Weekend Shorts: Human Division Extras and The New Yorker Fiction Podcast

The Human DivisionFrom The Human Division: “After the Coup” and “Hafte Sorvalh Eats a Churro and Speaks to the Youth of Today”

If you’ll recall, I read The Human Division in serialized e-book form, so when the official print compilation came out and had extras, I was like, hey, wait a second. Those extras have since been made available for free on the internets, but since I am apparently too lazy to make the required account and also since I happened to see the hardcover come into cataloging at my library, I figured I’d just grab the book and read the extras there.

“After the Coup” I have actually read before, when it was maybe on tor.com at some point, but I was more than happy to read it again. This story takes my good friends Harry Wilson and Hart Schmidt and puts them in a diplomatic situation that is really more humorous and disgusting than it is political. Wilson, the one with the genetically engineered body, finds himself recruited to an exhibition match in an alien martial art against one of said aliens, a sort of amphibious creature whose martial arts skills are a combination of awesome and totally cheating, but of course Wilson makes the best of it.

“Hafte Sorvalh” etc. was new to me, and differently interesting than “After the Coup.” This one is definitely political; the gist of it is that the resident Conclave (the bad guys, more or less) diplomat sits down to eat some churros which end up going cold while she explains herself and her race and the Conclave and the potential for upcoming war to some inquisitive schoolchildren. I like the explanations Sorvalh gives, and I like the way it sort of sets up what I assume will be the next set of stories in this universe.

The New Yorker Fiction PodcastFrom The New Yorker Fiction Podcast: “Reunion” by John Cheever and “How to date a brown girl (black girl, white girl, or halfie)” by Junot Díaz

I’m finally catching up on my previously months-long backlog of podcasts, so of course it’s time to throw a new one into the mix! This is not a bad one to do that with, either, since the episodes are comprised of a short story and some commentary and thus take less than twenty minutes, at least so far. It is also helpful in my new quest to read more short stories, because a) I don’t have to actually seek any stories out and b) I get to listen to stories I wouldn’t have known existed to seek out.

“Reunion” (scanned copy here) is the very first story on this podcast, read by Richard Ford more than six years ago (I have a little catching up to do, yes). It is a very short story about a kid, probably late-teenage, stopping in New York City on a train layover to meet up with the father he hasn’t seen in three years. The father takes his son around some nearby bars, generally being an ass to all the wait staff and not generally getting a drink out of them, and the son realizes that maybe three years wasn’t long enough to have been away. I loved the way Ford read this story, making the father’s exclamations and insults both hilarious and depressing, and Cheever certainly nailed that awkwardness of seeing a person for the first time in a long time and not getting what you expected.

“How to date a brown girl (black girl, white girl, or halfie)” (nicely formatted version here) is a story that I probably would not have read on my own, and it still kind of isn’t. It stars a kid who, as you might guess, is explaining to someone (probably himself) how to date a girl, with contingency plans in case she’s white or black or local or an “outsider” or whatever. It’s an interesting look into the complexities of dating in a community I’m not familiar with, in a time — 1995 — that is so different from my own dating time, but with, in the end, a very familiar truth of what being a horny teenager is like. This story was read by Díaz himself from an older recording, with discussion by Edwidge Danticat afterwards, and I’m defnitely going to have to seek out work from both of these authors.

The Human Division #13: Earth Below, Sky Above, by John Scalzi

Earth Below, Sky AboveI don’t want to say it, but it is true: I was more than a little underwhelmed by this story, the last in the 13-week adventure that was The Human Division. You’re going to read it if you’ve read the rest, so I’m going to skip over a summary (well, I’ll say it was still pretty cool!) and just give you my feelings about the series.

After the rollicking first episode and several delightful and/or awesome episodes thereafter, with conspiracy and questions and more questions at every turn, I suppose I thought I’d get some more explosions, perhaps a huge fight, and some big answers that maybe left me with a few more questions to gnaw at my brain for the next few days.

Instead I got… I’m not really sure what I got. There were definitely explosions and fighting, though the fighting was more or less one-sided, but I think the only answer I got was to the question, “What did happen to all those missing ships?” Unfortunately, this was pretty low on my list of questions I wanted answered.

