The Collapsing Empire is the first novel in The Interdependency series by best-selling American writer and blogger John Scalzi, and sets the stage for a story of universe-spanning crisis told through the lens of three very different characters, as they try to come to terms with the upcoming catastrophe. An interesting premise, entertaining characters, and great dialogue do an excellent job establishing the story for the rest of the series.
Our universe is ruled by physics and faster than light travel is not possible — until the discovery of The Flow, an extra-dimensional field we can access at certain points in space-time that transport us to other worlds, around other stars.
Humanity flows away from Earth, into space, and in time forgets our home world and creates a new empire, the Interdependency, whose ethos requires that no one human outpost can survive without the others. It’s a hedge against interstellar war — and a system of control for the rulers of the empire.
The Flow is eternal — but it is not static. Just as a river changes course, The Flow changes as well, cutting off worlds from the rest of humanity. When it’s discovered that The Flow is moving, possibly cutting off all human worlds from faster than light travel forever, three individuals — a scientist, a starship captain and the Empress of the Interdependency — are in a race against time to discover what, if anything, can be salvaged from an interstellar empire on the brink of collapse.
Coming into the first book in this series, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Seemingly rare in the SFF world, I actually haven’t read much Scalzi previous to this. Just the first Old Man’s War and Fuzzy Nation and while I enjoyed them well enough, they didn’t pull me in as much as they might have. Now reading The Collapsing Empire which I definitely enjoyed the most out of these three entries, I think I might finally have a read on how I want to characterize Scalzi’s writing.
Certain authors have a knack for one sometimes very specific subset of elements of writing, and while their overall execution can be anywhere from questionable to excellent, it’s the focus on that one area of excellence that defines them for me. No matter what you feel about, for example, Brandon Sanderson’s writing overall, to me, unique magic systems are his primary characteristic. For Tanya Huff, it’s an extremely compelling protagonist. For Ken Liu, brilliantly poetic prose. And so I think at this point, for me at least, the primary characteristic of John Scalzi is novel starting concepts. Which is not to say he can’t execute on them, far from it. But while I might put his characterizations, pacing, dialogue, settings etc at a strong 6s to 8s out of 10, the 10/10 for me comes from fantastic ideas to write a novel about.
There’s been no shortage of stories about a horrible crisis facing far-flung space-faring civilizations (Kevin J Anderson’s Saga of the Seven Stars being a great example) but just the combination of tropes and ideas that went into this starting point: the fact that the threat is seen coming in time to do things about it, butting up against the collective inertia and greed of guilds that have been in control of their chunk of pie for hundreds and hundreds of years, the strong will but inexperience of the leader, the actual nature of the consequences of the disaster. All of this combines into something really original and new and awesome.
There are of course, other really interesting and novel elements to the setting that I don’t want to be explicit about for spoiler purposes, but let’s just say that the special room for the Emperox was one of the cooler sci-fi concepts I’ve seen in a while, and I can’t remember it being done or at least done in this way, before. Super cool.
In fact, I only really have one real “problem” with anything in this book, and I’m probably reading too much into the intentionality of the author in doing it this way, but it rubbed me the wrong way at the time, and continued to bother me throughout the process of thinking about and writing this review. It includes a small spoiler, but it’s a pretty obvious spoiler and it comes very early in the book.
The Emperox has a best friend and confidant. She’s known her for years, they get along super well, are very close, are entirely platonic in their feelings. The main thing she represents in their relationship is the tie to normalcy pre-being-Emperox. She can call her by her actual name, agrees that everything about being Emperox is ostentatious, excessive and pointless, basically her tie to staying human while in a massively important role that is full of being a symbol and high-minded things. Then the best friend dies. Suddenly. Largely pointlessly from a story perspective.
That in itself is…fine. Sometimes the way you build stakes is to kill people who are important to your protagonists. When the person you kill is a woman, you get into dicey territory, but in this case she represented ‘friend’ rather than ‘lover or child’. But where this really got icky to me, was in the introduction of another character shortly thereafter. A man, he’s a scientist and son of the scientist that basically discovered the upcoming crisis, and his sole story purpose is to deliver that information to the Emperox. He even pretty much states explicitly ‘My sole plot purpose was to deliver this information, I have done so, time to exit stage left’ except…he reminds the Emperox of her dead best friend. He agrees with her that everything about being Emperox is ostentatious, excessive and pointless, he can be a tie to her humanity while in a massively important role that is full of etc etc, oh except also she’s attracted to him.
And so she asks him to stay, and basically slots him into her life in the place where her dead best friend was, except also maybe romance? And I just…wish her friend and confidant were still the awesome sardonic also-woman who was clearly so important to her and not the slightly nerdy, awkward science boy she might smooch in book 2?
I know for a lot of people that will be a pretty minor quibble, so for those people who say “okay whatever, but how is the book?” Like I said, the concept is super novel and interesting, and Scalzi executes on it more than well enough to show why he’s considered one of the top writers in the genre now. I’m definitely going to read the other two books, and enjoy them. This was a 4-star book, but it could have been a 4.5/5 star book if I wasn’t thrown by the particular choice to basically replace a best friend with a love interest for not much necessary reason I can think of besides deciding they needed a love interest more than a best friend.
So if you like Scalzi, and if you like political space disaster stories with several excellent disaster characters that are an absolute delight to read, The Collapsing Empire is a solid choice.
Dan received an Advance Review Copy of this novel from Tor via Netgalley
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