To kick off my Shadow Clarke experience, I’ve started with John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire, a novel based on a singularly intriguing premise. In a far distant future, humanity exists in an interplanetary empire called the Interdependency, its far-flung outposts connected by the Flow: a series of natural space-time currents that facilitate fast travel between different parts of the universe. As the Flow exists without concern for human planetary preferences – and as the Flow route to Earth was lost centuries ago – the majority of people live underground, in planetary habitats or in space stations along these Flow routes, with trade and travel controlled by aristocratic Guild families. Only one habitable world exists: the planet of End, so-called because it’s the most distant realm in the Interdependency, accessible only by a single pair of Flow streams connecting it to Hub, where the Emperox rules. But the Flow, so long assumed stable, is collapsing, threatening the survival of the entire Interdependency – and, as a consequence, of the human race.
The Collapsing Empire is the first John Scalzi book I’ve read in some time, and only my third overall. I read Old Man’s War way back in 2011 and The Ghost Brigades the following year, but after bouncing off Fuzzy Nation later in 2012, the rest of his catalogue went on my mental backburner, though due more to the sheer number of books in my TBR pile than to any dislike of his writing. I mention this by way of contextualising my comparative lack of familiarity with Scalzi’s style: I have a general impression of it, but nothing detailed enough to make me comfortable deciding whether The Collapsing Empire is, overall, a representative sample in terms of tone and structure. Because while I enjoyed a great deal about The Collapsing Empire, I couldn’t help feeling that it was, in many fundamental ways, a novel that secretly wanted to be a film script.
The story begins with a prologue, and a good one at that: Captain Arullos Gineos, already dealing with a mutiny, is forced to collaborate with her mutinous crew when the Flow in which they’re travelling suddenly and impossibly spits out their ship. Though Scalzi’s conversational narration tells us about the Flow and its usual workings via a slightly lampshaded form of As You Know, Bob – the explanation starts with “Now, some context, here,” which situates the text as speaking directly to the reader – it’s nonetheless done in an entertaining fashion, and with that crucial context established, the rest of the scene progresses smoothly. Gineos is an engaging character: we’re teased about her background and political affiliations, given a solid look at her feelings and reactions in the moment, and are left thoroughly impressed with her handling of the situation. It is, all things considered, an extremely auspicious beginning.
And then we never hear from her again.
Or rather, we do hear about her, but only in passing: we never revisit her point of view or follow up with her in any degree of detail. Given that The Collapsing Empire is the intended first book of a series, it’s possible that Scalzi intends to come back to her in a subsequent volume, especially given the potential usefulness of her perspective in the future, but that doesn’t make her sidelining any less frustrating now. Because the real problem with Captain Gineos isn’t that she’s a good character who disappears; it’s that she was better developed during her introductory cameo than everyone else we met afterwards.
Which – listen. I’m very aware of how harsh that sounds. And I did enjoy the book! But once you get past the prologue, the narrative becomes streamlined to the point of being rushed, such that events are far more often told than shown. I hate to lean on such a Writing 101 cliché to describe the problem, but it’s a boot that fits: Scalzi’s dry, comic narration has a lot to recommend it, but when his quick summaries of important happenings are consistently privileged over the opportunity to experience them in rich, emotive real-time, as we did with Gineos and her mutiny, it’s hard not to feel short-changed. Compounding the problem are long chunks of bantered dialogue which, while snappily written, don’t do much to progress either narrative or characterisation: the former because the characters are often reiterating information which we, the reader, have already gleaned from the narration, the latter because the dialogue very seldom takes place at the same time as any action. By which I mean: the characters talk in real-time only until they need to go and do something, at which point the narration takes over to give us a sped-up account of it, or else the section ends.
It’s like reading scene descriptions and dialogue for the movie the novel isn’t – on which basis, I suspect, it would make a great adaptation. But as a reader, I couldn’t escape the feeling that, for all that the events themselves were compelling and tightly plotted, I was perpetually seeing them from the wrong perspective, with too much of interest happening off-screen.
