Jan 22 2013 10:00am

The Human Division Read-Along: Episode 2, “Walk the Plank”

The Human Division readalong: Episode 2, Walk the Plank

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 2: “Walk the Plank.”

One of the things I loved about the first episode of The Human Division, “The B-Team,” is the way Scalzi nailed the dramatic structure of a TV show, right down to the “cold open” with the destruction of the Polk. (Those short scenes before the credits sequences of one-hour crime dramas that set up the plot, usually without the lead characters? Those are cold opens. See also: every episode of House.) When we reached the end of the story, I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt like everything had been set up for week after week of the adventures of Harry Wilson and the crew of the Clarke, saving humanity without even realizing how important their missions really were.

Well, that wasn’t just a curveball Scalzi threw us with “Walk the Plank.” That was some straight-up knuckleball action.

Scalzi, as many of you know, was a creative consultant on Stargate: Universe; it was his first experience working on series television, and I wondered what poring over two seasons worth of scripts might have taught him about storytelling, particularly as it applies to a serialized novel like The Human Division. “The biggest lesson I learned is that the smaller story unit controls,” he said:

“If you don’t make the single episode work, then no one is going to stick around to find out how the overall story resolves. So you have to make sure that each individual episode works on its own terms first. Once you have that, you can make sure the elements that serve a larger story arc are all tuned in as well. But first things first.”

“Walk the Plank” is structured as a transcribed conversation between four characters in New Seattle, a “wildcat colony” unsanctioned by the Colonial Union. Chenzira, the leader of the colony, confers with two medical personnel, Aurel and Magda, who are attending Malik, the only surviving crewmember (as far as we know) of the Erie Morningstar, which was supposed to be bringing New Seattle supplies it desperately needs. Instead, the ship was hijacked, the majority of the crew jettisoned in a way that ensured they weren’t likely to survive for long. Malik’s barely hanging on as it is, but it’s not as if the colonists have any medical supplies to spare for him....

It’s a testament to Scalzi’s skill that without any physical descriptions, with only the vaguest sense of location or setting, we’re still able to get a very strong reading on the four personalities involved in this conversation, as well as the urgency of the situation. All of the action in the story takes place “off-stage,” in Malik’s recounting of what happened to him and his crewmates, and though I don’t think there’s ever much ambiguity as to how things are going to turn out for Malik, the dramatic tension still feels real. 

How does this episode inform our sense of the larger Human Division story? We’ve learned about the existence of wildcat colonies outside CU jurisdiction—which raises some interesting questions about how much interstellar space travel humans are conducting with non-CU ships. We’ve also got a description, from Malik, of the soldiers in black uniforms and helmets who took over the Morningstar. It’s not clear yet what the connection is between those soldiers and the camoflauged weapons that were supposed to derail the negotiations with the Utche in “The B-Team,” but it’s safe to assume they are connected, right?

(There’s also a passing reference to another colonist, Drew Talford, who seems to play an important role in New Seattle’s hierarchy but doesn’t actually appear in the story. I’m guessing Scalzi isn’t likely to toss out full names as filler, so we might want to file this away for future reference.)

All this, and Harry and the Clarke never put in an appearance. 

Scalzi explained that he wrote The Human Division in three non-sequential stages: First there was “The B-Team,” then “the episodes that fleshed out the major themes of the novel, followed by a third pass for episodes that allowed us to explore events the main characters might not be directly involved with, but which would have bearing on the story.” This episode, then, comes from that last batch.

“As for the dialogue-only structure,” he continued, “that happened because I felt it fit the story I wanted to write...”

“It offered an immediacy that a more formal, conventional structure wouldn’t allow. I wanted the reader standing right in the middle of the events—as close as you can get without being in first person. A dialogue-only presentation allowed for that.

Also, you know, I like playing with rules. One of the big ‘rules’ is show, don’t tell.’ Well, I wanted to test the proposition that telling could be just as engaging as showing.”

I also touched based with Patrick Nielsen Hayden, the editor of The Human Division, to see how he’d reacted to the sudden swerve in this episode. “John had supplied me with a rough outline of how the story was going to be structured,” he said, “but I was always pretty sure that there would be some hijinx with form along the way... Because that’s how Scalzi rolls.”

Here’s one last thing to think about before we start talking about “Walk the Plank” in the comments section: If “The B-Team” was a pilot episode that gave us a stunning cold open before (re-)introducing us to Harry Wilson, what do you think we’re going to get in next week’s episode, “We Only Need the Heads”?

Purchase and read The Human Division, episode 2: “Walk the Plank” 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.

Skrunt Small
1. Skruntster
Do you know who is creating the artwork for this series?
G. D. B. (not Ambrose Bierce)
2. SchuylerH
@1: I think it's John Harris, who did the other Old Man's War covers for the Tor paperbacks.
Ian Miller
3. millernumber1
I really liked the rising tension - Scalzi's CU and outliers has always been a place where death is common and brutal, but this seems like something new. Before, wildcatters were seen mostly as the tasty victims of the Rrey or other anthropophagic alien species. Now we see piracy and its effects on these groups.

I was a bith thrown by the name "Magda" showing up again after Zoe's Tale. Magda: new "John" in the CU?
Robin P
4. Robin P
Hey, Ron, I just took a look at the entry for Episode 1 and noted that your intro says Harry Wilson was introduced to Tor.com readers in "After the Coup." While this may be true for all I know regarding Tor.com, Harry's first appearance in the series is much sooner: he's the third person John Perry meets after enlisting, in the very first book. At the end of Old Man's War he's assigned to R and D, or something along those lines, hence the security clearance he once had that's mentioned in "The B-Team."