I’m chalking my disappointment up to the format of this publishing experiment, which was part serialized novel, part collection of standalone but interconnected short stories. If Scalzi and Tor wanted people to be able to find this story and read it without any knowledge of what had gone on before, it would have had to have been more than its double-length to really recap everything that had happened in the first twelve stories and also it would have bored me to tears. So, by necessity, it leaves out most of the big questions that had been asked and instead briefly mentions a few things that would mean something to series readers and would be kind of interesting to new ones.

The story stands alone quite well, I think, but for my own personal reading happiness I would have preferred this series to be more truly serialized, so that this last story could have been that epic question-answering and question-creating finale rather than one that didn’t really do either.

On the plus side, Scalzi recently announced that there would be a continuation of this series, which I assume will again be in this short story/serial format. He’s also taking comments and concerns about said format over on his blog, so I’m hoping if enough people say, hey, meany-face, you forgot to actually end this series, it will at least be a consideration in writing the next one. (Fingers crossed!)

Recommendation: Do please read this series, because it’s pretty awesome, and might end up being awesomer in book form? Who knows?

Rating: Story, 7/10 for not answering any of my dang questions; series, 9/10 for being explodey and delightful.

The Human Divison Parts 10-12, by John Scalzi

We’re in the home stretch now! Just four more stories to go after these… it’ll be interesting to see how this all comes together in the end. As always, some thoughts on the recent installments:

#10: This Must Be the Place
This Must Be the PlaceI was a little worried about this one, as the entire Internet was telling me that it was a complete change of pace from the rest of the stories and probably about half of said Internet was telling me it was a no-good change of pace. Even my husband, who managed to read this one first, was like, “What the heck was that?” But I actually liked this one, so whatever, haters. In this episode, our old friend Hart is taking a vacation from dealing with aliens and intrigue and puppies to go home for Harvest Day (Thanksgiving, I’m guessing) and hang out with the fam. There’s obviously not much action here, aside from normal family squabbles, but it is a nice insight into Hart and also into how more or less regular (albeit powerful and rich) people are viewing from a distance all the fights we’ve seen up close. It’s going to be a weird chapter when this is a book, but as a standalone story I quite liked it.

#11: A Problem of Proportion
A Problem of ProportionHoly crap, John Scalzi. We head straight back to the fighting in this one, right in the middle of some, in fact, and it is awesome. Even better, we get to meet up with our Conclave friend Hafte and get some more of that enemy point of view. Even better than that, we find out that there is a really mean person or group of persons (aliens can be persons too, right?) out there who apparently don’t like either the Colonial Union or the Conclave and are willing to be total assholes to mess things up. I am still bitter about this.

#12: The Gentle Art of Cracking Heads
The Gentle Art of Cracking HeadsAnd again, Scalzi just makes my mind boggle with his combination of politics, intrigue, and blowing stuff up. Also science, as we learn about a very interesting idea that hypothetically could be just as asshole-ish as what happened in that last story. Seriously, who are these persons who are doing things? How are all these mysteries going to be wrapped up in just one more story (double-length, even!)? How unlikely am I to drink tea ever again?

Rating: I’m gonna go 8, 9, and 9, because dang.

The Human Division Parts 8 & 9, by John Scalzi

We’re in the home stretch now! Just four more stories to go after these… it’ll be interesting to see how this all comes together in the end. As always, some thoughts on the recent installments:

#8: The Sound of Rebellion
The Sound of BadasseryUm, holy crap, guys. I know that the CDF soldiers are superhuman and all, but wow. In this story, a soldier wakes up after a night of drinking to find herself blindfolded, restrained, and totes naked (because her CDF uniform is pretty useful itself), held captive by a disembodied voice and a silent in-room helper. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that she then BAMFs her way out of trouble, because seriously, badass. There’s of course a bit of other stuff that ties this in to the overall plotline, but whatever. Badass.

