The Collapsing Empire
By John Scalzi
I don’t often buy books in their pub date. I make only a few exceptions. Scalzi books are often in the exception category. I am, I think, genetically predisposed to liking Scalzi, much like I am genetically predisposed to high blood pressure, kidney disease, and diabetes. I am a white, north American, cis-male scifi geek, who eats too much pizza and drinks too much coke (a-cola) with my other scifi geek friends. I like almost everything that he’s written. The one notable exception is The God Engine. I couldn’t even get started on it. I have an allergy to space drama centered around religion. It’s a thing I have that may or may not have to do with my catholic upbringing, which is something I feel really guilty about :0
And this should tell you something, if I’m writing “however” this early in a review like this. The Collapsing Empire was not my favorite Scalzi novel. I am willing to read the next in the series, but I doubt I will buy the book out of the gates. Non-spoiler comments will be followed by a big warning before I get into some spoilers.
Scalzi is cute. I don’t mean that I like his shiny round pate, John Lennon glasses, and greying beard. All those things are arguably cute, arguably. What I mean is that his writing includes a lot of humorous dialog. The kind that is not so much roll-on-the-floor funny so much as cute. I smile when I read. A lot. The opening prologue, which is available on Tor.com, is a good example. Read it and you’ll know what I mean about cute. His characters are sarcastic and fun. They are clever and a little mean. Or maybe not mean so much as they say what they’re thinking and damn the consequences.
I read the teaser/prologue above, and thought, “Oh yeah. That’s what I’m talking about. I want me some more of this.” And I got it. The same prologue. And that’s the last I heard of the characters, except as a reference. The event is of some importance in the novel, but is largely forgotten. Which is disappointing, since that’s what I thought I was getting.
It felt like a bait and switch.
What I got instead was a galaxy spanning political and religious epic. You should note that I wrote that I don’t particularly like religious space political epics. This probably colored my impressions. The political plot was kind of boring (bias admitted). The characters didn’t come to life. The story was a little slow. Later, there was a lot of action. But even that felt a little bit like a kitchen sink, rather than progression.
There is more, however, and it has to do with logic, which I couldn’t really get over. I discuss this below the spoiler line.
But before I go to plot, I want to say one thing about cute. There is one character that is boldly sarcastic and foul-mouthed. It was pretty classic Scalzi (only a bit more vulgar than usual). One line was kind of cute, and went something like this:
So-and-so said, “Fuck off.”
They fucked off.
The first time I read this I thought it was funny. It was unexpected. It surprised me just enough to smile in the way I described above. Ok, so what’s wrong with that? Nothing (except for the vulgarity, but hey…). Only he used the same exchange again about a hundred pages later. Once is cute. Twice is lazy.
And here comes the real kicker for me; the logic around the whole several novel plot of this new series doesn’t make sense. The Flow connects worlds together in this space empire. It is like a series of wormholes that connect a bunch of worlds in different star systems. But, get this, none of the worlds they inhabit are Earth-like planets. They are all space habitats except for one world called End, which is Earth-like. But nobody wants to live there because it is the backwater end of the universe. The Flow is about to stop, er, flowing. It will stop in fits and spurts, but the last leg to disappear will be to End, in a little less than a decade. I wonder where everyone will be going?
The various worlds are controlled by families who own monopolies. That’s how the emperox keeps power, by giving each world an advantage. It is also how they stay interdependent. You want elderberries? You gotta talk to me. You want haverfruit jelly? You gotta talk to her. And everybody has to go through the Hub, which is the system where all the Flow arcs converge, and consequently where the emperox lives and controls the galaxy.
OK, so the Flow. Fine. I can live with the plot element ending interstellar travel. This is fun, and doesn’t need explanation. I’m willing to suspend disbelief. Monopolies? OK, not great, but sure.
But as to the whole infrastructure of the galaxy, sorry, but it is too hard to swallow. If people found a wormhole network that took them all across the galaxy, why would they ever colonize the place if there were no livable worlds there? The system could never have been established to begin with because nobody would ever go and settle there. Who would have invested the time, effort, materials, and money to put people on worlds separated by such vast and inhospitable expanses where they cannot live? The premise doesn’t make sense for me.
And this is why I thought it wasn’t his best.