The Collapsing Empire: Entertaining setup for a new space opera series

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The Collapsing Empire Kindle Edition by John Scalzi  (Author)The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi science fiction space opera book reviewsMarion Deeds: John Scalzi’s “brand” is generally known for thoughtful premises, fast-paced action and a humorous tone (certainly there are exceptions). The Collapsing Empire hits all the right Scalzi-notes: it provides a big problem that will have long-reaching influence on human society; it has smarter-than-average characters working to fix things; it has action, snark, and humor. While one storyline is resolved, somewhat, by the end of this book, what The Collapsing Empire does best is set up the problem and introduce characters for the rest of this series.

The Empire of the Interdependency spans many star systems, and is itself dependent on the Flow, an extra-dimensional field with “shoals” that allow star ships to enter and exit the Flow and travel great distances relatively quickly. As humanity moved out among the stars, because of the Flow, they created a society that depended upon trade. Many of the human settlements are not on planets, or at least not on the surface; some are space stations, some are underground and no one is self-sufficient. Now comes some alarming news: the Flow is shifting, and is projected to move away from the Empire planets completely. The shoals are already collapsing. This will mean an end to the Empire and the possibly the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. And for anyone ruthless enough, there is a chance for profit in the short term.

Scalzi focuses mainly on three characters: Cardenia, also Emperox Grayland II, newly minted ruler, who had no desire (and no training) to be the ruler of a galactic empire; Marce Claremont, mathematician son of Count Claremont, who was sent to the fractious frontier planet End (it’s at the end of the empire) for reasons that are soon revealed; and Kiva Lagos, the tough, smart, foul-mouthed daughter of the Merchant House of Lagos, who has been cheated by the Duke of End and, attempting to recoup the financial losses, puts herself in the middle of the Flow conflict and End’s civil war.

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi science fiction space opera book reviewsKevin Wei: Yeah, I think Marion’s analysis nailed it! Personally, I loved the characters and their unique points of views. Scalzi does a really good job of making each of the protagonists feel relatable and putting the reader in their heads, which helps us understand the Empire from three very different perspectives. Part of the reason The Collapsing Empire is so humorous is also because of the characters: Kiva’s (profanity-filled) voice is very entertaining to read, especially when juxtaposed with Marce’s and Cardenia/Grayland’s (both of whom are a little shyer and less confidant than Kiva). I just love Kiva’s reactions whenever she finds out about yet another crisis looming on the horizon; Scalzi’s choice also to include the emperox as a protagonist and to humanize her so much was also very refreshing for me given that lately I’ve been reading a lot of fantasy with distant, omnipotent figures of authority.

Marion: For me, the most interesting character is that new emperox, Cardenia, who shares a few traits with Maia from Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. She was raised far from court. Unlike Maia, Cardenia had an Emperox father who loved her, although she discovers after her death that he never thought she would be a strong ruler, and he knew a strong leader would be needed. Cardenia has to prove herself during the worst crisis the Interdependency has ever faced, and do it without losing the decency that makes us like her. Kiva, on the other hand, has all the resources she needs; money, position and the support of her powerful mother. There really isn’t much character growth there. Marce’s life is in danger for half the book, which creates suspense, but the character does not have an overarching goal that I can see. His twin sister Vrenna, back on End, is interesting, and I’d love to see Vrenna and Kiva working together.

With respect to the plot, there are serious problems in the world of The Collapsing Empire, but the tone of the book reminds us that this is entertainment and we don’t need to agonize. A big clue is in the names of the star ships; the No, Sir, I Don’t Mean Maybe, the Tell Me Another One and the If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out. The action starts on the first page and never really slacks off. I enjoyed it, even if I did notice that the smart people’s plans always survive the first contact with the enemy. Marce, for instance, while still on End, is kidnapped by the ruthless villain Ghreni Nohamapetan (for the record, I pronounce that No-haw-MAW-peh-tan), but is rescued almost immediately. When Kiva comes up with a clever plan to escape fake-pirates sent by the Nohamapetan clan later, it goes off without a hitch. On the other hand, while things don’t look good for the House of Nohamapetan at the end, in one important area they have the upper hand, so things are not going completely smoothly for the good guys. Kevin, anything to add?

