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.