Just wanted to mention that in case there are people who didn't remember him who now want to read about his background now that he's ascended to a Main Character. :)
Ron Hogan
5. RonHogan
I knew I should've reread the entire series before I started... Seriously, though, great catch!
Robin P
6. tkl
I would guess that the title "We Only Need The Heads" will be an order from a CDF officer harvesting prime material for R and D upgrade....wich link back to Mr Wilson field who was granted high data acces very recently.
Mr Scalzi work is still amazing and I enjoy reading it so much!
I'm very happy that he's back in OMW univers in this way.
Stephen Rochelle
7. lomn
So I found it interesting that, as far as I could tell, Scalzi was suggestive but deliberately vague about the hijackers' identities. They never unmask or otherwise reveal skin. They never explicitly speak to a first-hand character. The only things we know they say ("Give us the command codes"; "Give us the command codes or we keep shooting") aren't exactly off-the-cuff conversation and could easily be pre-recorded. There's no ID of their weapons as CDF (or wider human) make, though there's not much reason to expect the civilian crewman to be making that distinction.

Of course, the big question for this piece is why "walk the plank" at all? What does that gain the hijackers? They aren't guaranteeing survivors, they aren't guaranteeing no survivors, and their method of crew disposal isn't more expedient or efficient than options that might accomplish either guarantee.
Robin P
8. Jamesweber16
Hey Ron,

Just wanted to say I've really been enjoying this read through. Certainly a little pick-me-up on tuesday mornings. Anyway also want to say that I've been linking around on your other blog Beatrice and stumbled upon your post : Letter to a Young Book Blogger. I just started a blog and so far it is mostly about books (& Archer) and I was certainly feeling frustrated and concerned about not really having anything "Literary" to say. That post was just what I needed to hear. I probs should have posted this comment there but honestly couldn't figure out how (still new at this). Anway thanks. I'll certainly be keeping up with Beatrice and this read through.

Ron Hogan
9. RonHogan
Hey JD -- I'm glad you liked that post, and don't worry -- you didn't miss anything; I just don't have comments set up on Beatrice because I don't have the time to manage comments properly. But I get a lot of good feedback from Twitter and Facebook and email -- and now, I guess, here!
Robin P
10. Cameron Turner
I was very impressed with this episode as with the last. I'm trying not to think too much about it and simply enjoy the ride. That said I can't wait a week between episodes so last week between BTeam and this I re-read OMW, this week I'm already almost done TGB. I suspect I'll be done TLC by the end of next week. At this rate I'll have had an OMW universe binge in 5 weeks and be screwed for the 6 days between each of the last few episodes. When does the movie come out again? :) Maybe I'll need to visit Audible and get all the audio versions and LISTEN to them all again.. either that or move on to the rest of Scalzi's stuff.
Robin P
11. Jeff Fuller
Unfortunately this article is longer then the episode it summarizes. While the content of the episode was interesting, I expected much more content. This was the equivelent of expecting an hour long TV show and only getting one 5 minutes long, I was be disappointed.

Because of this, I am now gun shy on the rest of the episodes.
Robin P
12. Capper

I believe that Scalzi mentioned that this was the shortest episode. The audio version of the first episode (which I believe was identified as the longest episode) was 2 hours and 20 minutes, while this one was only 39 minutes. I believe the rest will be somewhere between those two extremes, so you shouldn't be gun shy about the rest of the episodes because of the length of this one.

Ron Hogan
13. RonHogan
I hear what you're saying, Jeff; at first, even knowing that the episodes would vary in length, I was surprised by how quickly I was done with this week's story. But I think that, instead of getting 13 episodes of "The B-Team," if we look at The Human Division as 13 stories--each story being what it needs to be to work on its own as a story--it's likely to go really well.

Maybe, instead of 13 TV episodes, a better metaphor would be something like 13 short films?
Robin P
14. Ghenjei
Agreed with Jeff. Too short! Blew through this in 15 minutes. Then again, I love the OMW universe so I'll take what I can get.
As to the story itself, fantastic. I like how Scalzi isn't just following Harry and the B Team as they Save the Galaxy! (TM). Also very pleased with the innovative marketing format and hope that other authors can use this internet-enabled return to serialization to help drive their profits.
Robin P
15. Jeff Fuller
I do not follow authors blogs or whatever postings they do. I saw an article talking about it so I looked it up on amazon. The description did not say anything about varing length. By the look of the amazon reviews alot of others feel the same way.
I got nothing against John, he's a good author, but I feel the execution of this serial was poor. Maybe thats the TORs fault, maybe it's Johns. But not everyone is a sycophant hanging on an authors every word. I read alot of authors and the ones I like I grab the new books for, that is the extent of my (and I think most peoples) fandom.
Stephen Rochelle
16. lomn
Here's the summary, for your future purchasing decisions.
Human Division is Scalzi's longest novel-type work to date. It will, in aggregate, cost you $13. Once the serialization is done, it will be released in a single package for about $13 (I assume).

So, you can buy a longish novel-type work piecewise for $13, buy a longish novel-type work in bulk for $15 (counting the two episodes you've already bought), buy said longish novel-type work in paper format at some standard paper price, or decide to stop here at $2. But (and here I address generally) can we now drop the hand-wringing over which $0.99 is a better value? That's far from the full context of the work, and is quickly going to grow tiresome in per-episode read-along threads.
Steven Halter
17. stevenhalter
As an earlier commenter mentioned, it is a bit unclear why the boarders put people into the cargo container rather than just out the airlock. The odds of surviving a landing in the cargo seem fairly low so I'm not sure it was out of mercy.
If it was just a plot device to get a talking person to a wildcat colony, then, meh, a bit weak. If there was a deeper reason, hopefully that will get shown later.
It does seem like the uniforms are related to the stolen weapons.
I don't really care for the script style layout. That's a personal preference, but I rather like my novels in novel format.

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