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.