Chapter 6 of John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire ends like so:
“Tell the emperox what we know. If we’re lucky, he may still have time to prepare.”
“Prepare for what?”
“The collapsing empire,” Jamies said. “And the darkness that follows.”
I’m into Part Two and Chapter 8 and it feels like we’ve been doing a lot of preparing for the actual plot of he Collapsing Empire. The story so far has been primarily character introductions and laying out the dynamics of the two major locations in the book. I could complain that it feels like a lot of dithering about for nearly half a book but I’ve zipped through those pages in next to no time.
So we have a classic space empire but one that’s written for an audience that’s read Iain M Banks and other varieties of new space opera. I’m not entirely convinced about the setting yet but some thought has been put into the nature of this mercantile empire. The ‘flow’ as a mechanism for interstellar travel has been neatly tailored to provide a way of joining multiple locations but with limitations on what people know and the time, it takes to get from one place to another.
As indicated, I’m finding it very readable. A lot of the work here has been setting out the nature of the setting and that could have been quite dry. Obviously, it is something that needs to be done to establish the world for a space-opera epic but I didn’t feel like I had to push through it until the plot pace picked up.
No need deep thoughts on the book yet. I’d say ‘entertaining’ but that can sound dismissive – likewise ‘readable’. I think Mr Scalzi is earning his money here 🙂
It doesn’t matter what critical distance you adopt from the media you consume, it has an impact on you. So it is not without some trepidation that I bought, downloaded and began reading The Collapsing Empire – John Scalzi’s bestselling and Hugo finalist space opera. For context for new readers, a significant amount of my time since 2015 has been spent reading the various arguments, discourses and ramblings of the far-right in science fiction for whom John Scalzi, in particular, has been a subject of intense hatred.
In that time, I’ve also read a lot of what John Scalzi has written but not a lot (if any) of his fiction. That’s a bit weird. I’ve exchanged a couple of Tweets, had one of my more absurd projects mentioned on his blog and written a fair amount about the “alt-Right” Vox Day’s ongoing feud against him. I’ve also, inevitably, read an awful, awful lot of Sad and Rabid Puppy complaints about his writing – mainly that it ‘used to be’ good and that somehow it has become bad or derivative or single-handedly making Tor/Macmillan bankrupt.
The nature of the Puppy hatred for all things Scalzinomic is multifold but straightforward:
- He was president of the SFWA during a period when the left-right conflict in SF was using the SFWA as an arena.
- His blog had an active comment section that prior to the Sad Puppies becoming a thing included people like Brad Torgersen who ended up having some of his comments moderated (a trauma from which he appears still to recover from).
- Vox Day hates him – partly this is Vox Day transferring his even deeper hatred for Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden onto the more public figure of John Scalzi.
- John Scalzi’s early big success (Old Man’s War) was exactly the kind of Science Fiction that many Sad Puppies want to be the norm but he then sided with the ‘wrong’ side in the cultural-ideological conflict.
- He is very adept at polite putdowns.
Scalzi’s ‘Collapsing Empire’ in particular received a lot of attention from the SF far-right. Axiomatically it had to be bad from their perspective – Scalzi had long been established as the figurehead villain in their narrative of SF’s culture wars with Tor as the Galactic Empire to Scalzi’s Darth Vader*. That their perspective on the book made little sense in a competitive commercial market was neither here nor there: they just knew it was bad and that it was going to fail and that Scalzi had run out of ideas years ago etc.
Bizarrely, one of the main points thrown at it was that the book was derivative – that Scalzi was simply borrowing ideas from Azimov and Heinlein. I say ‘bizarrely’ because this was exactly the kind of return to the past that many Puppies were calling for. Again, the Puppy attacks on Scalzi’s role in SF was that he was somehow worse than all the other writers writing things that the Puppies DEFINITELY hated precisely because he was writing things so close to what they claimed they wanted.
Ah but was he? There’s the thing. I’ve been wading through perspectives that I knew were skewed biased and poorly thought through for years now when it comes to John Scalzi’s fiction. I know from other Puppy arguments that even their misconceptions can be misconceived on the issue that they are misconceived about.
The extent to which I’ve engaged (all be it critically) with the Scalzi-hate from the right without actually engaging with his more recent fiction, includes reading and reviewing Vox Day’s attempted spoiler book called variously ‘Corrosion: The Corroding Empire Part by Johan Kalsi and/or Harry Seldon Edited by Vox Day’. That was over a year ago and I suspect I’m one of the very few people to have read it and one of the very few people who have a copy for reasons other than thinking that owning a copy is some kind of propaganda by deed in a bid to restore medieval style monarchies or whatever it is the alt-right actually want to do.
The issue is whether my perspective is now so thoroughly skewed in reaction to alt-right hatred that I can’t really read The Collapsing Empire? Will finding flaws feel like I’m conceding ground to Krypto-fascists, will I doubt myself if I find it praiseworthy – that I’m overcompensating for saturating my brain with anti-Scalzi propaganda? Oh dear! I’m just reading a book – I’m not some John Le Carre like character who has spent to long on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall**!
There is, only one solution. Dive in and read The Collapsing Empire but first write a rambing post to debrief myself from the baggage. It is time to go with the Flow.
