Fiction Reviews

The Collapsing Empire

(2017) John Scalzi, Tor, 7.99, pbk, 333pp, ISBN 978-1-509-83507-2


Humanity has left Earth and forged an 'Interdependency' on 47 star systems.  This was made possible by a kind of hyperspace 'Flow': a series of streams that ran to and from some five thousand star systems. Yet only one star system has a habitable planet; a world called 'End' at one end of this nexus of 'Flow' streams.  It is this Flow that makes faster-than-light travel possible as the 'Flow' is not really in our 4D space-time continuum.

The reason this interstellar community was called the 'Interdependency' is because there are 'Houses' (familial clans) each with a monopoly, hence each star system needs the others.

When a ship arriving at 'End' finds its cargo labelled (falsely) as contaminated, amidst one of End's all-too-regular conflicts for power, it becomes clear that one of the Houses is playing a power game.

Meanwhile a new (and reluctant) Emperox is being installed on Hub (the nexus of all the Flow streams).  She becomes aware that her late father had covertly sent a physicist decades ago to Hub to prove his theory that the Flow was about to shift after a thousand years and isolate all the unwitting Interdependency systems. Apparently this happened previously, well over a thousand years ago when Earth got isolated, and then again once later with another system.  But what is coming (shortly) will affect all the Interdependency.

This is a widescreen space opera very much in the mould of the Brit widescreen space operas beginning with those of the 1980s (of which Paul McAuley, Iain Banks and Alastair Reynolds provide exemplar novels).  This is no bad thing and here Scalzi is in exalted company.

Scalzi also draws upon other tropes and SFnal riffs.  The clan-like Houses are reminiscent of Frank Herbert's Dune and the AI 'reincarnations' of previous Emperoxes are similar to Alastair Reynolds beta-AIs (which themselves evolved from other similar tropes including those developed by Greg Egan). Also the phrased ships' names are virtually a direct lift of style from Iain Banks Culture novels.

Scalzi tells the story with his typical brio in a straightforward read that, at a little over three hundred pages, is mercifully not as long as some authors' doorstops.  I like that.  Indeed The Collapsing Empire is reminiscent of Charles Stross in space opera mode with seemingly complex scenarios rendered surprisingly discernable.

Illustrative of Scalzi's clarity of writing is that, despite three principal arenas of action End, a space ship, and The Hub each with their own cast of characters, the reader lacking in a powerful memory (like myself as a bear with little brain) can easily follow what is going on: each character is sufficiently defined and positioned within the story that there is little to befuddle lax readers such as I.

Having said that, snowflake readers need to be aware that a number of the characters use the 'f''-word regularly and the seχual dimensions are liberal (though not graphic). There's nothing wrong with readers being sensitive it takes all sorts to make the world go round as Copernicus didn't say but consider this a health warning if you are that way inclined.

In terms of its broader context within current events, Scalzi provides an interesting end-of-book 'acknowledgments section.  To the casual reader in 2017 and immediately subsequent years, it might seem that this novel broadly, or loosely, riffs on current events such as the election of Donald Trump as President of the US and the British referendum for the UK to leave the European Union, fake news, politicking and shift of balances of power.  Here Scalzi makes it clear that he wrote The Collapsing Empire in 2016 just prior to Trump's election: though even then it was known that the vote would be tight. However, if you consider these events as part of a longer term trend the Bush-Blair Iraq weapons of mass destruction issue was as much fake news as anything today then I do think that in the broad loose sense The Collapsing Empire has echoes of today's Machiavellian machinations and the global political trajectory we have been on in the early 21st century.  Heck, Scalzi would have been aware of Putin's antics: the Ukraine etc, when he penned this novel and the disinformation and obfuscation surrounding that even if he was not aware of the Salisbury, Britain, nerve agent assassination attempt and the shenanigan spoutings that followed.  Therefore it is not that unreasonable a thought that Scalzi could have been (albeit unconsciously) tapping into longer term trends of which Trump's electoral campaign and Brexit are but recent manifestations.

I greatly enjoyed The Collapsing Empire: it is solid space opera. Indeed clearly others have too for it has just won the 2018 Locus Award for 'Best Novel'.  Personally, I'd like a sequel that sees the Empire actually collapse, perhaps with Earth bursting back in on the scene, new systems being attainable instead of the old and so forth? But then I'm never happy: always wanting more.  Either way I am sure that there is more mileage in The Collapsing Empire set-up.  If Scalzi were to return to this universe, I'd be onboard for the ride like a shot.

Jonathan Cowie

Editor's note: this universe is revisited in The Consuming Fire.

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