Feb 5 2013 1:00pm

The Human Division Read-Along, Episode 4: “A Voice in the Wilderness”

The Human Division Read-Along, Episode 4: A Voice in the Wilderness

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 4, “A Voice in the Wilderness.”

This is another episode which, like “Walk the Plank,” steps away from Harry Wilson and his colleagues from the Colonial Union’s diplomatic corps to tell what seems to be a side story—but one that’s likely to tie into the main narrative at some point. We’re introduced to Albert Birnbaum, “once the fourth most popular audio talk show host in the United States,” now needing to apply some quick brakes to his career’s downward spiral before he becomes “a has-been in the national political conversation.”

Along comes a mysterious guy named Michael Washington, who knows much more than he should about Birnbaum’s personal and professional business, with a proposition: a futuristic variation on William Randolph Hearst’s “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” All Birnbaum has to do is start suggesting on his show that maybe the Colonial Union aren’t the bad guys—maybe they’re “the best thing that ever happened to the planet Earth.” The effects are nearly instantaneous: In one week, his live audience grows from less than a million to 20 million listeners.

As we’ll see, though, this bargain he’s cut is Faustian in the extreme, and eventually Michael Washington will come to collect.

So: Who is Michael Washington working for? He (and Scalzi) deliberately muddy the waters at the end, but does it really make sense that he’d be working with the same faction that we’ve seen disrupting the CU’s efforts further out in the galaxy? And I’m still not 100 percent sure those are the people responsible for the seizure of the Erie Morningstar and/or the massacre at New Seattle. Which of the explanations he tossed out in that conversation strikes you as the most likely?

One thing I especially liked about “A Voice in the Wilderness” is the humor, which I see as more akin to the Scalzi of stories like Agent to the Stars and Redshirts than to the Old Man’s War world. That’s been changing—take the diplomatic ceremony where we first meet Harry and Hart in “The B-Team,” or the wacky action film fight scene scenario that set off “After the Coup” way back when—but I’ve always felt that the OMW novels were, even though they’re flecked with humor, slightly more earnest in their overall tone. The comedy here isn’t “cynical,” exactly, because deep down I think Scalzi still shows a belief in the fundamental capacity of people for goodness, but there’s definitely a kind of knowingness to the jokes here. I’m going to table this idea for now, but I might want to circle back to it, if we get a particularly funny episode later on....

Now, when “Walk the Plank” premiered two weeks ago, there was some pushback from readers about its short length in comparison to “The B Team,” and a minor flurry of outrage from folks who didn’t feel they’d gotten their 99 cents worth out of the story. Some of those people went to Amazon and gave the episode one star strictly because of the pricing issue, and were ready to declare the entire serial a failure. Well, as Scalzi noted when I broached the subject with him, both episodes were among the Kindle store’s five best selling science fiction titles. “If this is failure,” he said, “I would like to fail some more at this level, please.”

(Scalzi also noted that he’d made other, even shorter stories like “Questions for a Soldier” and “After the Coup” available in digital format at a similar price; “they’ve sold nicely,” he observed, “and neither their length nor price has been an issue.”)

He also emphasized that the range in episode lengths has never been hidden from readers during the buildup to the series:

“Both I and Tor have been pretty clear about this variation, and it’s intentional that it’s there—we wanted to mix up lengths and characters and situations. Some readers appear to be annoyed with this variation, and that’s fine; another data point for us to consider on what is an experiment. Speaking from a creative point of view, however, I wrote each episode to be the length the episode’s story required. When it’s at the right length, it’s at the right length. Adding more words won’t make it better, it’ll just make it longer.”

I mentioned an idea that I’d had, inspired by the reactions to “Walk the Plank,” that maybe it made sense to think of The Human Division not as a serial in the episodic sense that we generally use that term, but a set of 13 interconnected short films. Scalzi didn’t bite. “I think that is a serial,” he wrote back, “in the sense that when all the episodes are put together, you do have a narrative arc that runs through all of them, so the description fits.”

He added, though, that while “series” and “episodes” were “useful to give a general idea of what we’re doing here... we weren’t trapped by them.” Hence the episodes (like this one!) which step away from Harry Wilson and his colleagues to explore other corners of the Old Man’s War universe. “This really is an experiment,” he observed, “and we’re trying different things creatively, stylistically and commercially. We’ll see what works and what doesn’t. In the meantime, yeah, it might be a little difficult to peg down precisely what The Human Division is, in reference to other, similar stuff. I see this as a feature, not a bug. ”

For my own part, I’d simply observe that if you care about supporting creative people and their work, 99 cents—a penny less than a candy bar in many places—seems like a perfectly reasonable price to pay for a short story, or a half-hour’s entertainment, or however you want to frame the issue. If you disagree, and we need to have that discussion, I’d like to suggest that we have it here, in this installment of the read-along, and after that we can keep the focus on the story itself. Deal?

