I read The Human Division a few months ago. Since I thoroughly hated it, I tried to return it to the library where I got it from, put it out of my mind, and hope that after a few days/weeks/months, I’d have a more favorable view of it in hindsight. But that hasn’t really happened. Honestly, time has only cemented my personal dislike of this serialized novel, so please understand before you go further that I’m not really going to say anything favorable about The Human Division, which might or might not be what you want to hear. But let’s start at the beginning.
A couple years ago I picked up John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War novel from my local library. It had an interesting cover, lots of good word of mouth, and I needed something to read on my family’s beach vacation. Once I cracked the military sci-fi novel open, I was impressed by it. Loved the future universe. Loved the characters. And really enjoyed Scalzi’s writing style.
Fast forwarding to novel (I am using that word liberally with this serialized piece, I know) five of the Old Man’s War series I have to say that Mr. Scalzi has been able to change all my initial feelings. I’ve found novels 3, 4, and 5 to be inferior to the last one. I now find this future universe uninspiring and repetitive. The characters all sound alike to me. And Scalzi’s writing style has fallen into a formulaic pattern that is boring for me.
But what is The Human Division about, you ask?
For those who have not read the previous four novels, I would suggest that you stop reading this review, go read at least the first three before attempting this book, because it cannot be completely understood or appreciated without some knowledge of the previous going-ons in this future universe.
For those who have read the series, this book is basically a serialized mix of thirteen different stories that is suppose to come together to tell the overarching story of the Colonial Union, the Conclave, and the Earth’s ultimate fate as set up by John Perry’s actions in The Last Colony. Some of the stories indeed focus on this main plot line, while others are obviously filler material, even though they throw a few nuggets of information out there for the readers consumption. And though these terrific thirteen do – somewhat – serve as a conclusion to the Old Man’s War series, it was a less than enjoyable one for me personally.
But why, you want to know?
For me (And that is all we are talking about here, since I’m reviewing why I did not enjoy this book) the main problems can be condensed into two over-arching issues: the writing style and the characters similarity.
Like I mentioned above, I loved Old Mans War. While some readers say Scalzi copied (not was inspired by) Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein, I personally saw it as more a re-imagining for a new century, and damn, did I like it. It was fresh, fast-paced, and catchy. And the main character, John Perry, was just the kind of guy to lead me on the galactic tour; he was snarky, witty, and a guy who’d seen it all. And when Scalzi followed this up with Book Two: The Ghost Brigades, I couldn’t have been more impressed how he changed lead characters, dealt with some deep philosophical issues, yet still wove a fun military-scifi adventure. But then The Last Colony came along. I saw the warning signs of a standard formula beginning to develop in Scalzi’s work. A formula that made all the people act the same, sound the same, and the story develop and wrap up in the same way. And I’m sad to say this formulaic pattern really reached its pinnacle with The Human Division. Here the same cookie-cutter characters are everywhere, speaking in the same voices, using the same story pattern thirteen times to come to another standard Scalzi ending.
Now, am I saying that is bad and that it means you will dislike The Human Division as much as I did?
Nope. In fact, you might love this book. I myself have some writers that I adore who do the exact same thing as Scalzi in their books: formulaic story with the same archetype characters who are merely renamed. And even knowing that this is what I’m going to get with these authors, I love their novels, adore them even. Somehow, the issues don’t matter to me as I lose myself in the story, and you might be able to do that with this story collection, but I couldn’t. It just did not work for me. Rather it was more of the same old thing regurgitated thirteen times, which is why I doubt I’ll be journey into the universe of Old Man’s War anymore in the future.