I recently downloaded a free copy of John Scalzi’s novel The Collapsing Empire from TOR.com. It was part of a promotion of the third novel in this series The Last Emperox being published later this month (as I write this).
Scalzi comes with a rather stellar reputation and background, having won two Hugos and been nominated for other awards, but the proof of an author is in the writing, not the rep (as least as far as I’m concerned), so I thought I’d give him a whirl.
But first, the kudos I gleaned from Amazon:
“John Scalzi is the most entertaining, accessible writer working in SF today.” —Joe Hill, author of The Fireman
“Fans of Game of Thrones and Dune will enjoy this bawdy, brutal, and brilliant political adventure” —Booklist on The Collapsing Empire
“Political plotting, plenty of snark, puzzle-solving, and a healthy dose of action…Scalzi continues to be almost insufferably good at his brand of fun but think-y sci-fi adventure.” —Kirkus Reviews on The Collapsing Empire
“Scalzi is one of the slickest writers that SF has ever produced.” —The Wall Street Journal on The Human Division
I’ve been disappointed by authors with high reps before, and I was expecting that sort of experience again.
But I actually (for the most part), liked this book. No, it’s not perfect, and while I’ve never read “Game of Thrones,” I have read Frank Herbert’s “Dune” on numerous occasions, and I thought the comparison was a stretch.
I liked the idea of “the Flow” what makes faster-than-light travel possible without FTL, and even how these roads in space could either shift or collapse (wormholes and subspace corridors have been doing that on Star Trek for decades). Scalzi did create a credible society based on how the string of human colonies connected by the Flow were “interdependent” due largely to trade, but also because of shared culture, monarchy, and religion (more on that last bit later), but it’s not without its faults.
In the introductory portion of the book, there was a ton of exposition about “the Flow,” faster-than-light travel, and such that could have been handled better in dialogue. It was akin to stopping the first episode of the original Star Trek series to explain how phasers and warp drive worked. Just as I was getting into the narrative, the author pulled me back out.
I’m not sure if the author is just “anti-religion,” or he’s commenting on the role of religion in early colonialism, which is indeed what happened in the forming of this empire. Here’s part of what I mean.
“We decided that it was no more fake than the divine aspect of any other religion. As far as the evidence goes, in any event.”
There were some character inconsistencies and plot holes that stood out
For instance, when he’s trying to covertly escape his homeworld of End, Lord Marce Claremont pretends to be ship’s crew, when his qualifications are along he lines of minor royalty and a Flow physicist. He acted more like a tourist when boarding the ship, and the rest of the crew should have picked up on it immediately. Also, isn’t crewing a spaceship a rather specialized position? What was he supposed to do on the job everyday? It was an understandable way to get a high profile individual off world when every spacecraft is being closely watched. The execution, however, seemed unrealistic.
Two or three of the female characters (but strangely, none of the men) were consumed with sex, which seemed a little odd. Okay, yes, human characters are sexual, but except in the case of Kiva Lagos, who was obsessed both with the act, and with the “creative” use of the word f*ck, it seemed a bit forced, like sex was inserted by the author just as a tease without having anything to do with the plot. But then in his Acknowledgments section (more on that later), the author made liberal use of the term. Scalzi’s known for injecting humor into his writing (there were a few times when I chuckled), but like many modern comedians, he may think abundantly dropping F-bombs automatically makes things funny.
Oh, this was interesting. The author inserted the “House of Jemisin” I suppose as a nod to fellow author and Hugo award winner N.K. Jemisin.
Sometimes, when a character’s attention wandered from the topic, I took it as an indication that the author’s attention had wandered away from the narrative while he was writing.
There were a few mentions of the Flow’s eventual end that hearkened to climate change, both in terms of (supposed) eventual human extinction, and humans not taking scientific information seriously, especially when it involved data that only a handful of specialists on the planet could interpret (and even then, those specialists would argue among themselves for years).
I thought a high ranking police official agreeing with a murder suspect that everyone else in the room should “f*ck off” (leave) out-of-character for a cop (I’ve known uniformed officers, detectives, and at least one FBI agent, and none of them would have said that in front of a suspect, and especially when prompted by the suspect). Also, one of the cops who was supposed to be “tailing” Kiva Lagos had sex with her, which, in real life, would get him fired immediately.
The author’s anti-religious commentary came out again in this quote:
“That’s the human brain,” Attavio VI said. “It creates patterns when there aren’t any. Imagines causality when there is none. Imagines a narrative where none exists. It’s in the design of the human brain itself. It’s primed to lie.”
The same might be said for people who believe human beings are the ultimate intelligence in the universe.
In the author’s Acknowledgments section, he again “wanders,” this time to the 2016 election. He wrote this part in October 2016, and his anxiety about the outcome was more than evident, especially in this quote:
…let’s face it, 2016 was a historically f*cked-up year.”
I wonder what he thinks of 2020?
It was a pretty good story, overall, but clearly it was written with at least one sequel in mind (ended up having two). Fortunately, Scalzi stopped short of ending his novel on a cliffhanger.
I’m beginning to come to the conclusion that novels published by big box presses automatically garner expansive praise from noteworthy sources. Reading the Amazon reviews of this book, I have to believe that I wasn’t the only reader who thought the book was overly complemented.
As I said in this review, I think indie author Iain Kelly’s novel A Justified State is the best book I’ve read so far this year. Scalzi’s novel didn’t change my mind.
Addendum: Independent review of the last of this trilogy The Last Emperox, and by inference, all three of the novels.