The Many-Headed Hydra: John Scalzi’s The Human Division

The Human DivisionPublished: January – April, 2013
Publisher: Tor
Genre(s): Science Fiction
Format: Audiobook
Length: Various

The Human Division is many things at once; it is, of course, a new story in the Old Man’s War universe, but it’s also an experiment in digital distribution. It feels a bit like the modern equivalent of a fix-up novel, but also vaguely resembles the first season of a TV show. It’s a business model as old as Charles Dickens (older, perhaps), but it’s also uniquely well-suited to the world of ebooks. It’s an excellent addition to Scalzi’s most well-known fictional setting even though it’s not my favorite in that world or my favorite Scalzi book (Redshirts is a hard act to follow).

In very broad outlines, The Human Division tells the story of Lieutenant Harry Wilson, his friend Hart Schmidt and the missions of the Clarke as its crew and diplomatic corps work to heal the rift between Earth and the Colonial Union. However, instead of adding up to parts of a unified whole, the episodes unfold more like standalone adventures in a television show that disregards traditional broadcast storytelling structures. Unlike a TV show, the episodes generally have one storyline (no subplots here), and Scalzi occasionally focuses entire episodes on characters seemingly unconnected to the main plot.

The Human Division also has episodes that – while they certainly contribute to the overall whole – could be lifted out of the story wholesale to stand entirely on their own… and I don’t just mean the ones that focus on other characters. Episode 7, The Dog King, is a humorous aside about an unfortunate incident with a diplomat’s pet dog that feels like a complete story in and of itself. It’s followed by my favorite episode of the series, The Sound of Rebellion, which focuses on one-time characters but also feels like something you could read and enjoy without much prior knowledge.

I do think that if you go into this series expecting it to end up shaped like a novel, you’ll probably be disappointed. Apparently the final episode has garnered a number of one-star reviews, and I’m not surprised because it honestly doesn’t provide much in the way of closure. It doesn’t have a cliffhanger ending, but it plays more like the season finale for a show that expects to let its major conflict play out over more than one season. That’s why I’m glad I listened to it knowing that a second “season” would be forthcoming. I wouldn’t have been upset, mind you, but it does help to set expectations accordingly.

Overall I liked the series, but I was a bit disappointed that it didn’t have the emotional punch of Redshirts or Fuzzy Nation. However, from what I can remember, that’s also generally true about the earlier Old Man’s War books, so perhaps your mileage may vary. I did feel like the character development was a bit limited throughout, but Scalzi compensates by keeping most of the episodes plot-driven and full of action. In any case, I’m glad he’ll be continuing this story with another “season” of episodes, because I’d like to find out what happens next.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Amazon | Audible | BookPeople

Strange Attractors by Charles Soule and Greg Scott

Strange AttractorsStory: Charles Soule
Art: Greg Scott

Published: April 9th, 2013
Publisher: Archaia Entertainment
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Science Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Length: 128 pages

In Strange Attractors, Heller Wilson is a grad student studying complexity theory, a branch of mathematics devoted to the study of complex systems. He’s a career-minded guy, and is currently working on a thesis topic suggested by his advisor and designed specifically to get him hired at a high-paying job after graduation. Problem is, he’s struggling with the topic – comparing the resiliency of New York City after 9/11 to the struggles of New Orleans after Katrina – so he decides to track down a former Columbia professor who wrote about similar subject decades ago.

Wilson soon discovers that the professor, Spencer Brownfield, is a bit of an eccentric. Among other things, Brownfield explains that he eats exactly 1700 calories a day – no more, no less – and closes their meeting by releasing a rat into a crowded restaurant. However, Wilson is desperate for help with his thesis, so he persists and manages to talk Brownfield into giving him access to his research in exchange for helping with a few “projects”.

When Wilson shows up to help with those projects, Brownfield sends him off on a number of apparently random tasks without any explanation. Wilson cooperates gamely for a while, but when he eventually gets fed up and decides to quit, Brownfield surprises him by demonstrating what those seemingly random tasks can achieve when done in concert. It turns out that Brownfield is (he claims) using his theories to “adjust” events in New York City in subtle ways, continually working against the ever-increasing flow of chaos and darkness in the city. Brownfield explains that the reason New York City is so resilient is because he is working to keep it that way. Wilson is drawn back in, and soon becomes obsessed with Brownfield’s theories.

Strange Attractors is one of those stories that exists just on the edge of science fiction. Although the idea of using mathematical theories to control events in a city seems fanciful at first blush, upon consideration it feels like the sort of thing that might not be outside the realm of possibility. History caught up with William Gibson, after all. Accordingly, the book is simultaneously both grounded and magical, and the resulting mix is extremely appealing.

