I don’t think this is unique to me, but it’s at least unusual that my entry into the realm of John Scalzi fan began not with his books, but with his blog, Whatever. I was a regular reader there for a few years before I started working through his ever expanding bibliography.
What’s more unusual is that, for the most part, I don’t care for Scalzi’s most well developed universe, the Old Man’s War series. I read the first book and liked it well enough, but military sci-fi has never been my favorite corner of the genre. I’m much more into Scalzi’s stand alone work, from The Android’s Dream to Redshirts to Lock In. Which is to say I was stoked when I heard Scalzi was opening up another space opera series.
The Collapsing Empire has, at its core (or “Hub,” I suppose) a terrific idea. Humanity is spread across a multitude of worlds (Earth not being one of them, anymore), thanks to a faster-than-light McGuffin called “The Flow.” The Flow works . . . well, nobody is really sure why it works. But it does work, like a hyperspace equivalent of the jet stream or ocean currents, carrying spaceships along at post-light speed and making interstellar travel possible, if a pain in the ass.
Since people can only go where The Flow takes them, there are certain routes of travel. All lead to a planet called Hub, where the titular empire is headquartered. On the other end of the travelled galaxy is End, a sort of Australia (they send the troublemakers there) that, also, happens to be the only place where humans live under the open sky. The problem, as the book begins, is that The Flow is starting to fail. The bigger problem – most of the empire has no idea about it yet.
This is all background, against which a few stories play out. There’s a new emperox (not a typo – it’s a gender neutral imperial title) trying to figure out her new life. End is experiencing one of its periodic rebellions, although this one might actually stick. And someone is trying to inform the powers that be about the problem with the Flow. All of this is interesting, but none of it seems like a fully formed story.
That is The Collapsing Empire’s biggest problem – it’s not a complete story. Even in the context of a series (of which this is the first), it’s not too much to expect an individual volume to actually have some resolution. This doesn’t, really. In the end, it feels more like an extended, epic prologue or a backfill sequel than it does a novel of its own.
Which is a shame, because until you realize that the end is coming and there’s no way things are going to even try to wrap up, The Collapsing Empire is a fun read. Scalzi’s characters are well drawn and interesting. His great creation in this book is Lady Kiva, the “owner’s representative” on a ship that has to deal with The Flow and the rebellion on End.* She’s quick of wit, free with the word “fuck,” and willing to sleep with just about anything that moves. Think of her as Captain Jack Harkness’s long lost more vulgar cousin. The new emperox, Cardenia, isn’t developed quite as well, but her desire not to do the job sets up an interesting story going forward.**
Which brings me back to my complaint – this is all setup. It’s interesting setup. I’m definitely on board for the next book in the series, because I want to see how all this starts to shake out. But I’m left wanting more right now, something a little more solid and whole.
Still, I’m hooked. That counts for something.
* Bonus fun note – the ship names are great. A pair of sister ships are called the Yes Sir, That’s My Baby and No Sir, I Don’t Mean Maybe.
** Bonus fun note – the emperox has access to a “memory room,” in which she can summon the computer-generated simulacrum of any prior emperox. The discussions she has in there are all the better for the simulacra knowing just what they are.