Hugos 2018 – The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

John Scalzi is a guilty pleasure of mine.  His light-hearted, witty space romps are fun to read, and his prose flows so smoothly that I often can’t put his books down until I finish them.  I must admit that there was even a time where I considered Scalzi a spiritual successor of Heinlein, but soon I realized Scalzi’s work was missing Heinlein’s underlying moral lessons and emotional ties between his characters and the reader.  Still, whenever there’s a new book by John Scalzi, I pick it up and enjoy it.  The Collapsing Empire was a great experience.  I loved it from the first page to the last, but I think it’s not worthy of a Hugo award.

In The Collapsing Empire, the first book of the Interdependency series, Scalzi builds an entire new human empire spanning some four dozen star systems.  Physics still works here, and faster than light travel is not possible.  However, there is the Flow: wormholes that connect various stars, allowing people to expand throughout the near universe.  Not all stars are connected, though, and from those that are only one has a planet that supports life on the surface; at all other stars humans live either in planets’ interiors or in artificial orbital habitats.  Only one star system has access to all others via the flow channels, and that’s where the imperial seat is located.

For humans to survive, a complex economy had to be refined, where planets specialize in certain products and must rely on trade to survive.  Trade is facilitated via Houses: families who were granted monopolies on product categories when the empire was created.  Thus, we are introduced to House Lagos, which holds the monopoly on all citrus fruit, or the imperial house Wu, which retains its political control by holding monopoly on weapon and space ship manufacturing.  The relationship between Houses is often hostile, and with very little imagination one may consider Scalzi’s world to be a prequel to the Dune series.

The story revolves around a plot by the House Nohamapetan to take over the empire.   When the old emperor dies and the empire is taken over by his reluctant and inexperienced daughter, they try to force her into a marriage.  In addition, the House had determined that the Flow streams would rearrange themselves and all point to a new central star system, named End, and are now trying to take over the system to be in a position to dictate who could use the Flow.  It just so happens that End is also the only system with a human habitable planet.

The main plotline is described via three protagonists: the newly crowned emperor (her official title in the book is “Emperox”), a physicist who has different ideas on how the flow streams will behave, and the daughter of House Lagos, who holds a personal vendetta against House Nohamapetan.  Throughout the book, the reader learns that the entire empire was a scam to solidify the power of a few merchant families.  The cult of personality around the emperor, with the first empress being deified, is little more than a joke: the first empress, having worked in marketing, realized that creating a church would help her to better control the population.   In addition, we learn that the flow streams are not going to rearrange themselves, but disappear, and the only chance for humanity’s survival will be to relocate on the planet End, which is the only one to offer self-sufficiency.  The book ends on a cliffhanger note, with the house Nohamapetan in control of End.

The Collapsing Empire is Scalzi’s standard fare I love so much from the Old Man’s War series.  Some of the author’s books, in particular Fuzzy Nation and Lock In may offer some deeper moral dilemmas and choices, but this is not the case here.  The prose is flowing beautifully, the characters are all very witty or very one-dimensional, and one can fully disengage his brain to have a great time.  The story is a very soft science fiction, without any of the boring technical stuff, such as how the Flow works.  The trope with wormholes attached to certain gravitational points is an old one, and was much more consistently developed in other works.  For a recent example, look at Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series, but in Scalzi’s book any more detailed explanation wasn’t necessary for the story.

Instead, Scalzi focuses on what he does best: sharp dialogues with witty one-liners and banter.  Since his Redshirts days, the author has learned not to use the “he said”/”she said” phrasing after each line of dialogue, and some characters even have enough of their individual voice that I didn’t get confused who said what in longer conversations.  Those voices may be a little over the top sometimes.  The most glaring example is Kiva Lagos, one of the protagonists, who uses crude language in nearly all her sentences, but Scalzi managed to make her sound endearing; a feat of genius in my opinion.  Nearly all characters, including the evil ones are likeable, and Scalzi is very careful never to put them into serious danger or kill them off.  With two notable exceptions, everyone survives.

I thoroughly enjoyed the entire book, except the logical misstep at the very end.  In the last scene, the empress confronts the main villain and informs her that End will never become a new imperial center, as the flow streams will disappear altogether.  The villain, Nadashe Nohamapetan, still declares victory, though, as she realizes that the planet that is now under her control will become essential for the survival of the human species.  She does that without the relevant information (she hasn’t learned yet how long it would take before End is cut off from the Flow streams), and she figures this out on the spot, when even people who are supposed to be smarter than her in the book need it explained to them.  To me, this instance smelled like an all too tight a publication deadline.

As much as I loved the book, though, it’s not a Hugo material.  The Collapsing Empire is a light read, but as such it features way too many shortcuts.  All characters are extremely one-dimensional.  The dialogue is very unrealistic, for the sake of being witty.  And the storyline is very predictable, with the reader never feeling concern for any of the characters.  Basically, the only element I found somewhat original was the idea that in a universe where our laws of physics hold and wormholes between star systems exist, we may not be getting the best choices for extrasolar expansion.  This work is an excellent entry level science fiction book, which most readers will enjoy, but once you’re finished reading it, you won’t feel changed in any way.  There’s nothing to spark the reader’s imagination beyond the story, and no urgency to pick up the next book in the series (even though I’d love to read it, eventually).  Give the Hugo award to a book that inspires its readers.

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