Jan 15 2013 10:00am

The Human Division Read-Along: Episode 1, “The B-Team”

Human Division, The B-Team, art by John Harris

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 readalong 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 1: “The B-Team.”

A note: The first episode of The Human Division, “The B-Team,” is in wide release next Tuesday, January 15th, but those on Tor Books' B-Team mailing list received the episode today. There's more info on joining the B-Team here.

There’s some background to cover, but it’s quick!

The Human Division is set in the universe of Scalzi’s debut novel, Old Man’s War, and its sequels (The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony, and Zoe’s Tale), but you don’t need to know a lot about that going in. What you do need to know (as Scalzi covers in an early scene) is that the efforts of humanity’s Colonial Union to establish settlements on other worlds have met with hostility from just about every alien race in the galaxy—and now the people of Earth have broken off their relationship with the Union as well. That means no more recruits for the offworld colonies, and perhaps more importantly no more recruits for the Colonial Defense Forces. And that, as one high-ranking CU official explains, that puts the human race “thirty years from extinction” unless the diplomats of the Colonial Union’s Department of State can maintain a precarious peace and patch things back up with Earth.

Enter Lt. Harry Wilson, who was first introduced to Tor.com readers in the 2008 short story “After the Coup.” Harry’s a CDF officer who’s been attached to a CU diplomatic courier ship, the Clarke, as a technical consultant. They’re not an all-star squad; as Harry remarks to his sidekick Hart, “You get all the crappy diplomatic missions and once you’ve done the scut work, someone else comes in for the glory.”

I asked Scalzi whether bringing back Harry Wilson is something he’s been thinking about doing over the last five years, or whether he was inspired while casting around for story ideas that would fit an episodic format. “Well, to be honest, they were concurrent,” he told me:

“When I first wrote ‘After the Coup,’ I thought it would be fun to write a series of stories featuring Harry and Hart getting into a series of wacky, diplomacy-based adventures, and even started writing a follow-up piece not long after ‘Coup’ came out, but then got distracted by other commitments. The idea of doing more with the two characters was always in the back of my head.

This was useful because when Tor and I started talking about doing The Human Division, and doing it episodically, I was able to use those Wilson/Schmidt ideas as a starting point. The final version of THD varies substantially from my original idea of Wilson/Schmidt adventures—it’s more serious and more of an ensemble piece—but it pointed me in the right direction, in terms of structure and pacing.”

When a diplomatic team disappears just before a crucial mission, the Clarke is rushed into service—because Harry’s one of a handful of people who might be able to fulfill what may be an equally important mission: find out just what happened to that first ship. It’s an assignment that calls upon all of his military and scientific expertise, in a way that recalls the heros of Campbell-era Astounding. Here’s a smart guy who’s not only ready for action, he’s almost eager (but not too eager) to get his hair mussed up a bit. So how influential has the Campbellian hero been on Scalzi, as both a fan and a writer?

“I’d say one of the important aspects of the Old Man’s War universe is that a lot of the soliders in it have the potential to be Campbellian heroes, because they are recruited when they are 75 years old. It’s easier to be a Campbellian hero when you’ve had an entire life to hone your skills, after all. And once they’re in the CDF, their BrainPals and other technological/biological advancements make it easier to level up, as it were.

I think the influence on me of the Campbellian/Heinleinian sort of story and character set is pretty obvious, and that’s both a plus and a minus. The plus is that these sort of characters are easy ones for science fiction readers to get into and enjoy; the minus is that these sorts are characters are such well-worn tropes in the genre that they can be a trap for lazy writing and characterization—and in many ways the character type can seem outdated in today’s world.

So there’s the balance of retaining the good things about those characters—the competence and the willingness to engage the universe—while avoiding the less good things, like blithe paternalism and square-jawed blandness. I kept that in mind while writing Harry... and all the other characters around him. As I noted, The Human Division is an ensemble piece, and while Harry’s important, there are other characters who have as much page time as he does.”

