Jan 29 2013 10:00am

The Human Division Read-Along: Episode 3: “We Only Need the Heads”

The Human Division Read-Along: Episode 3: We Only Need the Heads

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 3: “We Only Need the Heads.”

Before we talk about what happens in this week’s episode, let’s take a quick look at the origins of The Human Division. As Scalzi recalls it, shortly after he delivered the Fuzzy Nation manuscript to Tor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden contacted him about doing a serial project—and had that novel in mind for it. “As it happened, I had also been thinking about doing something in that format as well,” Scalzi told me, “but preferred the idea of writing something ‘purpose built’ for the format—i.e., not just an already-written novel chapter by chapter, but something ‘native’ to the format, and designed to take advantage of it.”

That prompted him to revisit an idea he’d had a few years earlier about writing more Harry Wilson stories (as revealed in the Episode 1 read-along); after a few refinements, “I ended up pitching Patrick the idea of an episodic Old Man’s War novel, and we went from there.”

After last episode’s detour to the wildcat colony of New Seattle, we’re reunited with some of the novel’s central figures. First, Harry’s sidekick Hart Schmidt has a conference with his boss, Ambassador Ode Abumwe, who informs him of their new assignment: They’ve been asked to slow down negotiations with the Bula race long enough for the Colonial Defense Forces to evacuate a wildcat colony on the Bula planet Wantji. As it turns out, Harry Wilson’s been placed with the CDF team, but when they arrive at New Seattle, there are no longer any survivors to evacuate.

Instead, Harry makes a startling discovery that points to CDF involvement in the colony, involvement that Abumwe’s superior officers confirm in a separate discussion. The question is: Who else knew about the CDF presence in New Seattle, and why did they share that information with the Bula?

One of my first reactions to this episode was to notice how much Abumwe has grown as a character; when she first appeared in “After the Coup,” she was just a scowling figure in the background, a prompt to push Harry’s situation forward. I asked Scalzi about how he built up her character from those early broad strokes. “For me, who Abumwe is, a complete character, has always been in there,” he said. “It’s just a question of when is the right time to reveal aspects of her personality.”

“One of the nice things about The Human Division is that I know this is an ensemble piece, and I know that I’m doing thirteen separate episodes, so I don’t feel I have to be in a rush to frontload every aspect of every character’s personality. I have the opportunity to bring some characters forward for a particular story and move others into the background if necessary; over time they’ll all be fleshed out.”

In this case, “We Only Need the Heads” is the ideal moment to reveal Abumwe as more than just a cranky boss. “Even though she’s short-tempered and forbidding by nature,” Scalzi explained, “there has to be something there that readers can see suggesting she is actually qualified for the position she holds—that she has the intelligence, tenacity and the diplomatic skill that make her good at her job, even if she is poorly used by the Department of State.”

He takes a similar approach to every character in the story: “No matter how you use them—as comic foil, as tragic victim, as provider of exposition—if you bake into your thinking that have a life outside your use for them, it becomes much easier later to fill in all those blanks.”

I kept that in mind as I reread the section where Harry accompanies the platoon to New Seattle; the other characters aren’t just there to make Harry look good in contrast. Based on what Scalzi presents them, it’s not too hard to imagine that scene from the perspective of Lt. Lee, the platoon commander, or the rookie private Albert Jefferson. Our attention is focused on the adventures of Harry Wilson, but for these soldiers (and the others Harry ropes into helping him fulfill his mission) this is a highly unusual, and hugely inconvenient, deviation from their normal routine.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t go well for either Harry or Ambassador Abumwe. But we’re just shy of a quarter of the way through the series, and the few clues we’ve been given about the forces trying to sabotage the Colonial Union’s efforts haven’t coalesced into a solid answer yet. Let’s see what Episode 4, “A Voice in the Wilderness,” has to tell us.

Purchase and read The Human Division, episode 3: “We Only Need the Heads” 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.

Stephen Rochelle
1. lomn
So now that we've got some ties established between this episode and the prior, maybe there's more room to speculate. Specifically, what are the takeaways from "Walk the Plank"? We're introduced to New Seattle -- now dead. We're introduced to the crew of the Erie Morningstar -- also now dead. We get Drew Telford specifically name-checked (as someone else pointed out last week) -- also now dead and decapitated. And we see the Erie Morningstar itself, its cargo, and its unidentified hijackers, still at large.

So who benefits from that? None of the parties in "We Only Need", that I can see. The Bula don't seem to need to raid a cargo ship shortly before raiding the whole colony, unless there's some Machiavellian need to trigger a distress message before the colony raid occurs (and then only if the timing matches up; I'm not sure). The mainstream CDF doesn't make sense; they're looking to see how viable the wildcat colony is, not to sabotage it. The M.O. from "B-Team"'s mysterious someones doesn't even match up, as there's no alien-killing war-triggering booby trap at work around the planet.
Niraj Merchant
2. NirajMerchant
I think that maybe the common thread is that someone wants to sabotage the colonel unions relationships with the other aliens. People from earth maybe? Its possible that there were attempts to sabotage the chances of New Seattle when it was discovered it was a CDF sanctioned colony, upon which the Bula were informed about it or something similar.
3. ErikHarrison
Enjoying the heck out of these.

