The Human Division is John Scalzi’s grand experiment. I’m sure you know all about Scalzi and if you don’t, fire up twitter and find his blog. It’s been released in 13 Episodes from January until last week. One one level, it’s a novel with an installment plan, but it’s really more than that. And there’s a part of me that wants to do the traditional run through like I do with my other posts about the things I’m reading. But I don’t really think it works here because The Human Division isn’t a traditional book.
I can use the term “book” somewhat loosely here because “book” implies a certain word lengths and heft (even if it doesn’t always mean the physical words on paper anymore). So what are the Episodes? They’re a little bit like short stories. Each one has a self contained story arc. I’m not counting words but I’m pretty sure most, if not all, fall under the numerical definition of short story. They all fit together to make something more than a short story compilation. You can read one, but if you read them all you get a much richer tapestry of words.
So let’s just compromise on the semantics and keep calling them Episodes. That’s what they’re really called and it really is a fitting term. Structurally, they do remind me of a television show. Each episode more or less stands alone with an overall story arc across the whole thing.
How were the episodes? Fantastic. If you’ve ever read Scalzi, that’s probably a no brainer. He’s one of maybe a half dozen authors that I will read anything of sight unseen with no hesitation. In fact, not having the patience to wait until the print version of this comes out is one of the reasons my Nook and my Dead Tree Editions all coexist peacefully.
Since I just lobbed the easy one over the plate, the ereader is what allows this grand experiment in writing to happen. The installment plan for writing harkens back to the 70s and farther back when the print magazines were major players in SF. I know a lot of my favorite Zelazny stuff was published across multiple months in F&SF or Asimov’s. One of those two. I don’t want to get up from my desk to find the book right now. But it’s a thing. Print digests wouldn’t work for The Human Division or any kind of serial story telling anymore. The edigests are monthly and a lot of the print titles have moved to bimonthly. I think it would be extremely easy to lose the momentum and mojo with anything longer than a week wait. It was long enough for me to itch for more but not so long I decided to say meh when it came out every Tuesday.
Now The Human Division must have been successful experiment. I saw all the different issues sitting on the USA Today best seller lists. I’m sure they were all over Amazon, B+N, take your pick. I know I’m still itching to give Scalzi a dollar on Tuesdays. But more than a personal success for Scalzi and Tor, I think this should be seen as a success for the whole genre.
All of us. The whole damn genre.
This is a new way to tell stories that we didn’t have before. Well… maybe we did, but it wasn’t boxed up in a nice neat little package like these Episodes have been. I think this should be embraced as a new tool in our arsenal. For a long time there were Short Stories, Novellas and Novels. And then the Novella kind of died as paperback page counts became cheaper to print. And then Short Stories were hurting pretty bad. I have never ever seen any print short story digests in a store other than F&SF and Asimov’s. Ereaders have brought back both of them and made them viable again. This new serial / episodic format is entirely new. We should embrace this option. As far as I know, other genres aren’t. With SF’s more natural affinity for new tech, why wouldn’t we? Filmmakers have already jumped on this with the rise of YouTube. When I started film school and still had dial up internet at home, you had to drop big dollars and pray for some distribution after getting a foot in the door with the festival circuit. How many webseries are there now? A bazillion. I counted. They run the gambit of all types and styles. Hey guess what? We can do that with words too.
Don’t take this as the banner of the One True Path. I’m not a vanguard for anything, although I do enjoy the word “vanguard.” I think we need to just celebrate that the option is there. It won’t work for every story. I know nothing I have in the works will fit an episodic format. Yet. But I’m sure someone does and they’re writing the hell out of something new and fresh because we have a new way of telling stories. And that’s the part that matters.
It certainly didn’t hurt the argument that The Human Division is epic level of awesome. But you knew that already.