Among the characters you’ll be wanting to keep an eye on are Ode Abumwe, the lead ambassador on the Clarke, and the ship’s captain, Sophia Coloma. Back at CU headquarters, Colonels Abel Rigney and Liz Egan play a crucial role in setting up the Clarke as a crew that will be sent into, in Rigney’s words, “high risk, high reward situations where the path to success isn’t laid out but has to be cut by machete through a jungle filled with poison toads.”

And it’s clear that there will be plenty of these situations in the near future. We knew from the opening scene that something was up with that first ship’s disappearance, but what Harry discovers raises more questions than it answers. Somebody wants to screw things up for the Colonial Union, but who? And why? What do you think? Test your theories out now, and we’ll see how they hold up when the next episode of The Human Division, “Walk the Plank,” comes out.

Purchase and read The Human Division, episode 1: “The B-Team” 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.

Ralph Feldhake
1. feldhake
Great read so far. I find myself wondering if the title refers to a "Human Division" in the military sense, e.g. a division of soldiers, or if it refers to political division among the humans? I initially assumed the former, due to the military nature of the series, but now I'm less sure.
Steven Halter
2. stevenhalter
That was a good first installment. So now we have:
1) Some group of humans is trying to sabotage diplomatic missions.
2) Earth wants out of the CDF at a time when "The Conclave" is forbidding expansion by non-members and the lack of Earth spells potential doom.
3) A sympathetic and useful team in Harry and Hart. This reminded me a bit of Anderson's Flandry books in tone.

I forget, have we ever been told exactly why the CDF was keeping Earth technologically challenged?
3. Dr FEM
Excellent so far! Remind me: Why won't the CDF consider joining the Conclave?
Ron Hogan
4. RonHogan
Dr. FEM: I'd have to doublecheck my copy of The Last Colony, but I'm not sure the CDF was ever invited to join the Conclave.
Steven Halter
5. stevenhalter
OK, I did a quick pass back through "The Last Colony" to refresh my memory and what I see is that the Colonial Union refused to become part of the Conclave--in fact it actively tried to stop the Conclave from forming.
When that failed, the CU engineered the destruction of a Conclave fleet. John Perry & Co. manage to get the info that the Conclave even exists to Earth along with what has been going on with all of the recruits (mostly dead).
Exactly why the CU is being so secretive or why it refused to join the Conclave isn't really said as far as I can tell. It is implied that there is a power cabal in the CU that just wants power, but this isn't for certain either.
6. Alphager
@stevenhalter: Not outright, though there was speculation by one of the "old farts" in OMW that it was done to better farm recruits and colonists.

@Dr Fem: The CDF didn't want to share planets with other races and thought that the conclave would collapse on itself because of politics, sabotage and the CDF-lead counter-conclave.

@RonHogan: The CDF was invited (as was every other known race, including the Consu)
Ron Hogan
7. RonHogan
Thanks for the straightening out, Stephen and Alphager!

Earlier today, I was kicking around the idea that Harry Wilson is like Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan ("in space!"), and it got me to thinking that The Hunt for Red October is a sort of brilliant variation on the type of Astounding/Campbellian story I was invoking above. I suspect I'll be coming back to this point in a few episodes...

(For the record: I am reading ahead. But only by two episodes, three tops. That way, I won't even be able to let out too many spoilers, not even by accident.)
Craig Olinsky
8. colinsky
Strange, I subscribed to the mailing list to get this when it was released (still have the email from August with "After the Coup" sitting their in my mailbox), yet no mail with this episode that everyone seems to have received. Hmm...
Dan Guy
9. danguyf
@colinsky: I found my mail in the Spam folder; check there.
10. AFS
I'm curious as to what's going on elsewhere in the universe. Is Earth applying to join the Conclave? That seemed to be a possibility as of the end of The Last Colony, and it puts the lie to Egan's assertion that humanity will be extinct in 30 years. The CU citizenry may be extinct, but you'll still have humans from Earth and Roanoke surviving and sharing new colony worlds with the Conclave.

