The world is always going to hell in a handbasket – no matter what world, no matter when. In The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi, it’s more than one actually. For all the years it took to build an “empire,” the whole shebang, from End to Hub, was tied together by the Flow, a galactic physical phenomenon that enabled faster-than-light travel and all the trappings of great space opera. Turns out The Flow, in pace for what felt like forever, was in galactic terms, temporary. A flash in the pan. Oops. Bad place to build an interstellar civilization!
As The Collapsing Empire begins, Batrin Wu, who was running it, is reluctantly passing the torch to his daughter, Cardenia. Not that he thinks she’s not capable or deserving – it just wasn’t in the plans, which, ahead of the Empire itself, have collapsed. Greed being an eternal human value, the Nohamapetan family gets some slick parts moving fast to see if they can tip all this in their favor. From Hub to End and back, humans are doing what they do best; inventing, lying, stealing, cheating, discovering, studying and arming up for combat. As ever, we are our own biggest problem. Given that we are also on tap to supply the solution, it’s clear that many things will have to give.
The primary upshot of this combination of forced change met with both scurrilous and heroic behavior is some 300-plus pages of top-notch page-turning, illuminating snark that will have you laughing and looking around to realize that in five hundred, one thousand, ten thousand years, we’re not likely to change that much. When science supports the plans that make us wealthy, we are all scientists. If that’s not the case, we get out our “pragmatic skeptic” hats.
Line-by-line, Scalzi’s an amazing writer. There are many wonderful sentences here that are a joy to read. And while the primary mode is dark humor, Scalzi understands that to carry this off successfully, you need to have great characters, good and bad. On one side we have Marce Claremont, a wonderfully wrought gentle scholar soul. He seems like just the sort of fellow you might want to pause and have along talk about science with. On the other side you have Kiva Lagos, the foul-mouthed hilarious Owner’s Rep on the ship Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby. For all her boldness, she’s someone you want on your side. Ghreni Nohamapetan, on the other hand, is equally entertaining but someone who is better appreciated on the wrong side of an airlock without a spacesuit.
In the tradition of starting at the end, The Collapsing Empire does perhaps too good a job at setting up the sequel(s). Every moment reading this book is both fun and thought-provoking, and any ending is bound to inspire the desire for more. But the trick of this novel is to entertain you with language about a universe that never will be while making you think quite critically the world that is – all the while laughing about the follies of both.
In my conversations with both John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow, the follies that are generally on display are mine. Here’s a link to my conversation with John Scalzi; or just listen below and amaze your friends with the wit and wisdom of John Scalzi.