If any writer in contemporary SF is in a position to rest on his laurels, it's John Scalzi. But he keeps pushing, moving forward, challenging himself with new approaches to writing, or simply indulging his whims. After a few years of giving free reign to his lighter side — which resulted, among other things, in perhaps the funniest "you gotta be kidding me" short story Hugo nom in the genre's history — Scalzi has returned to his Old Man's War universe in the dazzling The Human Division. For this novel, he experimented with a new approach to storytelling that took advantage of the emerging world of e-publishing while avoiding alienating traditionalists into the bargain. The book was initially serialized monthly as downloadable chapters prior to its hardcover release in complete form. This required each chapter to function as a stand-alone story, with the whole working as a cohesive novel at the same time. As usual, Scalzi succeeds at whatever he sets his mind to, and The Human Division turns out to be not only a career-best for him, but one of SF's most electrifying space operas of the new century.
There may be those who turn their noses up at the traditionalism of Scalzi's themes and plots, at the fact he writes science fiction first as a fan's expression of love, rather than doing whatever it is you're supposed to do to be "literary" — deconstructing SF tropes, treating them with skepticism and an eye towards subverting them artistically. But genre fiction does not have to do these things to achieve greatness. In the end, I loved The Human Division for what is, really, the only reason anyone needs to love a book: that it gave me sheer joy in the reading.
Though familiarity with the original OMW trilogy — in particular its last entry, The Last Colony — helps, it isn't necessary in order to get stuck in. The situation for humanity across the galaxy is becoming dire, in the wake of the deeds of John Perry and Jane Sagan at the trilogy's climax. The Earth has been made aware that the Colonial Union, representing human colonies throughout space, has for years simply been using the homeworld as a resource for new soldiers and colonists, while denying Earth access to the CU's technological advances. This has caused, you might say, a bad breakup, and put the CU in a position of facing possible human extinction within decades. Without the privilege of farming Earth for an endless supply of military manpower that the colonies themselves can't match if left to their own devices, the CU faces a serious threat from the newly formed Conclave, representing hundreds of alien races able to wipe out human colonies galaxy-wide with impunity. What's worse, the Conclave is courting Earth for possible membership, threatening to further isolate the CU.
Diplomacy is key, and The Human Division becomes a novel about the dangerous game of politics reminiscent in some ways of John Hemry's superb, underappreciated Paul Sinclair series. Hemry's books were military SF less concerned with action scenes and dick-wagging machismo than engaging the intellect with thoughtful, often wrenching examinations of the moral crises inherent in war and the politics surrounding war. Scalzi pursues much the same approach here, though he often does it with his trademark wit intact. Without the on-the-nose indulgences in fan service and overt fourth-wall-breaking that characterized Fuzzy Nation and especially Redshirts (I have spoken to a couple of readers who emphatically disliked that book for those very reasons), the humor that sometimes turns up in The Human Division feels more natural, arising from the absurdity of the situation (as in "The Dog King," in which a misbehaving pooch inadvertently resolves a planetary schism).
But mostly, The Human Division is straightforward, and the meatiest space opera Scalzi has yet written, its political themes doing what the best such stories do, holding up a mirror to real-world crises that affect us all today. Scalzi's heroes are a "B-Team" of underdog diplomats and soldiers, led by CU lieutenant Harry Wilson and his aide Hart Schmidt, flying from mission to mission in the aptly-named Clarke. The diplomatic team they serve, under Ambassador Ode Abumwe, are given the worst diplomatic assignments, mainly because they prove unusually skilled at getting the best results from them. Scalzi has a lot of evident admiration for diplomats, at least as people. He sees them as individuals with sincere passion and commitment to their duties, even when the governments they represent are as duplicitous as any other. Abumwe is a hardass, the alien Halfte Sorvalh a kinder and gentler soul. But they both care.
An X factor threatens everything. Some party unknown — they could be human or alien — is trying to sabotage diplomatic efforts. No one is sure why. They're stealing spaceships, setting up booby traps, displaying wanton disregard for life, their every act designed to make both the CU and the Conclave think the other is responsible. The more Wilson investigates, the less he knows, and the more these terrorists seem several steps ahead.
Whether funny or dramatic, whether dealing directly with the problem at hand or taking us on a brief digression to allow us more time and investment in the characters themselves, each of the book's chapters leads us, with uncanny skill, to "Earth Below, Sky Above," perhaps the most emotionally fraught and breathless climax Scalzi has put to paper. Scalzi's storytelling up to this point in the book has known exactly how and when to take itself seriously, when to lighten up a bit, when to stick with its main players and when to shift focus elsewhere to keep us always attuned to the bigger picture his heroes' deeds are influencing. It all ends with a grand slam that puts The Human Division on the shortlist of SF's potential future classics, and leaves readers with the thrilling prospect that if this is really the end for good old Homo sapiens, we have only just begun to fight.
Note: The print edition of the book also includes "After the Coup," a short story featuring Harry Wilson that was one of Tor.com's launch stories.