And, of course, I hope you’ll join me next week when we discuss Episode 5, “Tales from the Clarke.”

Purchase and read The Human Division, episode 4: “A Voice in the Wilderness” 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.

1. Alphager
The problem with the short episodes is that John's writing is just too damn entertaining: at the end of the episode, I'm annoyed that I can't continue the story!

Getting back to the content: I really enjoyed Mr. Washington and would love to see him again (I think of Mr. Morden of Babylon 5 fame when I think of Mr. Washington).

I think that Mr. Washington (thinks he) is doing the CU a favor; I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he is working for a rogue faction from within the CU that is fed up that it has to negotiate with earth.
2. janetl
I'm finding this serial thing fascinating. Every Monday night or Tuesday morning, I'm excited to see the notification that the new episode is available. Staying up late Monday night, or starting to read it on my phone on the bus ride to work does NOT help my Tuesday work productivity.
When I finish it, I roundly curse Tor and Mr. Scalzi for toying with me. I could, of course, just wait and read the whole think when the book comes out. Yeah, sure I could.
Stephen Rochelle
3. lomn
Regarding Mr. Washington (if that's really his name, *ominous music*) and his motivation, the big questions remain: what happened? who benefits? Cui bono is the traditional big question but the ending is muddy enough that "what was the net effect" needs hashing out, too.

Birnbaum himself was a means to an end. Washington, riffing on Hearst, is using him to provide "a war" (maybe metaphorical, maybe not). The "pictures" Birnbaum provides are:
* Stirring up pro-CU sentiment
* Which happens to be opposed by the current administration
* And also happens to be opposed by most other national governments.

As I read it, that last point is really the key objective: fracturing Earth's position with regard to interstellar politics. This makes more sense if we further suppose that Washington's cohorts have made similar efforts in other nations -- why, after all, would they want to stop at just one demagogue? Demosthenes and Locke relied on each other to really work the narrative. So we end up with lots of nations agitating for their own individual interests on an international stage, a sharp break from either the pre-Perry acquiescense to the CU or the post-Perry boycott. And no one on Earth has had more than a few months to consider any concrete aspects of international politics, so it's safe to assume that none of them are really prepared to be competent at this point.

Given that, it seems clear that the Mysterious Whoevers behind the other plots thus far are at work here, too, as no other major player seems interested in creating chaos. But who are they, and what do they want? Here's my theory thus far: Ghost Brigades established the Conclave as well as the CU-organized Counter-Conclave. That Counter-Conclave never amounted to anything, but the concept was sound. Suppose, then, that there's a new no-humans-included Counter-Conclave. This presents the opportunity to smash the CU, who have become notorious for both rapid expansion into the galaxy and for manipulating the politics of a bunch of other races -- taking them down would really sell your new alliance as a true Power to challenge the Conclave. Additionally, Perry has thrust a chunk of humanity into the Conclave membership discussion -- maybe there's a way to use that as a wedge to fracture the Conclave, too.

As for the actual villains of the piece, I'm rooting for the inch-tall guys from OMW, because they've got the best potential for ridiculous supervillain imagery. Miniature hollowed-out lairs! Guppies with frickin lazer beams!
James Caplan
4. caplanjr
I really got a Rush from today's episode (sorry). It lasted just long enough for the train to get me to work. During that time, I had a chance to reflect on just how much talk radio influences public opinion. Scary thought.

However, the story is making me look forward to Tuesdays -- which I thought could never happen. I also realized that The Human Division is the linguistic counterpoint to The Ghost Brigades. Wonder if there's anything to it?
Simon Southey-Davis
5. Glyph
I think there was a paragraph or two in there somewhere that actually discussed this episode... ;-P

I found it interesting to note that having Birnbaum - a pastiche of every integrity-free, ratings-driven talk show host going - espouse the virtues of the CU effectively worked to push me in the opposite direction; I'm also quite sure that was intentional on Scalzi's part. Nice realpolitik technique, to build support for your message by putting its opposite in the mouth of someone your audience is inclined to distrust.

Which made the assassination / martyrdom a bit of a curve ball: so now it seems that Washington's shadowy clients actually do want to push the pro-CU message, bringing in those who would reflexively distrust Birnbaum by making it look like he was on to something? Or is it all about to be tipped on its head again, or is it really just about sowing political chaos, or, or, are the CU creating a crisis so they can ride back in as big damn heroes? I'm second guessing my second guess. Wheels within wheels indeed... well played, sir.

