Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

The book has a slow but entertaining start as a cast of characters, families and settings are introduced – not that many but enough to give a sense of the size of the universe we are looking at. Sharp dialogue keeps the story flowing as broad-brush strokes history of a mercantile human space-empire is introduced. You have to admire how artfully John Scalzi does this – no big info dumps just carefully rationed explanations around the time that they’ll be needed for the plot but without them feeling like they’ve been plucked out of thin air.

The influences are clear, classic space-opera plus modern space opera (there are some Banks-like moments) plus multi-character/feuding families/Game of Thrones like elements but crafted together into a book that is its own thing. It lacks the complexity or depth of an Iain M. Banks novel but then again this book is only the set up for a longer saga. As such it succeeds on its own terms – the premise of the saga is established by the end of the book: a human mercantile empire run by and for a few powerful families faces a calamitous collapse due to physical changes that will prevent interstellar travel.

How those themes will be developed, the extent to which this premise will mainly be just for the purpose of a fun space-opera or whether the world Scalzi has created will be examined in more depth (and The Expanse has proven both are possible), we don’t know yet. The Collapsing Empire is a solid foundation either way and I was keen for the next book at the end of this one.

But as a Hugo nominee? Hmmm, not going to be my top pick. Craft alone isn’t enough – also it is competing with two more unusual space operas. The Collapsing Empire just feels like a start to a story. It is not quite the same problem that Too Like the Lightning had last year (when it was basically half a very long book) but it is a related issue – I can’t really judge it because it isn’t finished enough. It is a good argument for the continuing need for a Best Series category (although I find that category difficult). It doesn’t lack other themes but they just aren’t explored yet.

So a good read that aptly demonstrates John Scalzi’s skill but in a field that includes The Stone Sky, Provenance and Raven Stratagem, it will be low on the ballot. Above No Award? Sure, it is an apt demonstration of the range of things that are potentially award worthy and it is packed full of promise.

Next up Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 and then by hook or by crook Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes.



37 thoughts on “Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

  1. Yeah, I liked it but not as much as the three you mentioned–especially Provenance which I enjoyed way more than I expected to.

    You have to admire how artfully John Scalzi does this – no big info dumps just carefully rationed explanations

    Huh?? I thought there was a big intrusive infodump in the prologue–a page and a half’s worth, starting on page 14 with “Now, some context here.” That yanked me right out of the story. I could’t figure out why he even put that there, given that the Flow is explained much better in chapter 4, where Marce Claremont is introduced.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. @Chris M

      Well…I can emphathize with that, to a point. But at the same time, I don’t think the endgame of the Hugos, at least for me as a voter, is to give people a rocket just because they don’t yet have one.

      I mean, I loved Raven Stratagem. I actually think it’s a better, more accessible book than Ninefox. But at the end of the day, for me, The Stone Sky is still the one to beat (and New York 2140 certainly isn’t doing that, and unfortunately I didn’t care for Six Wakes very much). This would still be the case whether Jemisin had the two previous wins or none at all, because I think The Stone Sky is just that good. Your mileage may vary and all that.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I entirely agree and have no scruples giving, say, Jemisin or Leckie (my current favourites) the rocket if they deserve it. But if things are all equal between two books and one author hasn’t a Hugo yet, then this will be a criterion in my decision.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Despite enjoying it very much I didn’t consider nominating it simply because it’s not satisfying as a single volume. I don’t mind leaving loose ends and leading to ongoing wider storylines, but there for me there needs to be *a* complete plotline in a volume 1. I’m still happy to *read* something that’s really a serial installment, just not *nominate* it.
    (In the interests of fairness, I took the same attitude with Clockwork Boys as well, and I’d say that was closer to having a satisfying arc than TCL did)

    But yes, as a cool space opera series it’s right up my street. I get the impression that Scalzi liked writing Kiva the most, but for me Cardenia was the best character – her slow acceptance of her new role was subtly done.

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  3. One nice thing about the opening action (the mutiny) is that it serves many purposes in the story – I was expecting it just to be an introduction to the Flow and its collapse with no later influence on the story, but the ship turns up later in the book in a fairly significant way, and thematically, the way that mutinies are justified with post-facto paperwork after the bodies are buried ties in quite nicely with the way that the rest of the Empire works behind the facade of laws.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Red Shirts had a lot of layers to it under the broader comedy and came with sneakily substantive emotional themes. He did that in one volume and same with Lock In, so kind of disappointing to hear that maybe he didn’t really manage that in this start to the series with a more sprawling set-up. An open ending doesn’t penalize him in a Hugo run, but if there’s not enough meat to the epic scope, then this year with the competition, I suspect it will be edged out for the prize. Space opera is a favorite for the Hugos, but you have to go really grand. I do think the premise of the setting — a form of interstellar travel that is collapsing — is interesting and what attracted a lot of people to the book. He’s replicating planetary collapse in space.

    I’m always of the mindset of liking when those who haven’t won an award before get it, but then I tend to view fiction awards as a celebration and flag-waving of all the nominees because fiction awards are primarily useful to remind people that written fiction exists and they might like to check out some of it.

