04 December 2016

Grunt Work

The Human Division
by John Scalzi

This isn’t really a novel. It’s a series of short stories held together by an overarching meta-plot and common characters. The bigger plot never resolves, leaving the reader with some unanswered questions at the end of the book and allowing for the continuation of the Old Man’s War series. Some reviewers have compared it to a TV serial, but books of this kind have a well-established history in literature – see, for instance, the Jeeves stories of P.G. Wodehouse. As a reader, I’m comfortable with the device and welcomed it in this book.

I found the stories interesting and often funny, though some of the jokes are designed to elicit groans rather than laughter. The characters are stock – military surplus for the most part – but lovable, mostly people with jobs to do and problems to solve. If anyone reading this is old enough to have ever enjoyed Robert Sheckley, they’ll find Scalzi’s set and setting familiar: working stiffs and grunts caught up in bizarre situations, leavening their tribulations with questionable humour.

This is problem-solving SF. Some of the problems are technical and some are human (if you count sentient aliens as humans, which you should). There are whodunits and what Martin Amis once called whydunits. They’re a mixed bag but then, variety is the spice of literature. On the whole, I liked them.

What you won’t find here are marvellous passages of visual description and world-building, alien strangeness, metaphysical trippery and all that sense-of-wonder stuff. In fact, the visual depiction of characters, settings, spacecraft, etc., is kept to a minimum. This is the other kind of science-fiction: the techy, Analog kind. And none the worse for that. I probably won’t ever read it again, but I plenty enjoyed reading it the first time.

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