The Human Division

The Human Division Read-Along, Episode 7: “The Dog King”

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 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 7, “The Dog King.”

Since “The B-Team,” Harry Wilson and Hart Schmidt have been split up on different assignments, but they’re back together again for “The Dog King,” and hilarity the likes of which the Old Man’s War universe hasn’t seen since “After the Coup” ensues. As Harry says, “It’s never a dull day in the lower reaches of the Colonial Union diplomatic corps.”

(I don’t want to say too much here, because if you’ve read “The Dog King” you know what I’m talking about, and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?)

Scalzi has written about how emotionally invested he gets in his writing, including getting teared up while writing the sad scenes, so I emailed him wondering if he also finds himself laughing at scenes like the conversation between Harry, Hart, and the Icheloe groundskeeper. (“Is it painful? I am asking for science.”) “Actually, I rarely crack myself up when I’m writing funny bits,” he replied, “because I tend to spend more time crafting them than sad or dramatic bits, which means more fiddling with the words to get them right.” He elaborated:

“It’s weird to say that the sad/dramatic bits flow more easily as writing than the funny/comic moments, because in the reading it’s sort of the opposite. But I find that comic/funny bits really are often about precision, in words and/or pacing, whereas sad/dramatic bits have a bit more margin for error. So I do a lot of tweaking and trying different approaches with the intentionally funny stuff.

“Which is not to say I don’t smile when I know something is working; I do. And I often laugh at the funny bits when I read them later. But generally I don’t lauh out loud about them when I’m writing them. My writing practice just doesn’t work that way.”

I was also curious about another aspect of the story’s humor. When Redshirts came out last summer, Scalzi noted that it was “unapologetically funny,” in a more overt way than his previous books; then, after the hardcover sales had been tallied, he observed that it’s an effective counter-argument to the idea that humorous SF doesn’t sell. So, I asked, did that make him more confident about writing funny episodes like this one? “I don’t know that Redshirts was that much of a direct influence here,” he replied. As he pointed out, the OMW novels have always had their funny moments, and “After the Coup” was an “intentionally light” story as well, so the humor in The Human Division is in some ways a continuation of that tendency—although the emotional range from, say, “Walk the Plank” to “The Dog King” should indicate that anything is possible as this story unfolds. “I do try to keep the humor on the realistic side of things (sometimes just barely),” he added, “because in the end the OMW series is not a comic series of books. But humor happens just as a natural part of events, I find.”

It might seem like “The Dog King” is a digression from the overall story of The Human Division, but I’m going to suggest that it takes two potentially significant steps forward. One, the Colonial Union has achieved a substantial diplomatic success which raises its credibility in the eyes of (some of) the galaxy’s other races. Two—and this is more speculative, I admit—Harry discovers a transitive property of SmartBlood, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that we’ll be returning to this discovery before the end of the serial.

And speaking of early story elements returning to the foreground, join us next week when Lt. Heather Lee from “We Only Need the Heads” takes the lead in Episode 8, “The Sound of Rebellion.”

Purchase and read The Human Division, episode 7: “The Dog King,” 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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