Saturday 30 May 2020

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi | review by Stephen Theaker

John Scalzi was by 2017 one of science fiction’s most famous living writers, and though some of that was down to his formidable and somewhat reassuring social media presence, the books played a substantial part too. While the 2013 Hugo award for Redshirts rewarded a book that wasn’t universally adored, it was a sign of how popular he had become with readers, and he subsequently signed a colossal thirteen-book publishing deal (as alluded to in this book’s dedication: “To Tom Doherty … here’s to the next decade”) of which The Collapsing Empire forms the opening salvo.

Cardenia is to be Emperox of the Holy Empire of the Interdependent States and Mercantile Guilds, King of Hub and Associated Nations, continuing the Wu dynasty, which has ruled for a thousand years over forty-seven star systems. She never expected this. She knew her father was the emperox, but didn’t see him much. He had an imperial consort and the heir, Rennered, she had given him, while Cardenia lived with her mother, a professor of ancient languages. Then Cardenia’s princely half-brother crashed his race car, literally lost his head, and left her next in line for the throne.

Cardenia is likeable, intelligent and sensible, so the reader might at this point begin to anticipate the good, wise job she will do of running the empire – but then you remember the title…

There’s no faster-than-light travel in this universe, but by taking their own bubble of reality into the Flow – a “multidimensional brane-like metacosmological structure”, no less – ships can travel through alternate space-time all the way to another star. This discovery saved humanity after Earth was lost, the colonies thus able to share essential resources that none would have had on their own. Hub got its name because it’s the only planet with direct links to all other systems. No one would live there otherwise – it doesn’t spin, so one side is super-hot and the other is frozen, with humans living under the ground or in space stations.

While Cardenia waits on Hub for her father to die, the crew of the Tell Me Another One mutiny while the ship is in the Flow (without even completing the appropriate paperwork), and then things get even worse: they are dropped out of the Flow and back into normal space-time. It’s the beginning of the end for the empire. The streams through the flow are going to dry up, which will leave the interdependent systems in a really tight spot.

It’s a tricky problem for a new emperox to deal with, and a great premise for a science fiction novel. As the apparent villain of the piece Ghreni Nohamapetan says to sweary trader Kiva, whatever this is, “You’ll have a name for it soon.” A small bit of dialogue that says a lot. Another nice moment, made somehow more epic by its mundanity: when an undeniable report of the upcoming apocalypse is presented to humanity’s ruling class, it’s in a stapled paper handout.

About three quarters of the way through the reader will start to wonder whether the story will be finished by the end, and it’s fair to say that it isn’t, nothing like it. Certain plotlines are partly resolved, but unlike, say, Old Man’s War, which kicked off a series but was perfectly satisfying on its own, this feels like the first act of a longer novel divided up for publication. Fans who already know they’ll be reading the whole series won’t mind, but more casual readers may be frustrated.

The book never quite becomes the disaster movie on a galactic scale that early chapters promise, but it’s an easy-to-read, entertaining and commercial novel of the kind you could binge on all summer, similar in tone to the Miles Vorkosigan novels of Lois McMaster Bujold, for example. It has a faith in the power of revealing the truth to undo the villains that already seems quaint; not a surprise then to read that the author found it hard to write during the US election.

The acknowledgements mention the author’s film/tv agent and entertainment lawyer, and this seems cut out for television adaptation, with a plot that features sex and thrills but largely turns upon a series of intense conversations, and provides many excellent roles for women, from Cardenia and Kiva down to Captain Gineos, who appears only in the prologue but is so brilliantly capable that her mutineering crew asks her to resume control in a crisis. If you made a deliberate attempt to write an sf Game of Thrones or a modern Foundation, and had the necessary skills, this might well be the result. ****

This review originally appeared in Interzone #269.

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