    Six Wakes sounds really interesting, and I say that as someone who is not a huge clone story fan. I hope you manage to get ahold of it. Since the print edition has made it to Australia’s shores, maybe a Sydney public library would have a copy?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Coleridge enlisted in the Dragoons as Silas Tomkyn Comberbache.

    He also used the pseudonym Dr Samsartorious Carbonijugius — who I’ve always liked to think of as Samwise Gamgee’s unreliable laudanum-soaked Romamtic Latinate reverse twin.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Over the years I’ve developed a system that approximates ranking for both my reading and my music listening. Highest level: I’ll buy any book by this author when it comes out, regardless. Next highest: I’ll put the new work on hold at 2 or 3 or 4 libraries in order to get it as soon as I can without having to actually, you know, PAY for it. Middle level: if I see it on the New Books shelf at a library, I’ll snag it. Lower yet: “Oh, look at this. Hmm, sounds vaguely interesting, guess I’ll grab it. Maybe I’ll read it” Lowest possible: Don’t look directly at it, back away slowly, maybe it won’t see me.

    These days, there’s only 4 to 8 authors whose stuff rates the buy it ASAP level, particularly since Iain Banks died and Bruce Sterling stopped writing decent novels. Scalzi generally ranks in-between the second and third levels. I like his stuff, which I find enjoyable, but I find him a little shallow. I’ll always read it, but it’s not worth actually spending money on (John, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry). And I say this as someone who reads his blog and twitter feeds very regularly. Go figure.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Has anyone read Head On yet? I’ve started it –

    (But Andrew, shouldn’t you be reading the Hugo finalists?)

    (I’ve read the short stuff, and I’m waiting for the packet before I start on book-like things.)

    – and it’s quite fun, though I’m doubtful if it’s Hugo material – the significant thing about Lock In, I think, was the setting, and more adventures in that world don’t have the same significance.

    One thing I will say about Scalzi is that he has avoided bloat – possibly not series bloat, but at least bloat of individual books. His books are still of the length one would expect from crime or popular general fiction, rather than the million or so pages that are becoming more and more common in SF. I believe Redshirts was so short it almost failed to be a novel by some definitions.

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    1. 1. You may need to set aside some time for New York 2140 – it’s long and slow (nicely written but not swift)

      2. I think Scalzi is money well spent by Tor and we are also lucky he’s writing SF. He is a very adept crafter of books and could probably make even more money writing non-genre thrillers. I think his work will bring more readers into SF.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Haven’t got it yet – the curse of UK releases traditionally being on a Thursday for some weird reason.

      Looking forward to it though – I only read Locked In quite recently and it left me wanting more.


      1. I find things quite often appear before the official release date, unless they are very high profile (I mean Harry-Potter-style high profile, not just Scalzi-style).


      2. Well, I’m using kindle who are exact about release dates – just after midnight every time. But yes, I did see the paperback out early in Waterstones last weekend and feel very tempted to get it there and then.


    3. I stayed up very late last night reading “Head On”. Loved it. I don’t think I’d put it up for an award, but as far as mysteries go, it was cracking good. A real ripping yarn. And everything you needed to figure it out what there — I twigged to how/why one of the murders happened, but the overarching wotsit was slowly revealed. It was good police procedural. And the use of the worldbuilding was consistent and developed more. Plus there was a Very Important Cat who was both A Clue and comic relief.

      Scalzi could definitely make even bigger bucks writing straight police procedurals, but present-day police procedurals don’t allow for robot sports or other series with starships.

      Snarky dialogue? Check.
      Fair play mystery? Check.
      Consistent use of worldbuilding? Check.
      Complicated stuffs explained? Check.
      Cat being cat? Check.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I should have mentioned the cat. It doesn’t talk, sadly, but nevertheless it’s a witness.


    4. Andrew, I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for the packet. 4 of the 6 Novel Finalists are from Orbit, so you’re only going to get excerpts of those (and likely only semi-readable due to the watermark, as well). If you have a library nearby, I recommend trying to get the Orbit novels there, or at least onto the waiting list for them ASAP.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The watermarks drive me mad. Esp. on friggin’ excerpts! I understand why they’re on full graphic novels, but on text excerpts?

        I remember a few years ago when you had to use a password to read the Robinson and McGuire finalists. Sure, it was simple, but you had to type it in every time you re-opened the book. And then they were PDFs that could NOT be adjusted on my reader, so it was tiny print all the way. 2312 in minuscule print, people. Both those books came out lower in the voting than they otherwise might, and I’m sure it was due to the hassle. Okay, people probably bailed on 2312 in that slog in the middle (it got better), but McGuire/Grant is snappy so I can only chalk it up to the passworded PDF.

        Little tiny excerpts are also pretty useless. There have been both novels and related work that had excerpts so short they’re useless. I remember one that was basically the table of contents and the introduction. Um, no.


  8. Lurkertype: I remember a few years ago when you had to use a password to read the Robinson and McGuire finalists. Sure, it was simple, but you had to type it in every time you re-opened the book.

    Those weren’t simple, they didn’t even work on Kindles. That was pure evil. I had to get those books from my library. 😦


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