Tor publishing has an interesting expirement going on right now. Tor has been publishing John Scalzi’s The Human Division weekly since mid January as an experiment in episodic fiction. On the eve of finishing the volume (the last episode is out tomorrow), the experiment seems to be a success . I’m not going to spend a lot of time reviewing the story itself, suffice to say it’s really good and woe be unto anyone who expects me to get work done on Tuesday mornings before I’ve finished the new installment. I do want to spend a few words on how the weekly publication has played out for me.
From the outset weekly publishing had one very obvious benefit for me, though I suspect I’m in the minority about this one. The trademark Scalzi wit is snarky and irreverent with a liberal dosing of goofy. This is, after all, the same man who wrote a story about yogurt taking over the world. I do enjoy his work (and I’m in awe of the universe he has set up) but I’m not the biggest fan of humor in my sci-fi and too much joking gets grating after a while. So while a week seems like a long time to wait for the next plot point, it ended up being just right for keeping me from getting tired of snark. (This is a minority opinion on my part based on the success of Scalzi’s last novel, Redshirts. Not to mention the complete works of Douglas Adams…)
When the episodes were announced I expected a regular novel chopped into bite size pieces, possibly with an extra cliff-hanger or two to keep readers ‘tuning in next week’. What I got was worlds better than that. The story is specifically designed to be presented as pieces. Tor and Scalzi have likened it to a season of television with a semi-self-contained plot each week bound together by an over-arching story to keep readers coming back. Even that analogy is a bit lacking because several of the episodes take place on the fringe of the main plot and don’t include the primary characters at all. I’ve found it best described as complimentary short stories. The jumping around was surprising but it came together well over the course of the overall story.
I do find myself wondering if the story is going to suffer from a lack of integration now that it’s going to be available as a whole. Tor is publishing a hard back of the entire thing in novel form and I’m interested to see how those who read it all at once feel about it. It hangs together much better as a series of stories and seems like it would be very choppy and jarring to jump around a full novel this way. Quite a few interesting characters are presented and discarded in various weekly installations and I suspect that would be really frustrating to a reader going through it all at once.
The last benefit I want to point out is fiscal. As the dad of twins who need TWO OF EVERYTHING I found a small dollar amount every week a lot more palatable than the $25 purchase price of a full flown novel. All I had to do was skip a trip to the vending machine every Tuesday and I got a fun read in return.
I highly recommend The Human Division. Anyone can enjoy it, but you’ll get a lot more out of it if you’ve read at least a little of Scalzi’s previous work in this universe (Old Man’s World, The Ghost Brigades). I also recommend you read it with a time gap between installments. If not a week, then at least a day or two. If you’re on the fence, this story over at Tor introduces the major characters of The Human Division and is a good indicator of the writing style.
I’m curious to hear what Tor and Scalzi have to say about the results of their episodic experiment, but from a reader’s point of view I’d declare it a success. I’m not interested in giving up long form novels, but this is a great compliment to that form of reading and I hope Tor continues trying it in this form of complimentary episodes that Scalzi has pioneered for them.
This is not strictly related to above, but I want to give a shout-out to Tor for the free short fiction on their web site. They’re great about publishing new stories from some of my favorite authors and exposing me to new ones via stories and excerpts.