Friday, January 25, 2019

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

The Collapsing Empire

by John Scalzi

John Scalzi was born in Fairfield California on May 10th, 1969. He was a 3rd generation Italian American, with his grandfather coming to the United States when he was a young child. He was also one of three children to a single mother, which meant that often his family struggled. He covers this in his essay entitled Being Poor. He was, however, able to get a scholarship and attend the Webb school; a private boarding school in California, and later the University of Chicago where he graduated in 1991 with a bachelor's in philosophy. He began writing professionally in 1990 freelancing for the Chicago Sun-Times. After graduating he wrote opinion columns and movie reviews for the Fresno Bee. He would get married in 1995 and the next year moved to Washington DC to take a job as an in house editor and writer for AOL. He was laid off in 1998 and since then has been a full-time writer. His writing career has been a memorable one, his first published novel Old Man's War (I highly recommend it) was published by Tor in 2006. It was nominated for a Hugo and Mr. Scalzi would publish additional works in that universe. He is also well known for the novel RedShirts in 2012 (The audiobook is read by Will Wheaton and it is an absolute treat). Mr. Scalzi has received enough rewards that going into them wouldn't leave us with enough space to review the novel. Let me just say that John Scalzi is a very respected author and he has earned that by writing good stories.

The Collapsing Empire takes place thousands of years in the future. Humanity lives scattered in the 48 star systems of the Interdependency, all of them connected by the Flow. The Flow is a poorly understood natural phenomenon that allows for faster than light travel along fixed streams from system to system. The economic and political systems of the Interdependency are centered and built around encouraging stable trade among the systems. This is done by traveling one-way paths within the Flow called streams. They sort of function as FTL rivers or currents pushing ships from system to system. When I say built around encouraging trade, I may be understating it a bit. With the exception of a single system, there are no habitable planets in the 48 systems of the Interdependency. The vast overwhelming majority of humanity lives in orbital habitats and none of the systems are completely self-sufficient. The systems are controlled by entrenched noble houses with trade being handled by Merchant Houses who have been granted total monopolies over certain products. This structure is undergirded by the Interdependency Church, a religion founded by the first Emperox (it's a gender-neutral title) that holds up the current social system as divinely ordered. The result is what we would call a hydraulic empire. A classic hydraulic empire is an empire that maintains control of its territory by controlling who has access to water, whether that be through flood control or irrigation. In fantasy and science fiction other resources often take the place of water (He who controls the spice controls the universe). In this case each of the Merchant Houses control resources or skills that you need to maintain human life in artificial habitats isolated in the void light years from any natural environment that humans could live on and each Merchant House lives under the gun of at least one Noble House with the Imperial House controlling both the center of the trade nets (so it can cut anyone who gets too troublesome off) and in theory enough military force to squash any single House (The Interdependency exists on a political tripod, the most unstable of structures. I can go on with the Dune references…). It's an incredibly stable and unmoving system as long as there are no problems with resource access.

As you might have guessed, there is going to be a problem. It turns out that those fixed streams in the Flow? They’re not actually that fixed after all. In fact, the entire Flow is shifting and moving, on a timescale measured in centuries or perhaps millennia but unfortunately for us, it's moving day. To be fair, it's not like humanity didn't have a warning here, the Flow cut off contact with Earth over a thousand years ago in the story and more recently another system was cut off, so it's clearly possible. However, no one wants to consider that the very bedrock of the system that has lasted for a 1000 years could simply decide to up and move away, except for a couple of scientists and their patrons. One of those scientists is Count Claremont, who was sent to End. End is the one system in the whole empire that has a planet that people can live on without much in the way of technology. However, it's poorly placed in regards to Flow streams, having only a single stream connecting it to Hub, the center of the Empire. As a result, End is a dumping ground for rebels, lunatics, and troublemakers who are allowed to fight it out amongst themselves as much as they like as long as they keep it confined to the planet surface and don't trouble the rest of the Empire. Count Claremont was sent here by the Emperox of the Interdependency so he could work without anyone bothering him and his work could be kept utterly secret. Because the Emperox was utterly sure that if the work became public that the vast majority of humanity would refuse to believe it and would waste time and resources fighting him instead of preparing for the disaster to come. Because if Count Claremont is right, each system is about to be cut off from one another for a very long time. Perhaps even forever and that means the only place where humanity is more or less guaranteed to survive is End. The place where they parked all their maniacs.

If that wasn't enough there are a couple more problems thrown into the mix. First of all the Emperox is dying and his only son and heir was killed in a freak racing accident, shortly before he started his own slide into mortality. This leaves everything in the hands of his daughter, who was born as the result of a short term relationship while he had in college. Cardenia is a nice girl, well educated, honest and strongly motivated to do good by her fellow citizens and prevent suffering whenever and wherever she can. She's also utterly untrained and unprepared to be the sovereign ruler of the human race and not really emotionally or mentally suited for the kind of cutthroat intrigue that comes with a throne in the best of times (You know, if I were an emperor and only had one heir, I would groom a number of backup heirs…{the law limits his options, not to mention politics}). Never mind the kind of intrigue that gets kick-started when you realize the entire system that your civilization and the survival of your species is based on is about to change beyond all recognition and there ain't a damn thing you can do about it. Because where you and I gentle reader would be throwing everything we got at ensuring our survival and the survival of the people we care about, there's a certain type of person who sees this situation and thinks to themselves, how do I use this to make sure I'm at the top of the heap when it's all over. Because some folks are perfectly fine burning everything to ash as long as they get to be king rat of the ash pile when the flames die down. Unfortunately the kind of steady state with very powerful ruling classes tend to encourage that type of personality in the ranks, which mean Cardenia not only has to try and prevent a mass extinction across several dozen star systems, she also has to figure out how to avoid being murdered in her sleep by people more interested in using it as a chance to take power for themselves.

She doesn't have a lot of time either, because the streams are gonna start shutting down sooner rather than later. In fact, the stream that lets people leave End is shutting down and when Count Claremont realizes that, he sends his son Marce Claremont to Hub to report to the new Emperox and advise her on what to do. Marce soon finds himself in a good deal of trouble as it seems a number of forces on End are willing to do all sorts of terrible things to keep him on End at all costs. Which brings in Kiva Lagos of the House Lagos, who agrees to get him off End on her ship and ends up getting pulled into the intrigues. To be honest, Marce and Kiva end up being my favorite characters in this novel. Marce is a scientist and a rather decent one who is completely out of his depth in dealing with people trying to kill him. Which is fair because if you develop a society where your physicists have to constantly fend off assassination attempts, you're likely doing something wrong and not leaving them a lot of time to do actual science. That said Marce isn't a coward or a bumbler and shows himself to be a fast learner. Kiva, on the other hand, is a foul-mouthed, oversexed, clever lunatic who isn't afraid to resort to whatever measures she needs to in order to solve the problems in front of her. If that means using an assassin as bait to blow up pirates so she can escape a system with a cargo of wealthy refugees fleeing a revolution to make up unexpected losses in trade then so be it.  I'm not sure I would want to be locked in a room with her but I can respect that level of bloody-mindedness and lateral problem solving and honestly, she's fun to read. Kiva is gonna need every ounce of bloody-minded cleverness she can summon, as she is getting pulled by Marce's company into the highest level of power games where people are gambling over becoming the ruler of the human race. Whatever's left of it anyways. That said I will say Marce and Kiva kind of overshadow Cardenia because if nothing else they get to do more.

The Collapsing Empire is a book of political intrigue as society unknowingly rushes to the very brink of collapse and I imagine for a number of readers that will feel very topical on some levels. The intrigue and plotting are well done and the characters are fairly interesting, although Cardenia is a tiny bit on the bland side. I like the effort and work that Mr. Scalzi put into the book. That said I do think the Interdependency kinda opened itself up to this by working to prevent any single system from becoming too self-sufficient. Even without a habitable planet, you can create self-sufficient living spaces using the resources of a star system. Most star systems are vast territories with enough resources (yes even water and carbon) and space to keep a technological civilization going indefinitely. Our biggest issue today is accessing the resources of the Solar System as living at the bottom of a gravity well (by which I mean our planet) makes getting anywhere else very expensive and difficult. Once you're out of the gravity well it's a lot easier. Not as easy as walking, but easier. That said Mr. Scalzi does address this in the book by walking us through the thought process behind creating such a system. I won't spoil the surprise though. It's a pretty good book, but I felt the ending was a bit rushed and as I said, Cardenia comes off as a bit bland. That's all I can say about it negatively. So I'm giving The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi an A-.

Next week, we start our celebration of Valentine's day by examining the career and writings of Dick.  Philip K Dick, the writer of Total Recall, The Adjustment Bureau, Minority Report, Man in the High Castle and of course, the work we'll be examining this month, Blade Runner.  Next week will be our first ever biographical post as I go over Mr. Dick's life and times and then we'll be reviewing Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (the novel the film is based on), the final cut version of Bladerunner on the 3rd week of February and ending it with Bladerunner 2049 to see just how far Mr. Dick's influence reaches.  Keep reading!

Red Text is your editor Dr. Ben Allen
Black text is your reviewer Garvin Anders.

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