Book Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 1 of The Interdependency
Publisher: Tor (March 21, 2017)
Length: 333 pages
Let me start by saying I’m a huge fan of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series. Years ago when I was still mostly reading fantasy and wanted to get into science fiction, I’d made the initial mistake of starting my journey with a couple of “classic” titles that nonetheless made me feel like I was in way over my head. It wasn’t until the moment I picked up the first Old Man’s War book that I realized the element I’d been missing: FUN. Turned out, Scalzi’s storytelling was exactly what I needed at the time—the riveting drama of interplanetary politics combined with the violent thrills and action in space, presented alongside a sense of casual, easy humor. His writing was completely accessible, yet there was still enough “hard science” in the story to make a newcomer like me feel like I was immersed in a bonafide space opera. I guess you could even say it was one of my gateway book into genre, since it helped open my eyes to many more possibilities and directly resulted in me trying more sci-fi.
So why am I telling you all this, you say? Well, it’s because Scalzi has done it again. The Collapsing Empire marks his strong return to space opera with a fresh start in this series opener, introducing readers to a new universe, new characters, and a whole new set of rules. At first, I was a little apprehensive about whether I would take to it as fondly as the books in the Old Man’s War sequence, but all my skepticism went out the window as soon as I finished the book and found myself once more filled with that familiar sense of marvel and excitement.
To understand what The Collapsing Empire is about, one must also have to understand one of the key concepts behind the book’s universe, that of The Flow. For almost as long as the space opera genre has existed, science fiction authors have been coming up with creative and practical ways for their characters to travel the vast distances between stars. In this book though, the catch is that the universe is still bound by the rules of physics, so no faster-than-light travel is possible. However, humanity has also discovered an extra-dimensional network of pathways that can be accessed at certain spatial-temporal points, drastically decreasing the travel time between star systems that are connected. This is what is known as The Flow. While its nature limits the options in terms of which systems can be colonized, humanity has nonetheless built a vast empire using this network called the Interdependency, so named because the first emperox decreed that all human settlements connected by The Flow need each other to flourish and survive.
But just like a river, The Flow is dynamic, always moving and changing course. It might happen over hundreds or thousands of years, but sooner or later The Flow is bound to shift, potentially cutting off worlds from the rest of humanity. It has already happened to Earth, a long time go in the past. More recently, a few hundred years ago, it also happened to a world belonging to the Interdependency. But now, the empire is about to discover that—again, like a river—The Flow also has the potential to dry up completely. Already, parts of The Flow are starting to destabilize, and Flow physicists are estimating that a complete collapse will happen within ten years, which would inevitably lead to the destruction of the entire Interdependency.
True to form, Scalzi knows how exactly how to hook the reader. By introducing the concept of The Flow and its impending collapse, he has killed two birds with one stone—first by setting up an extremely cool premise, and next establishing an intense and nail-bitingly riveting scenario. As you would imagine, this story has a love of moving parts. Like any empire, there are many dukedoms in the Interdependency, and among them the usual alliances and secret backstabbing. A certain House is seeing this instability as a power grab opportunity, while others are more concerned with preparing for the eventual collapse and saving lives. Because of the distance between the colonies, up-to-date information also takes a long time to communicate, resulting in widespread misinformation, rumors, and star systems only getting bits and pieces of the whole picture. And if that wasn’t enough, the old emperox has just died, passing on his rule to an untrained and inexperienced daughter. Yep, queue the utter chaos.
That said, it would be a mistake to sell the new emperox short. Cardenia Wu-Patrick is a wonderful new protagonist, and while she may lack the raw strength and power of a character like Jane Sagan from the Old Man’s War series, her admirable traits lie more in compassion for her people and her willingness to learn. As unprepared as she is to lead the Ascendency (especially in the confusion and mayhem of its final days), she still manages to handle the politics of it rather well. Certainly she stood out more to me than the rather undistinguished Marce or the brash Lady Kiva Lagos—the latter of whom was only remarkable for her talent to throw the word “fuck” into every other sentence, but otherwise I thought she was pretty bland. Admittedly, character development is not an area I would say the author is strongest, but it is my hope still that the main players will grow in depth as the series continues.
As I’ve alluded to before though, what I believe Scalzi excels in is the writing of massively entertaining and addictive stories—and The Collapsing Empire is no exception. There’s nothing elegant about the writing, but it is so easy to get into thanks to Scalzi’s minimalist and in-your-face style, which is often tinged with a healthy dose of snark. I also read his books for the cool ideas—and “cool” most definitely describes the concept of The Flow. Apart from that, I also really liked the idea of the Memory Room where an emperox can seek advice directly from their predecessors by accessing their stored memories and personality patterns.
All this simply drives home the fact that we’re now in brand new territory. And I’m loving what I see. I never really expect a series to knock me off my feet right out of the gate, and in truth, The Collapsing Empire does have the feel of a “book one” whose main job is to set the stage for bigger things to come in the sequel or beyond, but I am not displeased in any way. Far from it, in fact—I am practically ecstatic with the potential I’ve seen, and I can hardly wait to see what will happen next.