20 June 2018

Hugos 2018: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

Trade paperback, 333 pages
Published 2017

Acquired April 2018
Read May 2018
The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

This is the second John Scalzi novel I've read after Redshirts, and if anything, it's somehow even worse. The main problem with The Collapsing Empire is that the main characters are all the same: relentless quippers. It's like reading the script for a Joss Whedon show, except even Joss Whedon knows you have to have real human emotion sometime to balance it out. I read a review of the book that claimed, "Scalzi’s characters have always been great—funny, dynamic, and easy to identify with—but over the years he’s improved in the way he frames and builds each individual personality. Cardenia, Marce, and Kiva all come from drastically different origins, and their reactions to the future are specific to their own perspective." Admittedly this review was on the blog of the publisher so of course it's a little slanted, but I found it inexplicable because all of these characters sounded exactly the same. They all quip and banter their way through every situation. The complete lack of earnest emotional response grew wearying, exacerbated by the fact that even the narrator gets in on the quipping! Like, if the narrator can't react like these things matter, why should I?

It also doesn't help that there seems to be a direct correlation between quippiness and moral worth. All the good characters are great at quipping; all the evil characters are humorless planks. It's way too obvious and too simple, like the Interdependency is not actually a monarchy or a theocracy, but a quiptocracy, where the most sarcastic person is placed in charge. And one of the characters in particular irritated me, Cardenia, whose sexual antics I found squicky in that her pressuring other people, including subordinates, into sex is presented in a ha-ha-she's-so-empowered-isn't-it-funny light.

Outside of the characters, there's just not much to this novel. The political set-up feels derivative of Dune and not particularly interestingly so: an interstellar empire where "guilds" and "houses" play significant roles. (I know Dune didn't originate this, but Collapsing Empire doesn't do anything unique with it except in superficial ways.) The main plot of the series is contrived. The "Flow" is the alternate dimension ships can move into to travel faster-than-light, a lot like the depiction of hyperspace in things like Babylon 5, but it's collapsing, meaning the end of the Interdependency. But somehow in a vast interstellar empire predicated on the existence of the Flow, there are literally two scientists who study it? And it seems kind of silly that the one who's predicted it's going to collapse figures this out about a week before it begins to happen. Like, what's the point? (Scalzi also seems to think that peer review is another person checking your sums.) The book does have the occasional surprising moment, but on the whole it moves in pretty predictable directions.

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