Also, while the analogue to current Limbaugh-esque demagoguery and mob stirring is easy and obvious, I like that Scalzi pointedly avoided naming the political party in power - a little reminder that dirty tricks are more a 'feature' of current politics than a Right-Left shibboleth. Is there a term for writing such an obvious circumlocution that the technique used lampshades itself, without needing the author to actually call it out? (I'm thinking of other examples like "the state that Springfield's in", too .)
Rick Rutherford
6. rutherfordr
I have to say I find this one-chapter-per-week experiment really frustrating.
I thought I'd give it a shot, but as soon as I start to get into the story, I have to stop and wait for another week. Bleah.
If Tor decides to publish another book like this, I'll be sitting it out.
7. jarsen
This is only the second book by John Scalzi that I've read (Redshirts) and I'm enjoying it very much. As far as the serialized format goes, I have mixed feelings. If it gets the book into our hands more quickly than the paper format, then heck yes. But it's a little frustrating to have to wait a week between episodes. Plus, I have a lot of other reading to do in between and I'm finding it difficult to maintain the continuity of the story in my head. That could be partially due to the fact that the four episodes so far have revolved around three different storylines.

The bottom line is: I'm enjoying the story, I think 99 cents is a fair price for the episodes, and I'm looking forward to reading John's other books.
Steven Halter
8. stevenhalter
Another good episode. The obvious candidate for the people behind Washington is the CU. Being so obvious makes it a bit suspect, but we'll see more on that eventually, I suspect. Whoever is behind it is certainly playing hardball.
I liked the brief view we get of Earth. It does seem as though Earth has been frozen in time. The audio show and downloads all sounded very much like present tech and the politics sounded much the same also.
The tone did seem more in the Agent to the Stars Scalzi; that was fine as humor is right in Scalzi's wheelhouse.
99 cents seems like a fine price point. People can always wait for it to come out in different versions eventually if they wish. No one's being forced to buy the things.
I like the chapter at a time serial form. It does give something good to get on Tuesdays. Keep it up.
9. ohmap
I'm actually enjoying the serialized nature of this book. In an age where most people DVR/Netflix/Hulu their TV shows so that they can watch several episodes at once, I think we've lost some of the fun that waiting can bring. Having to wait (together!) gives us more opportunity to think about what happened in each episode, speculate about what might happen and to talk about it with each other. That's why I think this read along is a great idea!

I really enjoyed this particular episode. It reminded me of Agent to the Stars and I liked the switch in action to what is going on on Earth.
Shane Stringer
10. ShaneStringer
Mark me down as a "hate" vote for the serialization format. These bites are just too small, I'm having a hard time keeping track of the plot, and, since he's already written the book, I can't really see what the advantage is from anyone's POV. Unless the quality of the writing takes a severe nosedive in later episodes, and they'd rather sell lots of the early ones than take a chance on people not buying the complete work? One wouldn't think that would be the case, but other than that, why serialize?
11. MAG
Just how short have our attention spans become?

I'm enjoying this format.

The alternative is I wait till early April and buy the entire book. Then I read the whole thing in one afternoon and get annoyed that I have to wait 12-24 months for the next Scalzi novel to hit the shelves.
Ben HM3
12. BenHM3
I was having a hard time trying to figure out Birnbaum as an OMW version of Rush Limbaugh, so I sorta messed with my enjoyment before abandoning that effort. More reminder that when I read Scalzi's stuff, just turn it off and READ. Think later. Otherwise, this episode did a fine job of moving the whole thing forward.
As for "short films," I don't think this is The Animatrix, although more literary folks might successfully argue against me. I'm inclined to agree with His Scalziness and point out the serial-ness of it I see shining through.
And I will add my tail of woe--the withdrawl-symptoms, the eye-burning mad dash through each new episode--to the chorus. I've avoided the late-night alarm so far, but that discipline will be soon lost.
Mr. Scalzi, I hope you (and Tor) are making tonnes of money, and enjoying every bit of our responses.
You deserve all that and much, much more.
Jim Crumley
13. crumley
I like the serial format and I am having fun with it.

I have been reading it on my Kindle, and I have been wondering if John considered creating Human Division as an Amazon Serial? What are the down sides to that from an author's perspective.

I am not a big spender on Kindle - if I get all the way through Human Divisin - which I am sure I will - it will more than double what I have paid for on ebooks so far. I mainly use my Kindle for web surfing - I find myself reading a lot of Tor.com on it.

Anyway, one downside to the serial experience for Human Division on the Kindle is that each episdoe is a separate file, which will be pretty unwieldy by the end of the series. It would be nice if the Kindle had better folder support in it book app, but failing that it would be excellent if purchasers of all of the episodes of Human Division could get an ebook copy at the end of run.

Anyway, thanks to John for the great story and to Tor for hosting the discussion.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment