The Human Division

The Human Division Read-Along, Episode 13: “Earth Below, Sky Above”

Welcome to the final installment of the read-along for John Scalzi’s The Human Division—each week, as a new episode in this serialized novel was released, we’ve used this space to talk about how you think the story’s going so far and discuss your theories about where it might be headed. We’ve also gotten behind-the-scenes info from Scalzi, as well as the occasional insight from his editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden, too.

And though I strove to err on the side of caution when I talked about each episode’s plot points, this read-along was meant to be a zone where people who have already read the story could talk about it with each other. There were spoilers.

And there are going to be even more spoilers as we dig into the final episode: “Earth Below, Sky Above.”

First things first: Although the conspiracy comes to a spectacular boil with the assault on Earth Station—maybe my favorite action sequence in a science fiction novel since the Xiamen firefight in Neal Stephenson’s Reamde—we still don’t know who’s behind it. I thought that might have been baked into the story from the beginning, and I asked Scalzi as much. “It wasn’t always the plan to leave the conspiracy angle unanswered,” he assured me. “In the writing, however, it became clear that it was going to happen, and I as the writer was fine with that.”

That’s because The Human Division isn’t just a novel about an interstellar conspiracy, he explains:

“It’s primarily about Harry Wilson and Hart Schmidt and Ode Abumwe and the crew of the Clarke, and their transition from clinging from the bottom of the diplomatic ladder to becoming essential components of the Colonial Union’s continuing struggle for survival. That’s the arc of the novel right there.

The conspiracy is an important element, but to focus on that at the expense of the characters’ journeys would be putting the cart before the horse. I knew what—and who—my story was about.”

Scalzi thinks many fans have been realizing that a cliffhanger ending such as this was likely: “So many of the comments I’ve seen have shifted from ‘How is this going to get all wrapped up?’ to ‘There better be more!’” But before we talk about that, let’s take a look back at the process of writing a 13-episode serial….

“My favorite part of the episodic nature of The Human Division was being able to spend a little more time with characters who in other novels would by structural necessity be more in the background: Hart Schmidt, Halfte Sorvalh, Danielle Lowen and so on,” Scalzi says, and he believes readers enjoyed those scenes as well, once they got used to the idea of stepping away from the main story. “I think there was at least some initial resistance to the ‘side’ episodes,” he concedes, “because I think people were wondering how they tied into the overall narrative. I think here now at the end it’s clear that most everything coalesces into a single stream.”

If The Human Division was an experiment in writing serialized fiction and publishing it online, “I don’t think it would be terribly surprising to learn that the experiment was a success,” Scalzi continues:

“Artistically, I enjoyed the challenge of writing individual stories that also hung together as a coherent novel-length narrative, and it seems that the readers seemed to get it too—that they were willing to to take this flyer with us.

Commercially, it seems indisputable that the experiment was a success as well: Each of the episodes to date has landed on the USA Today bestseller list and has been in the top five in sales on Amazon’s science fiction list.

So I’m pretty happy with both sides of that equation.”

He’s also been paying close attention to the feedback from fans over the last four months, including what they’ve been saying about story length in relation to the price of the episodes. “This was a grumble that got less pronounced the further along we went in the series, as far as I could see,” he observed. “There was almost no length grumbling about ‘The Gentle Art of Cracking Heads,’ which was the shortest in the series.” And though readers seemed happy with the episodic nature of the novel, “[they] wanted more convenient ways to purchase and organize the episodes,” he noted. “A lot of that is wrapped up in the retailer relationship, so we’ll have to think about these aspects moving forward.”

Ah, yes, moving forward….

“I contracted for a single novel,” Scalzi reflected. “Originally the idea was one novel, one set of episodes and one narrative arc. And then in the writing it changed, partly because of the mechanics of how I write and partly because as I wrote I realized I had created more plot than could be elegantly stuffed into a novel of the length and structure we had planned for.”

“I didn’t want readers pissed off at the idea that some major plot points would not be resolved,” he emphasized. If The Human Division was succeeding from a sales perspective, then, “I was pretty sure Tor would be happy to keep things going, because it’s in the nature of commercial publishing to continue successful things.” And if things hadn’t worked out, and Tor didn’t want to finish the story of the Clarke, Scalzi was prepared to write a novella that would wrap up some of the major unanswered questions, which he’d release through a smaller publisher… or even independently, if need be.

“Either way, I wouldn’t leave readers and fans hanging,” he said. “Because that would be a dick move.”

All of which is prelude to this announcement: “I am happy to say The Human Division has been renewed for a second season.” Stay tuned to and Whatever for updates as the details fall into place, I’m sure….

And that’s a wrap! So… what do you think?

Purchase and read The Human Division, episode 13: “Earth Below, Sky Above,” here.

Art by John Harris.

Ron Hogan just launched a new website called The Handsell, where he recruits authors and indie booksellers to make reading recommendations for people based on books they already love. He is a big Scalzi fan from way back, and has had a great time with this read-along—thanks to everyone who participated, and to for hosting us!


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