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Review: The Collapsing Empire

The Flow, the sole means of traveling faster than light, is shifting away from the human occupied worlds of the Interdependency. Can the heroes wrangle competing factions to save humanity? The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi has the beginning of the answer. (What do you expect from the first book in a series?) A fast paced space opera, The Collapsing Empire is a fun read with some serious issues (mainly I have major nitpicks regarding the world building).

The Collapsing Empire is fast paced. Amazingly so. The reader zips through the story wanting more.

The plot is fun. Reading how the protagonists work their ways into position to start the process of saving humanity against entrenched political corruption, sociopathic ambition, and endemic structural weakness is, honestly, a joy.

The main protagonist is Cardenia Wu, or, as she is formally styled, Emperox Grayland II. The bastard daughter of the previous emperox, she finds herself thrust into saving humanity from a position of power she never wanted.

Supporting her are Kiva Lagos, from the wealthy Lagos Guild, and Marce Claremont, a flow physicist on the run who has key information on the Flow’s shift. A foul mouthed force of nature, Kiva comes close to stealing the book. All three major characters are fascinating, but standard space opera character types.

(The villains, again, are standard character types. And very obvious.)

The biggest problem with The Collapsing Empire is thinking too hard about the world building. And the scientific process.

The Collapsing Empire takes place, at the least, in the 3500s. The Flow has been the fundamental bedrock of human civilization for over a thousand years. The Flow has shifted at least twice, stranding two worlds (one of them Earth) from the rest of humanity. In all that time, and with the home world of humanity lost, the Flow is still little understood? Really? Come on. The Flow should be far more understood than it is within the context of the novel.

An added complication to the study, or lack thereof, of the Flow is the obvious problem with the scientific method and peer review presented in the novel. Peer review is mentioned twice in key moments. One character is criticized for not peer reviewing her findings. The chastising character even references the fact that he, himself, needed peer review to prevent himself from making the same mistakes. But, he is satisfied with his work being peer reviewed by only one other person and treats it as sufficient. Should not peer review be more extensive (and therefore alleviating some of the political problems that arise in the novel)? Then again, that would kill the plot.

(To be fair to Scalzi, a lot of space opera, and science fiction in general, have serious problems when it comes to actual science.)

Humans, again, are vastly more advanced in 3500 than they are in 2017. Even in the harshest environments, humanity should be either able to terraform their new home worlds or adapt themselves to their new environments. The fall of the Interdependency should not result in humanity eventually dying out except for those on End, the only world humanity occupies that is in any way similar to Earth.

These world building problems are necessary for the plot to work, however. The immediacy of the collapse of the Interdependency is lessened if the coming shift in the Flow is widely known about. And, again, the economic structure of the Interdependency makes it impossible for humans to survive on their own even if humans should be able to adapt to their new environments.

Clearly, the world building bugs me to no end. I wish it did not. But it does. And consequently, my enjoyment of the novel is lessened by asking these world building questions. The Collapsing Empire is a fun read. But can it escape the collapse of its world building? For me, it cannot.

 

The Human Division (and some House Cleaning)

To those who recommended John Scalzi’s The Human Division, thank you. Seriously, it is one of the best novels I’ve read in a while. Just amazing. 

The Human Division is set in Scalzi’s Old Man’s War Universe. The title basically sums up the theme, humanity is divided. For centuries , the Colonial Union has kept Earth a backwater, exploiting humanity’s homeworld for colonists and soldiers. But with the revelations made in The Lost Colony, the relationship between Earth and the CU is ruptured. 

Most of the episodes that make up the novel feature Lieutenant Harry Wilson and the awesome diplomatic team/ crew of the two ships named Clarke, who attempt to deal with the new reality in which the CU must use diplomacy, not force. But, in all honestly, the real plot of the novel is the discovered conspiracy to not only keep Earth permanently estranged from the CU, but to destroy the CU (and the rival Conclave). 

There is action aplenty and lots of humor. Even though the CU is less than sympathetic, I really enjoyed almost all of the characters. Wilson is a trip, Schmidt is endearing, Abumwe is a boss (she is one of my two favorite characters), and Sorvalh is the bomb (my other favorite character). 

There are only two episodes that don’t really work for me. “A Voice in the Wilderness” perhaps is the weakest section of the entire novel. It just doesn’t fit, in my opinion. Maybe i’m just having a hard time with the modern stasis that has afflicted Earth for centuries (no matter how many have passed). But it just doesn’t seem “right.” The other weak episode, in my opinion, is “The Sound of Rebellion.” I think my issue with this episode is that I think the CU won too easily. 

And that is a frustration of the various stories in the novel. Things seem to conclude too easily in the protagonists’ favors (not that it saves them in the end with a holy shit wham cliffhanger). 

I was recommended this novel because it started life through serialization. After having read it, this is not quite what I had in mind. The Human Division is more a short story collection than a novel or a continuing coherent narrative. Rather, it is more like a television series. And it works. I want more. Dammit, I want more. 

 

Now, onto the house cleaning. I need to elucidate a comments policy. Typically, I will allow anything unless it is economic spam, abusive, or too sensitive. 

If you are wanting to comment on posts made by my former co-writer (aka my brother), your comments may never appear. Largely because he was the primary editor when we set up the blog. And by now, he’s forgotten the password. 

Which also explains my failure to redesign the blog last year when I flirted with that idea. One of these days, I’ll need to make a concerted effort to get the password.