The Collapsing Empire is the first in a new sci-fi series by John Scalzi. I’ve enjoyed Scalzi’s work before – his “Old Man’s War” is seminal, and “Redshirts” was delightfully high concept sci-fi with a bit of bite to it. I came to this latest effort with high expectations – and I’m happy to say that The Collapsing Empire is clever, self aware sci-fi, with some interesting ideas. It’s also rather funny.
The setting is a star-spanning collective, the Interdependency. It’s filled with space habitats – from huge stations to small settlements; these and other sealed environs sustain most of humanity. Each series of habitats sits inside a system tied together by the ‘Flow’, a sort of wormhole network – starships can enter the Flow in one system, and be decanted into another after a certain amount of flight time. Quite how the Flow works, and exactly why it ties the systems together, is less well understood. This sprawling network of human settlements is tied together by the habitable world of End, which sits far from the seat of political and trading power that is the imaginatively named ‘Hub’.
Scalzi does a great job of bringing End to life – a world populated by noble families with an entrenched sense of privilege, each with a monopoly on particular goods, working alongside guilds of workers to both maintain and expand their monopolies, a microcosm of the social structure of the Interdependency. Both the Nobility and the Guilds run alongside a universal Church, which itself appears to have a fair degree of soft power, and all sit below the “Emperox”. The Emperox is the head of the Church, the top of the heap of the nobles, and, not coincidentally, holds the Guild monopoly on starship and weapons construction. The social constructs make sense, and they act as a vivid, fascinating backdrop for the characters driving the narrative.
Speaking of characters – there’s a fair few of these kicking about. Our core focus is on the nobility and the Emperox. The latter is new at her role, having become heir apparent after an unexpected accident removed the preferred candidate. She’s wry, self-deprecating, and clearly intelligent – but very much unprepared, and thrown into a sink-or-swim environment. Watching her deal with the realpolitik climate in which she finds herself, whilst grappling with both larger issues and her own personal struggles makes for compelling reading.
Another core character is a member of one of the noble houses of End, also an expert on the physics of the Flow. He’s given a simple but vital mission, and then has to arrange to get away from End in order to achieve it. This means getting out of a war zone, evading powerful interests seeking him for their own ends, and then trying to make a pitch to the most powerful people in the Interdependency. He spends a large portion of the book also being introduced to the harsh realities of the world – occasionally at gunpoint – and discovering that the universe may not work exactly as he hopes it does, as he mixes in with the less noble members of his society. There’s an idealism here, and a sense of straightforward honest which contrasts nicely with the third member of the triad.
The third key character is a daughter of the noble houses, and owners representative on a starship. She’s coolly pragmatic, and typically thinks several steps ahead of her adversaries (and people who think they’re her friends). She’s also obviously very clever, or perhaps so sharp she cuts herself. This intelligence is backed up by a strong sense of self, and masked by a diverting amount of profanity. Her dialogue is always profane, but also typically intriguing, and absolutely sizzling with energy. If she’s shown with less of a journey than the other two central characters, it’s because of starting off more aware of who she is, and the roles she’s willing to play.
They’re faced by antagonists who are, in fact, rather similar to the protagonists – rich, powerful individuals, prepared to do a great deal to secure or extend their own positions. Here too are intelligences which could drill through steel. They’re as focused and driven as our protagonists, and less villainous than pragmatic, with goals opposed to the protagonists. They are, perhaps, slightly more morally flexible – but it’s possible to look at the opposition to our heroes, and empathise with them.
The plot – well, as the title implies, it’s focused on the end of the universe. Or at least, the Interdependency, and the complex web of systems which enable it to function. I don’t want to give anything away, but suffice to say, keeping the Interdependency from collapsing, ameliorating that collapse, or even surviving it, looks to be a rather big job. Watching the quickfire conflicts, largely dialogue rather than combat, is a delight, especially when some of the back and forth is laugh-out-loud funny, and other parts approach some of the big questions of sci-fi – who we are, why society is structured as it is, what we might do with the opportunity and necessity of reshaping the universe and ourselves. There’s some wonderfully tense political scenes, and some moments of spacefaring action that are both heart-stopping to read, and absolutely great fun.
In summary then, this is a cracking piece of sci-fi; broad in scope, with interesting characters in a believable world, which asks and quietly tries to answer some hard questions – whilst also providing a story which won’t let you put it down.