Friday, March 17, 2017

Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

John Scalzi begins a new space opera with The Collapsing Empire which is sure to please fans of science fiction. In short it is fun, fast-paced and very accessible. Or…just the book I was needing to read when I read it.

The set-up is a 1000+ year old empire spanning multiple space systems that utilize a sort of parallel energy called the flow to travel between systems where standard travel would never be possible because of the true distance between stars. The empire has been intentionally designed to be interdependent, where no single system will have the ability to survive independently of the others. A few individuals learn that the flow that ‘connects’ systems is about to shift over a period of only a few years, fragmenting humanity into isolated worlds that are doomed to tragic ends.

Along the way we learn that the entire socioeconomic structure of the empire with its monopolistic guilds, strict societal class delineations, and dynastic rule is all just a con job to further enrich the powerful and keep the masses just content enough to not cause too much trouble. In an entrenched, bureaucratic society the will to actually meet an existential threat simply doesn’t exist, and often the will to even acknowledge the possibility that such a threat could be real is lacking.

The Collapsing Empire largely serves as an introduction to the empire, to the physics of Scalzi’s created universe, and to the characters who personalize the story. In this, there is a lot of exposition, but not so much that I was ever bothered by it. Scalzi writes with a brisk pace and a slight irreverence that sets a nicely balanced tone for the book (and presumably the rest of the series). Humor is a big part of it, but it’s more a sense of levity in the face of what’s to come that drives the story. The end result is that things feel more hopeful than anything, making the story fun to read, even in the face disastrous consequence for humanity. And through all the levity, Scalzi still manages to set the stage well for an empire that has stagnated or even regressed, where innovation and flexibility is stifled by tradition and economic interest in the status quo.

It is often said that Scazli writes some of the most accessible science fiction, and I certainly agree. Concepts are not that difficult for someone on the outside of the science fiction world to enjoy, yet they are thought through enough to satisfy (most of) those who are long-time fans. It’s full of high adventure and fun with consequences that matter to story.

For all of this to be successful, it comes down to the people of the story, and Scalzi excels in this. Three main characters are built up as the protagonists of The Collapsing Empire – the newly ascended Emperor, the scientist son of the researcher who discovered the impending collapse of the flow, and familial representative of one of the largest trade guilds. Or the inexperienced political outsider who unexpected ascends to the most powerful role in the galaxy, the naïve young scientist from a remote backwater, and hard-edged and exquisitely foul-mouthed business person who doesn’t take shit from anyone. Even the antagonists of the story are somewhat likable as they are really more self-interested in the extreme than actually evil – cutthroat is perhaps the better term.  

The two most powerful characters in the story are women – and I could probably write an entire review just on Kiva, the foul-mouthed trade representative mentioned above. She steals every single scene she is in, and is only briefly upstaged when we meet her mother. It’s choices like this that help make Scalzi’s writing so accessible, or to put another way, consistent with modern sensibilities as it projects some progressive advances for a far-future civilization (contrasted with the stagnation discussed above). For example, sexual identity and gender are subtly shown to be accepted for what they are and normative for the society. And it really is important when a popular science fiction novel that will likely land itself on multiple best-seller list makes these choices.

Given what I’ve said above, as I close out this review, I really feel the need to emphasize something about this novel: FUN. It is fun to read. Scalzi’s humorous, fast-paced, and slightly irreverent writing takes over this book. I raced through this book, finishing in a just a few days, at a time when I typically take a few weeks to read a book. Call it escapism or just simply fun readying, The Collapsing Empire delivers. But damn it, a cliff-hanger* ending? That’s not cool, because I want the sequel now!

*Cleverly, the cliff-hanger moment is more intellectual and not action-based. Which is a nice bit, though not really solace when I want to read the sequel now.

The Collapsing Empire: Amazon

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