I've been thinking about the structure thus far, in comparison to a television show. "The B-Team" is a good analogue to a double-length pilot. "Walk The Plank" reminded me of something like "The Company Man" from the first season of Heroes, or the first Cylon centered episode on Battlestar Gallactica - a radical change of both perspective and format. But it seems ballsy to do it two "episodes" in. With "The Company Man", as an example, you have a lot of forward narrative momentum by that point in the season, which is high energy but potentially monotonous. You've also got heavy investment in the world and characters by the audience, and certain storytelling expectations. Seems like you have both the best chance for a format and perspective shift to pay off, but "The Human Division" goes there second episode.

This was the first episode that felt like a chapter in a traditional novel. There were some very "serial tv" bits to it - namely the introduction of a new diplomatic mission for our characters, but it didn't feel like any part of it wrapped up at the end.

Not sure any of these thoughts are going anywhere, but they're what's swimming around while reading through.
4. H3lix
If it's anything like past books, it's some group within the CDF who firmly believes that humanity needs to go it alone trying to sabotage our relationships with other species.

This episode, to me, really highlights how badly the CDF bungles most of the covert stuff it tries. It's just not good at it!
Tyler Sprenger
5. Kappi
From earlier books in Old Man's War, and the direct evidence of wildcat colonies in the first place, we know that not everyone within the Colonial Union agrees with it's policies and actions. Quite normal for any human goverment in history. So there are humans within the CU that want to change it and it's leadership structure.

Are the Utche independent of the Conclave? I'm sure the Bula are, from what I read in "Heads". If they are, then (so far) all of the subversive actions have been aimed at the CU's relationships with non-Conclave races.

Some potential aims of this conspiracy:
1) CU joins the Conclave
2) CU joins Earth, with Earth in the stronger position, which is already part of the Conclave (correct?)
3) Destruction of the CU, colonies, people, and all
4) Independence of human colonies. Each being free to join the Conclave or remain independent, similiar to Earth's status.

Honestly, if this shadow group is trying to accomplish 1) or 2), then I'm actually rooting for them, despite my personally wanting Harry and Co. to do well themselves. I think 3) is unlikely, except in the case of someone being insane, such as Zoe's father who was basically trying to accomplish this very goal. But he was a single man working with aliens from without, rather than a group of humans working in concert from within. I find it difficult that such a group would be willing to sacrifice the people of the CU. This almost makes me think there is another goal waiting to be revelead that is more sinister...

I'm curious how long this consipiracy has been running. We got the date of when the missiles from "B Team" were stolen. How does that line up with the rest of the OMW timeline? Is it before or after Perry broke the tie between Earth and the CU?
6. Malthusius
I agree that somebody seems to want to disrupt the CU’s negotiations with other races. It being Humans from Earth strikes doesn’t seem too likely, but I still haven’t ruled out other Humans. I’m also suspicious of the official reason why there is a CDF presence on wildcat colonies. We’re told it is so the CU can monitor the Conclave’s response, but covert infiltration seems like overkill. The Conclave would either let these colonies be, or wipe them out. And as for using Wildcat colonies to gradually expand without conflicting with the Conclave? Not convinced.

What we do know is that the CU is more than happy to sacrifice colonists if it serves their purposes; it was their plan for Roanoke after all.

We also know that the CU has a military recruitment crisis these days. Without a steady supply of soldiers from Earth, we are told that diplomacy is now the name of the game. But what if it isn’t? Besides, I can think of another way to plug the gaps in the CDF (provided there is enough human DNA on file)….
Tyler Sprenger
7. Kappi
We also know that the CU has a military recruitment crisis these days. Without a steady supply of soldiers from Earth, we are told that diplomacy is now the name of the game. But what if it isn’t? Besides, I can think of another way to plug the gaps in the CDF (provided there is enough human DNA on file)….
Excellent point. If they can make soldiers without a live person to begin with, then why not step up their creation of the Ghost Brigades. The main technical limitation is a lead time... I'm guessing it takes longer to train them, because they're like children in a way. However, once you get multiple training centers putting out soldier, that becomes less an issue. There would be bigger moral implications to such a replenishment program... so maybe that is what holds them back. The material requirements for generating the new bodies shouldn't be an issue, as they're not creating bodies for all the Earth recruits anymore.
Stephen Rochelle
8. lomn
I emailed John regarding the Special Forces issue, and he noted that Ghost Brigades (the book) established the notion that the rest of the CDF doesn't trust SF troops as far as they can throw them, and so was avoiding that option on those grounds. Then he concluded with, and I quote, "bwa ha ha ha hah"
9. Jason Snell
What struck me about this episode was the new recruit talking about how lucky he was to get off of Earth just before the status quo changed. Without that, he would've been stuck in his dying body on Earth.