*[Yes, this metaphor might be politically backward]
This is a part review as I’m just past the halfway point of this German production. There are some inevitable twists coming but I think I have a good sense of the series now. The obvious comparisons are with Twin Peaks and Stranger Things but both comparisons are misleading. The show has very little in common with either of those when it comes to the tone or the non-science fiction elements. The similarity lies in the basic premise and the setting but if you tune in expecting humour of Stranger Things or the oddball qualities of Twin Peaks, you will be disappointed. A better comparison might be with the US/UK show The Oaks (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Oaks_Trilogy ) which used time periods and supernatural elements to examine different families. [ETA: less similar in terms of plot but Fortitude has a similar mix of heavy drama with SF elements]
The show has a double setting – primarily the focus is on the town of Winden in 2019. The town is set amid an extensive forest and the main employer is a nuclear power plant – which is scheduled to be decommissioned in the near future. In 1986, thirty-three years earlier, the show we meet many of the same characters as teenagers or younger adults. Joining the two eras are a series of disappearances of boys and what is best described as a presence in the Winden Caves that lie deep in the forest and which extend towards the power plant.
It is no spoiler to say this is a time-travel/time-slip mystery. From the beginning elements such as clocks are underlined, we get repeated quotes from Einstein, snippets of lectures on Black Holes, and an old guy warning that ‘it is happening again’. On top of that, we get an opening title sequence that (very effectively) uses reflections to create a disturbing view of the normal and a teacher lecturing his class on the use of symmetry and foreshadowing in the work of Goethe. I wonder if the producers entirely trusted their audience to follow where the show wanted to go.
The pay off comes at the end of episode three when the connections between 2019 and 1986 characters are made overt. What was an initially a confusing set of characters becomes clearer as the set of families involved and the relationships between them become clearer. Betrayals and loss and teenage romance form a web and events between the two eras become more entwined.
The science fiction plot is not new but is well executed even if some aspects may seem familiar (e.g. one Doctor Who episode in particular which I won’t name because of spoilers but which you can probably guess). It is well supported by an eery tone and really unsettling music that creates an atmosphere of malevolence. To what extent the underlying evil at work is supernatural, human-made, science-fictional or metaphysical is still unclear – and of course, it is more than likely a full resolution won’t be given.
There are a few hints to a fairy-tale aspect to the story: children lost in the primordial forest, caves, labyrinths, but also a repeated motif around foxes.
Some misses: the only gay character is portrayed as this being their shameful secret – which also leads to a cliched representation of a transgender character as a sex worker. There is also an annoying apparent amnesia among the 2019 cast about things we know they witnessed in 1986. These are not the genre-savvy protagonists of Stranger Things – in particular, Ulrich who is a detective in 2019 and a surly teenager in 1986 takes an age to spot an important connection and nearly ALL the adult of 2019 appear to have missed something very obvious (although distrubingly mind-bending) about somebody they all knew.
In the defence of the adult characters in 2019, they all have messed up personal lives and what the show does well is connect the toxic relationships between the families (and their 2019 teenage children) with the ongoing trauma of missing boys both in 2019 and 1986.
I prefer more humour to leaven the creepiness but the serious tone does work with this show. The tone is more serious British drama than pop-culture SF but it does drag you in to a story that uses familiarity to unsettle you.
- I have four episodes left to watch. Events in 1953 are now in play and at least one character has a better sense of what is going on.
- Lots of content warnings around child endangerment and kidnapping themes. Some disturbing images and an unsettling tone.
- Netflix has an English audio track but I found the German audio with English subtitles easier to watch.
Gailey’s hippopunk-western novella, River of Teeth, was fun but the ending felt rushed and it was over before I felt I got to know the Guns of Navarone-like band of misfits. I launched straight into the ‘sequel’, Taste of Marrow and I think it is more than fair to say that this is one novel not two novellas!
I shall magnaminously forgive Sarah Gailey for this segmentation because both the second half is proving to be as much fun as the first.
A review of both when I’ve finished both.
Is something still a Western if it is set in the 19th Century USA but not actually in the west? Either way, we have gamblers and riverboats, and alt-history cowboys whose cows and steeds are domesticated hippos. Larger than life characters on a quest for bounty and revenge.
Well what was sold to me as “it is quirky, you might like it” turns out to be a piece of clever social satire, discourse on moral philosophers and excellent speculative fiction with jokes.
The premise for episode 1 season 1 is that a deeply selfish and at best amoral woman finds herself accidentally in a kind of heaven run by Ted Danson and full of frozen yogurt shops. However, that premise is very misleading in terms of what the show is like – Ted Danson kicking a small cute dog into the sun gives a better idea of the sensibility.
I’m on Season 2 already and have caught up. I might review it when Season 2 is over but…really hard to describe the show now without some major spoilers. (Nice to see philosopher Philippa Foot get name checked in a sit-com.)
I don’t know how long they can sustain the show but it is nice to see people trying.
Many modern women currently employed as alien bounty hunters were inspired in their youth by the example of Samus Aran who has been busy shooting insectoid aliens in weird caves for several decades. Now, once again, I can challenge my poor hand-eye coordination and weak reaction times in a very nice looking re-make of Metroid II for the 3DS.
Damn, I’m dead again and my thumb hurts.