The Human Division

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

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 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.


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