The Human Division

The Human Division Read-Along, Episode 6: “The Back Channel”

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 6, “The Back Channel.”

In this week’s episode, we get our first extended look at the Conclave’s perspective on recent events. Fans of The Last Colony will recognize the Conclave’s leader, General Tarsem Gau; his chief advisor, Hafte Sorvalh, has a small but important role in that novel’s parallel followup, Zoe’s Tale. (Does Sorvalh appear at all in The Last Colony? I’m pretty sure she doesn’t, but feel free to fill in any gaps in my knowledge!)

It’s been years since Scalzi’s written about either of these alien characters, and I asked him about returning to established characters after a long absence: How does he both expand on their characterizations and maintain consistency with their original portrayal? “I cheated,” he confessed. He took a discarded conversation between Gau and Sorvalh from an early draft of The Last Colony, and retooled  it for the Human Division storyline. “Retyping all that got me back into their voices,” he explained—and once he was there, he found that Sorvalh had become one of his new favorite characters.

“Sorvalh’s very sure of herself,” he said, and though he didn’t care for the negative connotations of calling her Macchiavellian, “she appreciates the value of soft power. She’s good at getting people to do what she wants and think it’s their idea.” We get an excellent example of her persuasive powers in this episode, although I’m pretty sure Jaco Smyrt knows exactly whose idea it is to shut down his colony….

What does “The Back Channel” do to fill us in on the overarching problem the Colonial Union faces? Well, now we know that it’s also a problem the Conclave faces; several of their merchant ships have gone missing in a manner similar to that of the Morningstar, and there’s a small but vocal faction within the Conclave willing to use that as a pretext to go after the humans. We also know—or have confirmed—that the Conclave has intelligence assets within the CU. The Conclave also opens an unofficial line of communication with the CU, as Sorvalh discusses the problem of the wildcat colonies with Colonel Rigney, and they’re going to stay in contact. (Looking ahead, we know from the basic descriptions that Sorvalh will be a featured player in at least one more episode, with a suggestion of the various plot threads of the first half of the series coming together.)

We also get an explicit reminder of the persistence of racism into the OMW future—and confirmation that it’s not just a human problem, either. That might just be a tangential point; on the other hand, I’m wondering if it’s not something we should be keeping in mind as we consider the motivations of whoever’s messing with the CU and the Conclave.

Finally, we learn that the future still has churros—and where there are churros, surely there are churro waffles, too. Perhaps they may even feature in next week’s episode, “The Dog King.”

(Okay, probably not.)


Purchase and read The Human Division, episode 6: “The Back Channel,” 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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