Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

Bookmark and Share

About IGMS / Staff
Write to Us

The Science of Wonder
  Book Reviews by Jamie Todd Rubin
May 2013

Title: The Human Division
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: TOR

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 work.

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
Publisher: Tarcher/Penguin

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 bit longer.

Read more by Jamie Todd Rubin

Home | About IGMS
        Copyright © 2024 Hatrack River Enterprises   Web Site Hosted and Designed by WebBoulevard.com