The Human Division

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

Welcome to the 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 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.


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