Mar 12 2013 12:00pm

The Human Division Read-Along, Episode 9: “The Observers”

The Human Division John Scalzi Read-Along Episode 9 The Observers

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 9, “The Observers.”

So, at the risk of disqualifying myself as a read-along leader, I’m going to confess that it wasn’t until a week after Episode 7 (“The Dog King”) that it finally dawned on me that Scalzi had literally written a shaggy dog story. At least this time around, I recognized immediately that he was letting Harry Wilson solve a locked room mystery... and sent him an email straight away, asking if he enjoyed messing with readers’ heads like this.

“I won’t deny that I enjoy messing with people’s heads—I mean, see my previous novel Redshirts for confirmation of that,” he wrote back, “but in this case I’ll say that I’m not messing with people’s heads just to mess with them.” Instead, he says, he’s using the episodic format of The Human Division to play with some plot devices and tropes that wouldn’t necessarily work in a novel, especially not coming in a wave one right after the other—and to create a serial that’s more than just a series of cliffhangers or an otherwise ordinary novel sliced into thirteen pieces. In a way that, he emphasizes, “is for me and for the readers.”

So who does Scalzi look to as a role model for humor in science fiction? “The obvious person is Douglas Adams, and that’s both true and too easy,” he replied:

“Farce is great, but I like situational humor more—humor that comes from people trying to deal with events as they occur. The events themselves can be farcical or silly, but they don’t have to be, and often the humor is funnier when they are not—because the humor comes to break actual dramatic tension.”

As an example, he cites a scene from Robert A. Heinlein—“not generally considered the funniest of science fiction writers, but very good, in my opinion, at dropping in wry qotes or observations at just the right time.” He cites a scene in Stranger in a Strange Land where Valentine Michael Smith has “sent away” some policemen and Jubal Harshaw’s trying to make sure he won’t do the same to the next batch. When Jubal intones, “This indiscriminate liquidation of cops must stop,” Scalzi pegs the moment not just as a funny tension breaker, but a “perfectly observed” moment of Jubal and who he is in the novel. “For me, it was just as instructive regarding the use of humor in science fiction as anything Adams ever did.”

The conversation between Harry and Ambassador Abumwe that kicks off “The Observers,” for example, gives us so much about their characters, and their relationship to one another... and not a few laughs. And you can see Scalzi doing this throughout the series, no matter what the default humor setting for the scene might be.

Now let’s look at the big picture again. Whoever’s working against the Colonial Union, we now have confirmation that they don’t just have their fingers in the CDF’s pie, but the Earth’s as well. In fact, not only is this shadowy cabal able to plant a spy in Earth’s diplomatic party, they’re able to poison their victim with modified SmartBlood... while he’s still on Earth.

Meanwhile, for those of you who’ve been noting each time the Erie colony comes up in the series, we’ll point out that Jesse Gonzales (one of the first friends John Perry made in Old Man’s War, even before he met Harry) is living there now. We learn this in a scene where Harry opens up more than he’s ever done “onscreen” about his connection to John Perry—and though I’m pretty sure Perry’s not going to show up even as a “season finale” guest star, for me that part of Harry’s conversation with his new friend for Earth had me thinking back to OMW in light of Scalzi’s comments during the read-along to “We Only Need the Heads” about his characters’ lives outside the dramatic purposes they serve in a given story... and what the story of any of the “supporting cast” in this week’s episode might be like.

And where’s Harry’s sidekick, Hart Schmidt, during all this? We’ll find out in Episode 10, “This Must Be the Place.” The way this series has been going lately, don’t be surprised if Scalzi forces him to choose between a lady and a tiger.

Purchase and read The Human Division, episode 9: “The Observers,” 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, a second consecutive SmartBlood-based attack. This one gets more points for "unlikely to give itself away" than the previous one, even if it does have a more limited application due to the physically modified nanobots.

This episode has me looking back at a couple of the previous one-off installments. Particularly, we get some discussion here that the process of assembling the Earth delegation was a diplomatically delicate balancing process. In addition to the assassination targeting the Earth/CU relationship, I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that there's lots of room for intra-Earth recriminations based on who died, who didn't, and who had said what way back when. That bit would then pair up fairly nicely with A Voice in the Wilderness, with the nationalistic posturing being pushed by an element of the conspiracy.

I've also wondered a bit regarding The Back Channel: could our conspirators also have clued in on that CU/Conclave line of discussion? That need for neutral ground seems particularly vulnerable: in addition to the possibility of Earth barring CU personnel, the CDF's tendancy towards American origin could further heighten international tension.

Coming back to the present, who is Carvalho, really? A genuine Earth native who got recruited, or another imposter? I think the method of suicide, drifting into space as contrasted with leaving a body on the ship, suggests the latter -- although it shouldn't be too tough for Wilson to hold his breath and bring her back in. Also, who's got a setup to do SmartBlood modifications at the extreme end of CU detectability?
2. JR_one
Do you think the conspiracy is human only or human/alien based? If aliens are involved, do you think they have already appeared in this series of stories?
The attacks on the CDF soldiers and use of smartblood makes me think it is a human conspiracy, but I can't see what a purely human group would gain from destablizing CU/Earth relations.
Tyler Sprenger
3. Kappi
I still feel a rogue Ghost Brigades / Special Forces group fits the evidence most cleanly. Access to CDF tech, internal communications, and an existing cultural, almost alien-like, division between them and regular CDF. Why would they? Maybe they don't see themselves as "human", and are wondering why they're giving their lives for these people they have almost nothing in common with.

