Now one of science fiction's major stars, American writer John Scalzi has never lost the sense of humour he displayed in his days as one of the Internet's first bloggers.
His 2012 novel, Redshirts, was a Star Trek spoof in the vein of Galaxy Quest, where all the main characters are based on the expendable extras that used to die for the sake of giving William Shatner dramatic fodder.
The Human Division isn't a spoof or a straight-up comedy, but that doesn't mean it can't still be funny. It is set in a future wherein hundreds of technologically similar alien races are fighting each other. Humanity is, in this universe, forever on the brink of extinction.
Life in the Colonial Forces, the military wing of humanity's multi-planet government and first line of defence for the species, can be brutally short. Life in the Colonial Union's Diplomatic Corps, at this moment in time, is only a little bit safer.
Anyone who has armed forces experience knows, when the going gets tough, the tough get sarcastic. It's a defence mechanism: make a joke and relieve the tension so you can keep your mind together long enough to get blown up.
The Human Division, the latest in Scalzi's acclaimed Old Man's War universe has an unusual structure and publishing strategy that go hand in hand. It has been released digitally as 13 separate "episodes" over several months; each one has been written to work as a stand-alone story, while simultaneously fitting with the rest to form a cohesive novel, published as a single work after the final episode's release.
Novel serials have a long history within science fiction (Canada's Robert Sawyer serialized Triggers just last year), as does the after-the-fact repackaging of a bunch of stories into a novel, known as a "fix-up" (Isaac Asimov's Foundation series being one example). But nothing has been done quite like this before, and it doesn't seem, frankly, like it should work. But it does.
Scalzi has written four previous Old Man's War novels. His first, inspired by the late Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers, was a little bit lighter, but also a little more thoughtful than its famous predecessor. In both Scalzi and Heinlein's novels, the protagonist is a voluntary recruit to an infantry with a mortality rate far exceeding 50 per cent. In both, hostile alien forces (a literally dehumanized enemy) are bent on extinguishing our side.
Heinlein's hero was fresh out of high school, however, while the recruits in Old Man's War are all 75-year-olds (given new, young, genetically-modified bodies to fight with). Heinlein also argues that armed conflict is necessary, while Scalzi hints that our species made a choice.
With The Human Division, he subverts the shoot-first credo of space opera even further. The book's heroes (previously peripheral characters or brand new ones), default to diplomacy over military tactics. Explosions and snappy dialogue are what readers have come to expect, but with these, Scalzi gives readers a political thriller, and a pretty good one.
He's not as philosophical as Sawyer, not as high concept as, say, David Brin or Iain M. Banks, but Scalzi's a smart, entertaining writer. He knows how to appeal to a broad audience and doesn't mind doing so. His latest, perhaps the best of the series since Old Man's War itself, should please old and new fans alike.
Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and teacher.
The Human Division
By John Scalzi
Tor Books, 368 pages, $30