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.