Kevin: I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more of Vrenna in The Collapsing Empire’s sequel. She’s a determined, likeable female character who ends up saving Marce from trouble more than once — honestly, I think Cardenia would get along with her very well.

I do agree that Scalzi’s plot is very entertaining, but The Collapsing Empire just felt a bit slow to me. Not slow in the sense that there’s no action, because there’s plenty of action, but we just don’t feel much urgency about the collapse of the Flow and the presumably imminent demise of the empire. Most of the action in this book takes place on a small scale in local politics, in trade wars, or in power struggles among Cardenia’s advisory council. The Collapsing Empire is just lacking a grand, overarching narrative to tie all this action together.

Marion and I were actually discussing this earlier, and she mentioned that Scalzi has said he saw The Collapsing Empire as setting up a new series (see comments). We thought that this lack of urgency might have been a deliberate choice on Scalzi’s part — in this light, I think The Collapsing Empire does a good job setting up the rest of the series and just being a light and funny story. It’s definitely worth a read in my opinion, just don’t be surprised if you feel like you’re having middle-book syndrome with The Collapsing Empire.

Marion: All the pieces are in place and I enjoyed the book. It’s not deep but I don’t think Scalzi intended depth. You can certainly see The Collapsing Empire as a metaphor for globalization and isolationism, especially when refugees from the civil war on End are blamed for an act of terrorism at the empire’s hub (which is named Hub), but you don’t have to. You can just take it as space opera. I took it as entertaining space opera, and it fulfilled its mission.

Published March 21, 2017. Our universe is ruled by physics. Faster than light travel is impossible—until the discovery of The Flow, an extradimensional field available at certain points in space-time, which can take us to other planets around other stars. Riding The Flow, humanity spreads to innumerable other worlds. Earth is forgotten. A new empire arises, the Interdependency, based on the doctrine that no one human outpost can survive without the others. It’s a hedge against interstellar war—and, for the empire’s rulers, a system of control. The Flow is eternal—but it’s not static. Just as a river changes course, The Flow changes as well. In rare cases, entire worlds have been cut off from the rest of humanity. When it’s discovered that the entire Flow is moving, possibly separating all human worlds from one another forever, three individuals—a scientist, a starship captain, and the emperox of the Interdependency—must race against time to discover what, if anything, can be salvaged from an interstellar empire on the brink of collapse.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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KEVIN WEI, with us since December 2014, is an undergrad at Columbia University. Secretly, Kevin has always believed in dragons. Not the Smaug kind of dragon, only the friendly ones that invite you in for tea. This might just be because Funke’s Dragon Rider was the story that mercilessly hauled him into the depths of the SFF genre at the ripe old age of 5. His literary tastes range from epic fantasy to military fantasy to New Weird, although sometimes he does enjoy a good space opera here and there, and some of his favorite authors include Patrick Rothfuss, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, Django Wexler, and Joe Abercrombie. To Kevin, a good book requires not only a good character set and storyline, but also beautiful prose — he is extremely discriminating as it pertains to this last bit. Outside of his bibliophilic life, Kevin loves economics, philosophy, policy debate, classical music, and political science. You can find him at: www.kevinwei.me

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5 comments

  1. I’m glad you both enjoyed the book! I like the concept of “space opera,” but I find I rarely have the time to devote to them in book-form.

  2. Kevin S. /
    This was my first Scalzi book and I enjoyed it. I think 3 or 3 1/2 stars is fair rating. I'll definitely read the next book in the series.
    • Kevin, this might be the perfect book for a first-reader to Scalzi (although I prefer the ideas in LOCK IN) and you get to enjoy all the things he does really well.

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