#9: The Observers
The ObserversAt first I was like, Fringe shoutout? Probably not, but that’s okay. The humans are back, with more baseball knowledge this time, and there’s some boring trade negotiation and two sides getting to know each other until a bit of disaster strikes and our poor B-Team has figure out whodunnit or else find themselves the scapegoat in a seemingly inevitable war. The ending had me and my husband confused for a minute, because one of us does not understand spaceships and the other does not understand physics, but once we put our heads together we were like, dude. Scalzi really takes no prisoners, here.

Rating: 8s all around!

The Human Division Parts 6 & 7, by John Scalzi

I really cannot help but enjoy The Human Division. It’s like a present (that I paid for) every week! Here are some more thoughts on recent stories:

#6: The Back Channel

The Back ChannelI really think the best part of this story series, and eventually this novel, is that we get a chance to see what’s going on from all sorts of different points of view (without having to read an entire other novel, though that’s fun too!). This story is especially interesting because it’s from the point of view of the generally accepted bad guy, though of course he’s not as bad as people make him out to be. In fact, it seems that he’s just like any of our good guys, doing the politics and making the promises and getting people to solve his problems with threats of violence. As it goes.

#7: The Dog King

The Dog KingThis is a story that I found probably more amusing than it was, on account of I was reading it while doing my treadmill thing (as I’ve done for all of these stories) and it was a delightful distraction. There’s a tiny puppy and carnivorous plants and you might be able to see where this is going but of course things are slightly wackier than that. It was definitely cute when I read it, but it hasn’t really seemed to further the story even having read a little farther in the series, so that’s a bit disappointing. But whatever, it’s a wittle puppy! I’m okay with it.

Rating: 8/10 and, say, 7/10 (with bonus points for adorable dog)

The Human Division Parts 4 & 5, by John Scalzi

I have more thoughts on these delightful Human Division stories! I know you’re shocked.

#4: A Voice in the Wilderness

A Voice in the WildernessSo clearly Scalzi is doing a thing here, alternating the main space plot with a story from somewhere else. But unlike Walk the Plank, which I found weird and not easily read by itself, this story is kind of fantastic in its own right. The focus is on a radio personality not unlike Rush Limbaugh whose ratings are not doing so well. So he makes an agreement with a shadowy person to talk up the Colonial Union in exchange for fame and fortune, but as one might expect things don’t go exactly as planned. I liked the way this story took on journalism and pseudo-journalism and the way that history is so dependent on what people say about it; it reminds me of not a few stories I had to write in a certain way when I worked in newspapers and makes me feel a little better for getting out!

#5: Tales from the Clarke

Tales from the ClarkeMan, I don’t even know what’s going on in this main space plot anymore. There is all sorts of subterfuge and intrigue and it’s awesome but I really don’t have any idea how this is going to work itself out. In this installment, we have our B-Team friends fixing up a junker ship to sell to some humans as a gesture of goodwill, but when the humans show up there’s something… off about them, as evidenced by baseball (yay baseball!). I’m interested to see how our friends continue on after learning what they do about those that command them, but I guess I have to wait two more stories to find out…

Rating: 9/10 and 8/10, respectively.

The Human Division Parts 2 & 3, by John Scalzi

Some short, mostly spoiler-free notes on the second and third episodes of this fantastic series. I hope you’ll join me in reading these either now or in book form later!

#2: Walk the Plank

Walk the PlankAfter that kind of brilliant first episode of this series of short stories, I was like, YES MORE OF THAT PLEASE. Give me more crazypants space exploits and intrigue and danger! And then I read the second episode and I was like… um… what. It’s written as a transcript of an audio file, which I suppose is not a completely foreign concept for a Scalzi short story, but I was still thrown for a loop. Where The B-Team was all description and narrative and plot, this was dialogue and dialogue and a little bit of exposition by dialogue. And even worse, it was about a completely different planet and set of people and I was very very confused and a little worried about how the rest of this book was going to go.

#3: We Only Need the Heads

We Only Need the HeadsBut then this story happened and oh, goodness. It more or less explains everything that was described in the last story, and then it dials up the intrigue and the squick factor by bringing in the title. Thanks for that, Scalzi. But really, thanks for bringing back the plot and the humor and the conspiracies, because I am all about those! I am on the edge of my seat again for the next installments…

Rating: 5/10 and 9/10, but probably still a 9 taken all together.