Also, is Conclave membership closed? You would think that, once the CDF starts to collapse, individual human worlds could withdraw from the CU and apply to the Conclave for protection. Why do the CDF and CU dep't of state people never consider this as a possibility?
11. eBbr in Salt Lake
Regarding 'DRM' in the published eBooks, I just noticed on Apple's iBook site for the purchase:
"Books can only be viewed using iBooks on an iPad, iPhone (3G or later), or iPod touch (2nd generation or later)."
Does seem a bit DRM-ish, to me, in the Apple manner.
12. Malthusius
I'm also curious to know what else is going on in this universe. In so far as human colonies joining the Conclave: it is implied in The Last Colony that the Conclave would consider any applications from human colonies to join. However the age-old problem of a communications monopoly still needs considering. The CU (presumably even after losing earth) still controls all communications and would likely be unwilling to allow a human colony to talk to the Conclave.

But perhaps more importantly, who is behind the attempt to sabotage the Clarke's diplomacy mission? I'm not sure but I found the lack of reference to the CU's special forces to be interesting....
13. ghayenga
@eBbr in Salt Lake

That would be accurate if it actually had DRM, but since it doesn't it's not.
John Laudun
14. johnlaudun
Okay, I'm still skeptical about the whole pricing scheme -- it makes me want just to wait for the hardback -- but I'll bite on this first bit. Scalzi is a charmer, and I remember really enjoying the first Harry Wilson story, lo, those many years ago.

(And, to be clear, I like supporting favorite authors like Scalzi -- Iain Banks is another -- but if folks are going to pony up for the full $13 of the episodic narrative, they should get everything the paper buyers are going to get, often for less. In other words, let's make this work for everybody.)
15. Rogue10
Anyone notice the header (at least on the PDF) says "The Human Division #3: The B Team"? What was #1 and #2?

(Maybe "After the Coup was #1....)

Oh, and @AFS, I remember noting back in Last Colony the same flaw, in that the CU only seems to consider CU population as Humanity--they don't seem to include Earth doing it's own thing (possibly with the conclave). Maybe they think that is a doomed path? Who knows.
16. Rontar
I read it last week and loved it. Read it again today and still loved it.
The first chapter with the vivid scene depicting the breakup of the escape capsule is especially good. However, I do feel sorry for the rest of the diplomatic team. They had to spend the last minutes of their lives crammed into the "Polk's tiny and normally unused observation desk."
I do know what it is supposed to say, and I don't normally point out typos, but that one just strikes me as really funny.
Fellow Ron, I don't blame you for reading ahead. If I could I would read the whole thing, so you have admirable self control if you are limiting how far you read ahead.
17. JR_one
I enjoyed the story (I didn't find the link to get it early, so just read it today).

I have a couple of ideas why the CU is not joining the Conclave.
1) They don't trust it. That's why the tried to destroy it. Perhaps they do have a "militaristic cabal" in charge. At the very least, the leaders seem to like to pick fights.

2) They pissed off the entire conclave by destroying the Conclave fleet (which included major ships from every race). It would be hard to get agreement from all the races to join now. The CU is pretty good a making enemies. I guess the point of these stories is that it has to learn to make friends now.

Looking forward to the next installments! It would be nice to just go ahead and purchase all of them with a single click, but I'll probably just go ahead any buy each one.
18. AFS
Yeah, I agree that it's probably too late for the CU itself to join the Conclave, but Roanoke already did, and Earth clearly could. So I think they are not biased against humans generally -- just against the CU itself. Seems to me if the CDF starts to fall apart then at least some human worlds would have the opportunity to join.
19. Procrastigator
The thing is the CU seems to have a blindspot common to militaristic/autocratic regimes: it cannot imagine the future of its civilization without itself at the helm.

At this point the exact mechanisms of power at the top of the CU are
somewhat mysterious to us, but it does appear that a very tiny clique of military higher-ups are controlling everything in secret.

If their concern truly was only the survival of the human race, they could easily offer acceptable terms to Earth, give it access to all their technology and create a more equal or at least transparent political structure. But the CU wants to save humanity WHILE remaining solely in charge, and that where things get tricky...

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