The Science of Wonder
Title: The Human Division
Author: John Scalzi
I can still recall the sense of wonder I experienced when I first read Isaac Asimov's
Foundation Trilogy. Upon finishing that trilogy for the first time, I remember
wishing I lived in a future universe like the one Asimov constructed in that series
of interrelated stories. I didn't think I could be so swept up by a sense of wonder as
I was back in those halcyon days of my youth. John Scalzi's The Human Division
proved me wrong.
The Human Division takes place in Scalzi's Old Man's War universe, but you do
not have to have read any of the previous books in the series to read and enjoy this
latest. In The Human Division, Earth is becoming increasingly restless after
discovering it has been intentionally kept behind, technology-wise, by the Colonial
Union. The Colonial Union recruits its colonists and soldiers from Earth to
colonize other worlds and protect against warmongering alien races. Earth no
longer wants to provide these colonists and soldiers without a bigger role, but the
Colonial Union is reluctant to provide it. A consortium of alien races, known as the
Conclave, offers a possible alternative for the people of Earth.
The stories within The Human Division center around a series of mysterious events
taking place: ships going missing; negotiations between worlds being sabotaged;
and outright terrorist attacks. These events seem designed to set the various
factions against one another, although no one really knows who is behind it. A
small band of ambassadorial "firefighters," also known as the "B-team" work to
both disarm and investigate these happenings.
Scalzi has managed to bring together a great set of fascinating characters as part of
this team, centered on a kind of dynamic duo of Hart Schmidt and Harry Wilson.
Ambassador Abumwe leads the ambassadorial delegation. She comes off as a
tough, no-nonsense ambassador who despite her shell, manages to grow on you
through the successive stories. Sophia Coloma, captain of the Clarke and Danielle
Lowen add to the varied cast of characters.
Along the way I noticed several parallels between The Human Division and
Asimov's Foundation Trilogy.
First, in terms of story, they both focus on the vast sweeping political struggles
involved in a loose organization spread over many, many light-years.
Second, both drill down from the macro to the micro, following specific characters
here and there, often in adventures that seem unrelated to the overall arc of the
story, but which we learn are always connected in some significant way.
Third, both are larger stories constructed of many smaller ones. The original
Foundation stories were written as interrelated short stories, novelettes, novellas
and serials scattered throughout the 1940s. The Human Division is a serialized
novel, constructed from 13 short stories, novelettes and novella. Because of this,
each of the stories is somewhat self-contained, and yet contributes to the larger
Some of the stories are action packed ("The B-Team," and "Earth Below, Sky
Above," for instance), some are humorous ("The Dog King"), and a few are
outright touching ("This Must Be the Place" and "A Problem of Proportion"). But
they all combine to make for a well-rounded science fiction novel that takes the
reader through each part of the emotional spectrum.
Unlike Asimov's Foundation stories, The Human Division is not dated. It is a
science fiction novel for the Twenty-First century with enough balance in its
science fiction to satisfy newcomers and hardcore fans alike. Moreover, whereas
Asimov's Foundation stories had no aliens whatsoever, Scalzi's universe is filled
with aliens, making the role of the ambassadors (human and alien alike) that much
more integral to what is happening.
What I liked best about The Human Division was its episodic feel. We don't get
much of this in science fiction today and it acts as both a nod to the Golden Age as
well as a signal that this kind of story-telling can work today, and work well. Scalzi
hit a homerun with it in The Human Division and I'd like to see more attempts to
follow his lead in this respect.
I had a blast reading The Human Division -- so much so that I ended up reading it
twice -- the second time listening to the Audible version of the novel, which is
wonderfully performed by William Dufris. Either way, The Human Division is not
just John Scalzi at its best, it is science fiction at its best.
Title: The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer's Amazing Pulp Journe
Author: Fred Nadis
Science fiction since its inception has been blessed (or cursed, depending on your
viewpoint) with iconic and memorable characters: Kimball Kinnison, Hari Seldon,
Susan Calvin, Lazarus Long, Paul Atreides, Meg Murry, William Mandella. The
list goes on and on. For every iconic character in the stories, there is an equally
iconic character behind the stories, be it the writer, editor, publisher, agent. The
history of science fiction is populated by interesting, often quirky characters. Ray
Palmer is one such character. I often wonder how many people recognize the name
Ray Palmer today, which is why I was glad to read the recent biography of Ray
Palmer, The Man From Mars by Fred Nadis.
Palmer is an important part of the history of science fiction for several reasons and
Nadis covers them all in his well-researched biography. For most casual fans of
science fiction, Palmer is probably best known as the editor who bought Isaac
Asimov's first story, "Marooned off Vesta" (Amazing Stories, March 1939).
Asimov never met the man in person.
As Nadis details in his book, Palmer was also responsible for virtually inventing
the flying saucer craze. He claimed to have first-hand experience involving FBI
cover-ups, with files and evidence mysteriously disappearing. In collaboration with
Richard Shaver, Palmer created what became known as the "Shaver Mystery," a
complex conspiracy theory involving secret languages and ancient people living in
caverns beneath the Earth.
All of this seems rather quirky today, and yet the biography is a fascinating read,
especially for people interested in the history of the genre. Palmer himself is an
interesting character. He is described by Martin Gardner as a kind of P.T. Barnum-styled showman (this, in a chapter titled, coincidentally, "Professor Palmer's
Intergalactic Medicine Show").
This look into Palmer's life provides another look through the closing window of
the past in our genre, and it is worth reading just to keep that window open a little
Read more by Jamie Todd Rubin