In some ways the premise reminded me a bit of the basic concepts of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, but here the idea of controlling future outcomes is real-time, personal and entirely specific to the city of New York. Brownfield considers himself NYC’s caretaker, and Wilson eventually admits to himself that he also feels a strong enough connection to the city that he wants to protect it. The author and artist clearly share that love of the city, and their devotion is part of what makes this story feel unique.

I also loved the art, which is gorgeously drawn and full of color. Whenever Brownfield or Wilson visualize possible outcomes, they are shown as a series of interlocking colored lines bouncing between people or objects. This conceit helps make Brownfield’s theories feel concrete, like something hidden in plain sight if you only know how to look. Also, color is used to signify the current state of the city – red for chaos, blue for stability – and the growing presence of redness helps to build tension throughout as Brownfield and Wilson work to save New York from impending cataclysm.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Strange Attractors, and will definitely be checking out other work by the same author. Recommended.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley.

Amazon | Barnes and Noble

The Postmortal by Drew Magary

Published: August 30, 2011
Publisher: Penguin
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Dystopian
Format: eBook
Length: 384 pages

The Postmortal is pitched as a darkly comic satire about a world where a cure for aging is invented and becomes widely available. However, if it is a satire, it is of a character most similar to Jonathan Swift’s infamous essay advocating the cannibalization of Irish babies as a solution to poverty. If you happen to smile while reading The Postmortal, I imagine it will be a mirthless rictus intermingled with horror rather than anything signifying amusement. For my part, I don’t think I laughed a single time reading the book in a mad rush over the past two days, but I don’t count that as a mark against it. In fact, I found it both gripping and chilling in equal parts.

When the cure for aging, commonly known as “The Cure”, is first invented, doctors are quick to point out that it isn’t actually a cure for death, either by cancer or a more violent end, but that and the fact that it is initially banned by the government don’t stop the main character, John Farrell, from spending seven thousand dollars at a black market clinic to get cured at the age of twenty nine. The narrative follows John over the next 60+ years of his life, as he learns what it truly means to have eternal youth from both a personal and a global perspective.

An early scene where John takes his roommate back to the same clinic to get the cure sets the tone for the rest of the story, as unexpected tragedy decisively intrudes. John’s life is forever changed in an instant, both by the looming spectres of death and destruction that seem to lurk just around the next corner for the rest of his life, and by the fleeting glimpse outside the clinic of a beautiful blonde woman he feels certain he will meet again some day. Magary does an excellent job of setting up a palpable sense of dread very early on in the book; we quickly learn to expect that nothing good will ever come to John without some greater evil following quickly behind.

The book alternates between John’s journals/life recordings and excerpts of articles, interviews, and news headlines. We soon get a fuller picture of the way that the cure for aging affects the world around John in new and terrifying ways. One particularly chilling article recounts the story of a woman who gives the cure to her child so that the girl will stay a lovable, innocent baby forever. Magary also spends a good amount of time establishing the particularly catastrophic results of the cure in already over-populated China, and you get the sense that an entire novel could be set in that particular corner of the apocalypse.

The book jumps forward in time over the decades of John’s artificially extended life, and we watch as his personal tragedies and disappointments all add together to transform him from a hopeful young lawyer to a cynical, hardened “End Specialist”, a sort of bounty hunter who ekes out both euthanasia and questionable justice as forms of legalized population control. My only real criticism of the book is that John still felt like a bit of a cypher by the end of the story; Magary does a great job of portraying the personal hardships that he experiences over his long life, and we get little snapshots of emotion and grief, but John feels more like a window into the world rather than a fully lived-in protagonist.

The Postmortal is a brisk read even at just under 400 pages in print, and if I hadn’t started reading it so late at night, I might have finished the entire thing in one sitting. The scenes of action peppered throughout the book are written in a clear, compelling style, and Magary has a knack for grabbing the reader just in time to show them how bad things can get. The brightly-colored cover and the author’s history as a comedy writer are a bit misleading considering the searing bleakness of his debut, but if you can stomach it, The Postmortal is a incredibly thrilling piece of dystopian gallows humor, and I highly recommend it.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

Amazon | Book Soup | Indiebound

The God Engines by John Scalzi

The God EnginesPublished: December 31, 2009
Publisher: Subterranean
Genre(s): Dark Fantasy
Format: Hardcover
Length: 136 pages

John Scalzi is commonly known as an author, a prolific and long-established blogger, a man with a mischievous sense of humor, and a connoisseur of all things bacon-related. I’m not entirely sure where I first came across his work, but as soon as I finished reading Old Man’s War, he instantly became one of my new favorite authors. I worked my way through the rest of his books and so thoroughly enjoyed them that I was inspired to check out the work of one of his clear inspirations, Robert A. Heinlein.

