The Collapsing Empire

“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.” – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Space is so big that it’s difficult for us puny humans to really internalize the distances involved. Voyager 1 is the farthest man-made object from Earth and a few years ago, it became the first spacecraft to enter interstellar space. It’s not pointed at any specific star, but for the sake of illustration, let’s say that it’s headed towards our closest neighbor, Proxima Centauri, 4.2 light years away. At its current speed, it would take Voyager 1 over 70,000 years to reach it.

Again, space is big. Some science fiction takes advantage of this and even manages to generate the fabled sense of wonder from the scale of the universe, but a pretty sizeable portion of the genre is dedicated to shrinking the universe down to a more manageable scale. To accomplish this, science fiction writers wave their hands really, really hard, and we’re left with a class of travel known as Faster Than Light (FTL). The special theory of relativity implies that such travel is basically impossible, but science fiction authors need FTL to make certain stories possible. So up yours, Einstein! We’ve got some exciting space opera to write.

John Scalzi’s latest novel, The Collapsing Empire, posits a FTL method called “The Flow”, which allows humanity to spread out through the universe to establish colonies on tons of other planets. But the Flow isn’t quite as stable as it seems, and thanks to the interdependency of all the planets in the empire, a collapse of the flow system would be catastrophic to the empire. Spoilers, I guess, but hey, it’s right there in the title of the novel. As FTL fables go, this isn’t exactly original, but Scalzi leverages the tropes well, and spins a fun little space opera yarn that’s filled with his usual snappy, page-turning dialog and characters.

I always enjoy Scalzi’s novels, but I found something wanting in his past couple efforts. Both Lock In and The End of All Things, enjoyable as they were overall, fell prey to some glaring problems with exposition and info-dumping. This isn’t exactly unusual for science fiction (that hand waving that enables things like FTL takes its toll), but even accounting for that, there were some egregious examples of this sort of thing in those books. Lock In was particularly bad, opening the book with a bald, encyclopedia-like explanation of his worldbuilding that is almost completely superfluous (i.e. you could have picked up the majority of that information through context as the story unfolded). Thankfully, with The Collapsing Empire, Scalzi has reversed course and at least achieved normal SF exposition standards. The story introduces us to the Flow during a mutiny (that is entertaining and well executed), and it even foreshadows the collapse that the rest of the story fleshes out.

Speaking of which, the book is populated with your typical cast of Scalzi characters. There’s a family of scientists studying the Flow, one of whom is tasked with traveling to the empire’s capital to inform the freshly minted Emperox (who, naturally, wasn’t expecting to ascend to the throne, but has to deal with it because her brother died in a freak accident). The Emperox, of course, has to deal with all the attendant nonsense that every new emperor encounters. Then there’s a starship captain (or business owner, or whatever) who says “fuck” a lot. Like, really, every other word out of this woman’s mouth is “fuck”. A little excessive, but she’s a pretty cool customer, a little on the shrewd and unforgiving side, but good at handling the various crises Scalzi puts her in. Finally, there’s a clan of villains that are vying for power in this new empire, and they’re all suitably nefarious. The POV changes around a fair amount (moreso than usual for Scalzi, but right on the nose for Space Opera) and while this is the first in a series and you can clearly see future potential, the ending brings enough closure and satisfaction that I wasn’t annoyed (as a lot of first-installments tend to do for me). Apparently some have complained that the novel is short, but I thought it was fine, and indeed, one of the things I like about Scalzi’s books is that they tend to be around 300 or so pages of pretty tight plotting. Not a lot of filler or bloated literary wanking, which I like.

You know what’s funny? Scalzi writes Nutty Nuggets. Spaceships, blasters, competent heroes, space pirates, all on display here. These are fun page-turning books that focus on ideas and storytelling. Yeah, he’s an opinionated guy and his politics are on full display at his blog, but he writes good books. That’s all I really care about, and The Collapsing Empire is pretty darned good. I’m looking forward to more in this series.

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