’re doing here… we weren’t trapped by them.” Hence the episodes (like this one!) which step away from Harry Wilson and his colleagues to explore other corners of the Old Man’s War universe. “This really is an experiment,” he observed, “and we’re trying different things creatively, stylistically and commercially. We’ll see what works and what doesn’t. In the meantime, yeah, it might be a little difficult to peg down precisely what The Human Division is, in reference to other, similar stuff. I see this as a feature, not a bug. ”
For my own part, I’d simply observe that if you care about supporting creative people and their work, 99 cents—a penny less than a candy bar in many places—seems like a perfectly reasonable price to pay for a short story, or a half-hour’s entertainment, or however you want to frame the issue. If you disagree, and we need to have that discussion, I’d like to suggest that we have it here, in this installment of the read-along, and after that we can keep the focus on the story itself. Deal?
And, of course, I hope you’ll join me next week when we discuss Episode 5, “Tales from the Clarke.”
Purchase and read The Human Division, episode 4: “A Voice in the Wilderness” at:
Art by John Harris.