Up until just recently, all of Scalzi’s fiction output was fairly easily categorized as science fiction. Sometimes it was militaristic, sometimes funny, but all of it generally involved space travel, future societies, aliens, and other common sci-fi tropes. Accordingly, when he announced that he would be publishing his first fantasy work, The God Engines, I was intrigued. It’s always fascinating when an author you love decides to branch out into new territories. However, I do remember him cautioning his fans that it was particularly dark fantasy, and would probably surprise anyone used to his existing work.

After finishing the book, I can see why he felt the need to warn his readers about a possible bumpy ride. It’s a short, sharp, brutal window into a particularly cruel and twisted society. None of Scalzi’s trademark humor is present, the characters are all deeply flawed individuals, and the climactic events are so gruesome that I would not be surprised to find the book filed under “horror”.

The God Engines tells the story of a society that uses captured gods to power its starships. In this world, gods are very real creatures, sustained by the faith and prayer of their followers, but subject to the machinations of more powerful deities. When a society is conquered, the citizens aren’t simply converted to a new religion; as a further indignity, their former god is enslaved and bent to the task of providing interstellar travel to the conquering faction.

The main character, Ean Tephe, is the captain of a ship powered by a particularly nasty and recalcitrant god. The very first thing Ean does in the book is whip his starship’s captive god for disobedience. Ean is a true believer in his society’s way of life and in his god’s grace above all others and generally comes off as a stiff-necked, unsympathetic hard-liner. The only real glimpse we get into Ean’s softer side is the time he spends with Shalle, one of the ship’s rooks, who are essentially nuns, therapists or prostitutes depending on the situation.

The most noteworthy thing about Shalle is that the character is never described with gendered pronouns. It’s never quite clear if Shalle is a woman, man, or something else entirely. Ultimately, however, this is a bit distracting, and I was never quite sure how Shalle’s lack of apparent gender played into the story other than as a method of subverting our expectations. The end result is something that read more like a formal exercise in gender-neutral storytelling instead of genuine world-building.

The main plot of the book is set in motion when Ean is sent on a secret mission to an unconverted world that his god has secreted away from its enemies. Ean’s ship is tasked to travel to the distant world and open up a portal for his god so that it can convert the citizens to believers and become more powerful from their new faith. However, Ean’s experiences on the unconverted world shake his personal faith to its core, and events only snowball from there.

To be honest, The God Engines is a hard book to enjoy. The main character isn’t particularly likable, his actions are in service to a clearly corrupt society, and the end results are particularly horrifying. Scalzi doesn’t pull any punches here, but as far as I can tell, that’s the main point.

In a way, it makes sense to think of The God Engines as a writing exercise in novella form; that isn’t to say it’s an unpolished or unfinished book, however. Rather, it seems perfectly designed to let Scalzi step outside of his comfort zone and play with a new storytelling palette.

Unfortunately, although it may have been a useful experience for him as a writer, it didn’t really work for me as a form of entertainment. Although I do enjoy stories that go to dark places, I usually need someone or something to root for, and Captain Ean Teshe is not that man. The book might still be an interesting read for the Scalzi completist, but I can’t really recommend it to anyone who isn’t a hardcore fan.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

Amazon

Warren Ellis: Crime and Science Fiction are the Same Thing

First off, the good news is that Warren Ellis has a new two-book deal with Mulholland Books, who are also the new home of one of my all-time favorite authors, Charlie Huston. I read Crooked Little Vein last year and thoroughly enjoyed that vulgar little volume, which alternates between dark humor and varieties of sexual weirdness normally found only in the darkest corners of the web. I haven’t read anything else by Ellis yet, but I may start in on some of his graphic novel work soon.

As part of the announcement of his book deal, Ellis wrote a blog for the Mulholland Books website, wherein he discusses the similarities between the crime and science fiction genres, and why he writes both:

[W]hen I write science fiction I’m a crime writer, and when I write crime fiction I’m an sf writer.  I’m talking about our lives, and the way I see the world.  I’m writing about the new thing, the disruptive event that enters that world, its repercussions and the attempts to deal with it.  But I’m talking about where I think I am today, and what I think it looks like.

Ellis’ argument is that both genres, while nominally about strange worlds (either sfnal or criminal), are actually social fiction, wherein authors discuss the ills in our society, either real or potential. It’s a fascinating argument, and made me think about what draws me to both genres.

I’ve been a lifelong scifi/fantasy reader, but over time I’ve started reading more crime fiction as well. My first big exposure to the genre was in high school when I started reading Elmore Leonard after seeing Out of Sight. In more recent years, I’ve found myself voraciously reading the works of Huston, Gregory McDonald (Fletch), and others. I think I’m most drawn to crime fiction by the urgency and danger inherent in the form.

However, I think it’s what Ellis identifies that keeps me coming back to both forms. I love stories that hold up a mirror to society, that play with the nature of our world and reality. I think that works whether they’re discussing a multitude of alternate universes or a drug-ridden slum in New Jersey. I look forward to reading what comes next from Ellis and Mulholland.