Set in the far future, The Collapsing Empire (side note, buy the paperback, it’s half price compared to all the other versions of the book) is set in the middle of a huge intergalactic human space empire, called the Interdependency, that owes its existence to the “flow” an aspect of reality that allows ships to enter a kind of alternate dimension to move fast than light; something that would be impossible otherwise. As its name implies, the Interdependency is a large group of space stations and enclosed habitats that rely on each other 100% as a way to avoid war and are ruled by a small but powerful group of guilds, medieval style houses and aristocracy and an Emperor. After hundreds of years of relative peace and stability, the Flow is about to undergo a time of radical change, where all the connecting pathways of the empire will fall apart and new ones will develop, thus destroying the very fabric of the Interdependency and possibly dooming all of humanity since no one settlement can survive on its own. A newly ensconced Empress, a scientist from the only known habitable planet and various other members of the Interdependency all must cope with the very end of their way of live and fight to save some remnant of humanity or, at the very least, get their own before civilization crumbles.
John Scalzi is one of the more prominent science-fiction writers out there but for some reason I have only read one of his books (Redshirts, which if you even remotely like Star Trek, I highly recommend). Based off its description, The Collapsing Empire was basically written for me. Set in a far flung, post-Earth universe where a far-flung empire must deal with something that threatens it at it’s very core but isn’t just an invading outside force or a contrived civil war, with a diverse cast of characters from all walks of life coming together to deal with that threat to the best of their abilities? And throw in a Dune style intergalactic government of Houses, Guilds, religion and all the messiness of humanity so that they might lose no matter what they do?
Sign. Me. Up.
And I was not disappointed. Scalzi has crafted a familiar looking but well-constructed world and some very likable characters that for all their power and technology, still feel very human and act similar to how you or I might act in a similar situation. And while he only goes into how the Interdependency works on a basic level, it’s enough to make the reader understand what’s going and why everything is so threatened. The idea that each colony, each space station, no matter their size, their riches or their natural resources still must rely on other similar colonies and stations to survive is a really interesting and fun idea that I have not encountered all that often. This isn’t Dune, where the spice is the single most important substance in existence and gives its owners outrageous power. Each sector, and by extension the Houses and conglomerates that control them, may have a monopoly on some good or technology (the Imperial House, House Wu, not only owns the sector were most of the Flow pathways meet up, making them the hub of everything, but they also control the monopoly on military ships but they don’t seem to own much food production abilities). When Empress Garland II assumes the throne and starts playing politics, it becomes very clear that a lot of the infighting is about the maintaining of the status quo, or if it’s going to be shifted, how little that shift is actually going to be. And when she realizes that the Flow is going to change, she knows that getting the aristocracy on board is going to be next to impossible because accepting that fact threatens their current status and power and humans can be delightfully stubborn when their way of life is threatened. Everybody is interesting in maintaining what currently is and do not see much reason to change or push things in any real way. And the book makes the point that that stickiness actually makes a lot of sense because the system works. The system works! Mankind has forced itself into a pretty nice box that forces it to act better than it usually does (though I’m sure Marx is correct and that the life of the average citizen might not be so great).
I mentioned Dune before, and besides the lack of a spice equivalent or the general weirdness of Frank Herbert’s creation, I think it’s a fair comparison. Houses and semi-private organizations that run along bloodlines rule the known universe both for personal gain and for the general good all at the same time. It all doesn’t work out all the time, to be sure, but it functions well enough crony capitalistic lines. I actually think it’s pretty smart of Scalzi to present us with an intergalactic nation that feels familiar so that when it all starts to be torn down and threatened, we recognize what is going on and what is at stake. If he had concocted some weirder, less familiar government, or one that was more venal, the reader would not buy into the stakes nearly as much.
Truly great science-fiction gives us a great word with meaning and interesting idea but it also gives us memorable, unique characters who stay with us almost as much as the setting or the technology; Captain Kirk, The Doctor, Fox and Mulder, Ripley… they all stand out equally against the fantastical worlds they live in and I think Scalzi does a good job with the characters but does not reach that level of true greatness with them. Empress Grayland II is a very sympathetic woman; the illegitimate daughter of the now dead emperor before her, she is smart and capable while fundamentally being completely unprepared for the job of ruling an intergalactic empire of billions. But her earnest desire to do her duty, as well as the fire that facing the end of the world lights in her belly is really endearing and made me like her a lot. Her stoic commitment to her duty and doing what is truly best for humanity is great and a lot of fun to read. The other characters are also pretty good, though she is the standout.
John Scalzi is supposed to be one of the best science-fiction writers out there right now, and after this book I think I’m beginning to see why. He remembers that real sci-fi is supposed to use fantastic worlds and technology to tell us something about ourselves and he does that really well here. And while a lot of the book is pretty standard sci-fi stuff, he uses that familiarity to great effect. I can’t wait for the next one in this series and will definitely be looking for more of his previously published works real soon.