That statement immediately made me wonder, who's to say what is going on on Earth now? Perhaps Earth has its own use for its aging population--perhaps even as troops or colonists. It brought the entire question of what Earth is up to back to the fore.

I'm not sure Earth is behind the mystery attacks, but I'm not entirely sure they aren't either....
10. a different phil
I emailed John regarding the Special Forces issue, and he noted that Ghost Brigades (the book) established the notion that the rest of the CDF doesn't trust SF troops as far as they can throw them, and so was avoiding that option on those grounds. Then he concluded with, and I quote, "bwa ha ha ha hah"
Something I noticed: remember the Special Forces protocol for assigning names to individuals. Is there anybody in this episode whose name follows that protocol (he asked rhetorically)?
11. caplanjr
I read this on the train, after breakfast. Not a recommended venue, as it gets a bit gory in parts (he said).
I'm wondering why the recruitment problem can't be solved by simply building new CDF troops from the brain maps of the deceased. We know from GB that these records can be saved. In fact, all it took was a DNA sample.
Anyway, an exciting episode and I'm looking forward to next week.
12. Judy in SATX
I rather liked the contrast of the outcome of negotiations between The B-Team and We Only Need the Heads. In the first episode, Abumwe is thrown off the deep end, but she is also allowed to make her own negotiating decisions. She decides to give the Uiche very sensitive, classified data as a way of establishing her good faith and that of the CU. In this episode, she is ordered to lie, against her better judgement. And we saw how well that ended!

As for the possibility of making up more Ghost Brigade/Special Forces soliders to make up for the lack of recruits from Earth, I defer to the answer that lomn got from John, but I would also like to point out the many times in SF literature and media that the mass manufacture of persons for cannon fodder has blown up in that society's face. Up till now, the Ghost Brigades have been small, elite units that have been used for highly strategic, targeted missions. Their esprit de corps and (more significantly) their loyalty to each other is what has kept them in the CU fold. That will fall apart if the CU starts mass-producing them for the same type of missions that the CDF regular forces usually undertake.
13. Jennifer R
I was so proud of Abumwe in the first chapter when she was mostly honest....and was so ticked when she lied even though it was strongly hinted that she'd better fess up. I know, I know, she was ordered, you have to have the military's hand up your ass making you a puppet, etc.... but that just made things worse for everybody. Darn it, girl!

I will say that this chapter made chapter 2 feel a lot more crucial and relevant, what with the CDF in the midst. Dang.
14. Flandry
It's been a while since I read the Last Colony but didn't Slizzard imply that Earth being enlightened would be a good thing for the Special Forces i.e. bringing them out of the shadows. If what I recall is true then they should be making more Ghost Brigades and given the choice between doing something distasteful and getting wiped out of the universe I know which choice the Colnial Union will choose
Ron Hogan
15. RonHogan
"I will say that this chapter made chapter 2 feel a lot more crucial and relevant, what with the CDF in the midst."

Your trust in the Scalzi has been rewarded!

I'm still not much further ahead than y'all, but I'm guessing there's going to be a lot of similar (perhaps even bigger) "a-ha"/"click!" moments as the series progresses.
Stephen Rochelle
16. lomn
Flandry@14: Szilard expects it would be good for SF, yes. That's not the same as "good for the CU establishment", but it's CU establishment that would have to decide that it's manufacturin' time.

Alternately, SF could seize the means of production (as it were), but that prompts the question of why they'd want to fight the CU's war on the CU's terms at the CU's scale. What prevents them from breaking away from the CU, establishing themselves as a third human civilization (assuming Earth currently is the de facto #2) and formulating their own foreign policy? Ultimately, I think that's where John's answer about "the CU doesn't wanna" comes from.
17. Flandry
lomn@16: I can see why they wouldn't want to and I doubt SF would push the issue but at some point if the situation worsens they're going to have to. I can see things being resolved before they get that far but I can't believe the pragmatic CU we saw in OMW and GB wouldn't at least have a plan to ramp up production of SF should things go sour.
Steven Halter
18. stevenhalter
This episode was more to my liking. It continues the raising of questions--who killed the colonists, who tipped off the Bula,...
As others mentioned, it is pretty clear that someone is trying to upset the CU apple cart but we don't have much info for real guesses at this point.
As Ron said at 15, this chapter did seem to aid chapter 2 somewhat. It seems more likely that the "pirates" were sending a message of some sort. Probably someone in the colony in ch 2 were the fake brainpal active colonists.
Ron Hogan
19. RonHogan
As far as I know, none of the New Seattlites who appear in episode 2 have BrainPals--but if you reread the episode, you'll see that they namecheck the CDF spy who plays the most prominent role in episode 3.

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