Aliens as part of the conspiracy... possibly, although I don't see what their benefit would be yet. My assumption, is that a majority of alien races would be part of the Conclave. You have a few free agents races flying around, such as Obin and Consu. Consu have never bothered to noticed anyone else before, and Obin have a treaty with the CU (although not Earth).

Note: I'm curious what the standing between CU and the Obin are, considering the CU was willing to sacrifice Zoe to counter the Conclave.
Stephen Rochelle
4. lomn
JR@2: My current preferred theory is that it's a separatist movement within the CU colonies. I'm cribbing from the colony-driven push for direct expansion and colonization in The Last Colony, and I particularly favor Erie for the sake of picking a name, given how frequently that particular colony has been name-checked. As for why they'd need to destabilize Earth/CU relations: well, from the last episode, putting down insurrections is part of the CDF's mission. If the CDF doesn't have manpower issues, then separatist movements aren't likely to gain traction. If, though, the CU is caught up in its own existential crisis, it might be willing to cut its losses on a handful of colonies declaring independence.

That said, as noted above, Special Forces have been conspicuously absent thus far. I don't think SF so much needs a grand conspiracy as a collective decision to say "we're leaving; try and stop us", but that certainly doesn't rule it out.
5. wratha
Maybe it's because I'm a native Coloradoan, but the fact that Dani Lowen went to Hickenlooper HS just cracked me up. I wonder if Scalzi chose our current governor because of his love of fracking or the fact that he opened one of the first brew pubs in CO.
6. DonW
“If we didn’t have that scanner, it would have looked like the Colonial Union killed him. By the time it was cleared up, it would have been too late to fix it.”

Except of course that the CU knew quite well that they did have access to the scanner and that this scrappy little group who does well when up against the wall would want to get to the bottom of things. And we as readers know that the CU is actively engaging in sheningans on Earth... or at least an agent provocateur there claimed he was working for the CU, before listing a group of other possible employers.

Did the CU set up the CU so the CU could be cleared of what the CU did?
7. JR_one
Lomn and Kappi - very reasonable. My only objection to separatist colonies would be that they would be weakening their protection by undermining the CDF. The OMW universe is pretty dangerous, having the CDF around seems to be pretty important given the number of dangerous races around. On the other hand, maybe they are being short sighted or feel that the times are a changin'. However,
crazy separatists (from Erie) are certainly possible.

I don't think the special forces are involved. I think they are realists and WANT the CU to join the Conclave (if possible). That's my reading of what happened in the Last Colony.

There are alot of races that would LOVE to see the CU go down. My impression is that the Conclave has only a subset of aliens in it. There are many hostile players left. I think Alien involvment sounds the most interesting to me.

I'm excited to see what comes next! Thanks for your thoughts!
Ron Hogan
8. RonHogan
"...this scrappy little group who does well when up against the wall would want to get to the bottom of things."

I don't think there's many, if any, people in the CU administration beyond Rigney and Egan who understand the true function of the Clarke team. Heck, even the team members still seem to act as if this is just a particularly "busy" streak of the exciting life of the lower echelons of the CU diplomatic corps—although by now Harry and Abumwe, and probably Captain Coloma, must be thinking that there's no way it's a coincidence these things keep happening to them.
9. MDW
"putting down resurrections is part of the CDF's mission."

I'd like to read that story, cause I didn't know Scalzi did any SF/horror.
Stephen Rochelle
10. lomn
MDW@9: Oops, yeah, that's a typo.
11. Marc Mielke
I'm strongly thinking the plot couldn't be human, really. Earth humans wouldn't have the necessary familiarity with nanotech.

Actually...hacking SmartBlood reminds me of Boutin's BrainPal hacking combined with his clone's invention of the Blood combustion trick (that we were just reminded of, BTW). Considering we're talking about the guy who invented mind transfer, his being dead isn't that much of an obstacle.
13. Kirshy
I realise I'm a bit late to the party on this discussion but was looking for a place to discuss this episode since I just read it in hardcover. For the record, I am really enjoying this book but of all of the stories thus far this is the first time I have actually come away with plot issues.

For one, why at the end was the one representative from Earth, who suggested poison in the first place, not present during the reveal of the fake smart blood in the medical bay? All of the other major players were that, but Carvalho conveniently wasn't included? Thus giving her time to get to an airlock and blow herself out into space? That stretches credulity just a smidge. It also robs the reader of maybe getting some questions answered. Or maybe that was the point, but I'm still left frustrated.

Second, lets say for arguments sake that Carvalho somehow was able to override the codes that would let her kill herself without being stopped. Are you saying that they couldn't quickly retrieve the body? Or that there was no command override that the Coloma could input into her PDA to lock down the ship? We already know that Harry can go for a space walk with surprising ease. Is there no one else who could do that? Could he not have run down to the air lock and at least tried? I realise that she blew herself out into space but with the technology they have couldn't she have been revived if she was brought back in quickly enough?

Anyway, those are my rants on this one story. Everything else has been great fun.

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