UPDATE: As of this writing (4/9/13), there is a plan to have a "coda" included in the hardcover version that expands the ending from chapter 13 (and in fairness this was the plan all along, but clearly not fully communicated). Perhaps Tor Books will reconsider the decision and offer this simultaneously to the Kindle and other ebook users. As of right now, it leaves me feeling like a bit of a sap for buying the book as a serial. Also, Scalzi has announced a "Season Two" for The Human Division, meaning that the unresolved nature of chapter 13 is presumably a jumping off point for that 2nd season. I don't mind this in abstract. As you can see from my review I enjoyed this book. However, I think most readers thought they were buying 13 installments of a self-contained novel, not 13 chapters of part I.
Original Review (slightly modified):
Having now finished the "The Human Division" as a serial novel, I decided to write my review not of an individual chapter but of the entire work, both in how it works as a novel and as a serial.
First a brief primer. If you are unfamiliar with Scalzi's work, I wholeheartedly recommend starting with "
Old Man's War
". It is a rollicking science fiction adventure in the "Humans versus all of the other aliens in the universe" variety. It has been touted as the closest thing to a modern Heinlein novel, and I actually think that's pretty close to the mark. Scalzi's writing is fun, imaginative, and accessible. Read it now, if you haven't.
But most folks getting to this review are probably quite familiar with the Scalzi oeuvre. A brief non-spoiler background of this particular novel is that the humans are divided into factions, the Colonial Union, which has colonized space and made more than a few enemies, and the indigenous population of Earth, which, now that it knows the Colonial Union has kept it held in relative backwardness and used for exploration fodder, is firmly estranged, if not quite in the "enemies" camp. This novel follows the exploits of Colonial Defense Forces technical expert Lieutenant Harry Wilson, Colonial State Department Ambassador Ode Abumwe, and minor diplomatic functionary (as well as Wilson friend) Hart Schmidt. The group is a "B-Team" of not-the-best diplomats who nonetheless have a history of successful outside-the-box successes. This lands them in a series of events that increasingly point to conflict between the military forces of the Colonial Defense Union, the political forces of Earth, the alien union known as "Conclave" and a shadowy force that may be none of the above which appears to be manipulating events.
Regarding the "serial experience". I'll just say that if this novelist thing doesn't work for John Scalzi, he's got a great future ahead of him as a drug dealer. Releasing a chapter a week, starting with
The Human Division #1: The B-Team
, was a highly addictive return to the "Old Man's War" universe. He managed to maintain an interesting overall narrative arc while simultaneously creating what amounted to 13 consecutive short stories. Each release, sold for only $0.99, seemed to be more self-contained than chapters in a novel would normally be. This was a great strength as the chapters were coming out, and I found myself looking forward to the weekly Tuesday release date with great anticipation. While the chapters varied in size and quality, at no point did I feel like I got less than a dollar's worth of entertainment.
Unfortunately, that strength as a serial may have limited the ultimate effectiveness as a novel. In the later chapters, there was less than the usual sense of building to a culmination. As an example, in the penultimate chapter, a character who was introduced as a bit player in the last third of the novel suddenly gets a turn in the spotlight. Again, this chapter worked as a standalone story, but it felt out of sync with the expectation that the chapter should be setting up some sort of big finish. Likewise, a reader's knowledge of the main characters has remained fairly two dimensional. With one exception (again, which worked as a short story but felt disconnected from the larger narrative) we know little more about the main characters than when we started. We know Abumwe is from Nigeria, we know Schmidt is from a political family, and we know that Wilson is from Chicago. That's about it for character arc for the three main characters, other than that they bond though the crises. Again, for a novel, the whole was somewhat less than the sum of the parts.
There is some qualified good news, depending on how you look at it. At the end of this serial, it has now, in an (I hope) unintended nod to George Lucas, been retconned into "Season One". I found it too cute by half to re-christen this as season 1 just as I was reading the last chapter. Still, it's clear that Scalzi has much more of this story left to tell. If one takes the view that there are 1 or 2 other Human Division novels, with attendant additional character development, then some of these flaws may abate. I still think the constraints of writing serially show a bit in the finished product, but I expect I'll be happy to follow the continued exploits of the no-so-B-after-all Team. I'll just read the fine print next time.
So in the end, the ride _was_ great fun. It's sad, because the experience, reading the first book in a series in a weekly serial format, is one which I would have signed up for at the beginning. Unfortunatly, it was marred by a ham-handed roll-out of future plans. I would also say that, my complaints aside, I recommend the completed novel to anyone who liked Old Man's War and is not put off by the above.
Averaging it all out, three stars (was originally four before I updated based on the coda, etc))