The Collapsing Empire

by John Scalzi

Cover image

Series: Interdependency #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: March 2017
ISBN: 0-7653-8889-8
Format: Kindle
Pages: 333

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Cardenia Wu-Patrick was never supposed to become emperox. She had a quiet life with her mother, a professor of ancient languages who had a brief fling with the emperox but otherwise stayed well clear of the court. Her older half-brother was the imperial heir and seemed to enjoy the position and the politics. But then Rennered got himself killed while racing and Cardenia ended up heir whether she wanted it or not, with her father on his deathbed and unwanted pressure on her to take over Rennered's role in a planned marriage of state with the powerful Nohamapetan guild family.

Cardenia has far larger problems than those, but she won't find out about them until becoming emperox.

The Interdependency is an interstellar human empire balanced on top of a complex combination of hereditary empire, feudal guild system, state religion complete with founding prophet, and the Flow. The Flow is this universe's equivalent of the old SF trope of a wormhole network: a strange extra-dimensional space with well-defined entry and exit points and a disregard for the speed of light. The Interdependency relies on it even more than one might expect. As part of the same complex and extremely long-term plan of engineered political stability that created the guild, empire, and church balance of power, the Interdependency created an economic web in which each system is critically dependent on imports from other systems. This plus the natural choke points of the Flow greatly reduces the chances of war.

It also means that Cardenia has inherited an empire that is more fragile than it may appear. Secret research happening at the most far-flung system in the Interdependency is about to tell her just how fragile.

John Clute and Malcolm Edwards provided one of the most famous backhanded compliments in SF criticism in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction when they described Isaac Asimov as the "default voice" of science fiction: a consistent but undistinguished style that became the baseline that other writers built on or reacted against. The field is now far too large for there to be one default voice in that same way, but John Scalzi's writing reminds me of that comment. He is very good at writing a specific sort of book: a light science fiction story that draws as much on Star Trek as it does on Heinlein, comfortably sits on the framework of standard SF tropes built by other people, adds a bit of humor and a lot of banter, and otherwise moves reliably and competently through a plot. It's not hard to recognize Scalzi's writing, so in that sense he has less of a default voice than Asimov had, but if I had to pick out an average science fiction novel his writing would come immediately to mind. At a time when the field is large enough to splinter into numerous sub-genres that challenge readers in different ways and push into new ideas, Scalzi continues writing straight down the middle of the genre, providing the same sort of comfortable familiarity as the latest summer blockbuster.

This is not high praise, and I am sometimes mystified at the amount of attention Scalzi gets (both positive and negative). I think his largest flaw (and certainly the largest flaw in this book) is that he has very little dynamic range, particularly in his characters. His books have a tendency to collapse into barely-differentiated versions of the same person bantering with each other, all of them sounding very much like Scalzi's own voice on his blog. The Collapsing Empire has emperox Scalzi grappling with news from scientist Scalzi carried by dutiful Scalzi with the help of profane impetuous Scalzi, all maneuvering against devious Scalzi. The characters are easy to keep track of by the roles they play in the plot, and the plot itself is agreeably twisty, but if you're looking for a book to hook into your soul and run you through the gamut of human emotions, this is not it.

That is not necessarily a bad thing. I like that voice; I read Scalzi's blog regularly. He's reliable, and I wonder if that's the secret to his success. I picked up this book because I wanted to read a decent science fiction novel and not take a big risk. It delivered exactly what I asked for. I enjoyed the plot, laughed at some of the characters, felt for Cardenia, enjoyed the way some villainous threats fell flat because of characters who had a firm grasp of what was actually important and acted on it, and am intrigued enough by what will happen next that I'm going to read the sequel. Scalzi aimed to entertain, succeeded, and got another happy customer. (Although I must note that I would have been happier if my favorite character in the book, by far, did not make a premature exit.)

I am mystified at how The Collapsing Empire won a Locus Award for best science fiction novel, though. This is just not an award sort of book, at least in my opinion. It's book four in an urban fantasy series, or the sixth book of Louis L'Amour's Sackett westerns. If you like this sort of thing, you'll like this version of it, and much of the appeal is that it's not risky and requires little investment of effort. I think an award winner should be the sort of book that lingers, that you find yourself thinking about at odd intervals, that expands your view of what's possible to do or feel or understand.

But that complaint is more about awards voters than about Scalzi, who competently executed on exactly what was promised on the tin. I liked the setup and I loved the structure of Cardenia's inheritance of empire, so I do kind of wish I could read the book that, say, Ann Leckie would have written with those elements, but I was entertained in exactly the way that I wanted to be entertained. There's real skill and magic in that.

Followed by The Consuming Fire. This book ends on a cliffhanger, as apparently does the next one, so if that sort of thing bothers you, you may want to wait until they're all available.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2018-09-17

Last modified and spun 2018-09-18