Though the narration flirts in places with omniscient third, with one or two deviations into secondary character perspectives, the bulk of the narrative is told through the eyes of three people: Kiva Lagos, a cunning owner’s representative from House Lagos, whose original trade mission to End is stymied by a growing rebellion against the resident Duke; Cardenia Wu, younger daughter and surprise heir to the dying Emperox, a position she was never raised to occupy but which she must nonetheless inhabit; and Marce Claremont, a Flow physicist and noble of End tasked with explaining the forthcoming Flow collapse to the Emperox. Of these three, Kiva is the most distinct, if only by dint of being a ruthless pragmatist who says fuck a lot; Cardenia and Marce are both promising, but – I would argue – ultimately underutilised, partly because they’re both more passive than active, but mostly because the story keeps cutting away from them at critical moments.
We first meet Cardenia at her dying father’s bedside. Cardenia, the originally illegitimate and decidedly unplanned child of the Emperox and an academic, was never meant to inherit, but thanks to the death of her elder half-brother, she’s now the only option. Raised outside the political environs of Hub and the separate, imperial habitat of Xi’an, where she now lives, Cardenia is an outsider equal parts bemused and frustrated by the stifling, artificial ceremony of her new position. As such, a great deal of her characterisation and dialogue – this latter with her friend and assistant, Naffa – hinges on her gentle mockery of imperial pomp. Which is fine and good in the beginning, especially as it’s used to set up Cardenia’s uncertainty about how she’ll actually manage as Emperox once her advisors stop being polite and start pushing their agendas. But as the story progresses, she never really develops her perspective beyond this point – in fact, she does quite the opposite.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
The reveal that Cardenia’s father knew about the coming Flow collapse, and has left behind a means of informing Cardenia, is a structurally sensible one. It means that the reader, who already knows about the Flow, isn’t put in the position of watching Cardenia blindly acclimate to a world that’s about to fundamentally change, which would be frustrating in a different way. The problem is rather that, as Scalzi clearly knows this, we never really see Cardenia adapt to anything. We might not need to deep-dive into the nitty-gritty of imperial management, but her relationships with her advisors and executive bodies, which are sure to prove crucial later on, are largely glossed over as a background detail, the individual players barely touched upon. We’re told about various factors and factions, but not really shown them, and even when there’s a supposed terrorist attack at her coronation – one that sees Naffa, amongst others, killed – we never really get a sense of how that plays in the setting, because everything, again, is told.
And when you add in the additional reveal of the Interdependency’s origins – that the whole religious, cultural and imperial institution was created cynically and cold-bloodedly by a woman now held to be a prophet – this problem is only intensified. If the story were written just a little differently, this reveal could be a truly powerful one, as I suspect it was meant and deserves to be: but because Cardenia is cynical of and diffident to the Interdependency’s traditions from the outset, there’s no real emotional impact when she finds out how it was started. If just a little time was spent showing her warming to the actual human cause of running an empire – observing the faith of the people around her; reacting to the impact her office has at a day-to-day level – then seeing her learn its truth would hit that much harder. Instead, we get the doubly muted impact of having yet another pivotal moment shown to us, not as it happens, but in another retrospective summary. (That this also happens with Cardenia’s survival of a second attack is another case in point.)
There’s also a problem with the Flow collapse itself: the whole intriguing premise on which the plot is based. We first meet Marce, a Flow physicist, during a moment of deeply superfluous narrative double-handling: with the Flow already explained in the prologue, there’s no good reason why we need to see Marce giving a literal As You Know, Bob lecture on it to school children. His profession is adequately explained in the narrative anyway as, along with his father Jamies, Marce has spent his life secretly studying the Flow at the private command of the Emperox, working to prove that the Flow is truly unstable. It’s with this vital data in hand that he sets out from End, not knowing – as the journey between End and Hub takes nine months in either direction – that Cardenia has already replaced her father.
As a character, Marce is inoffensive enough, but also deeply uninteresting. His narrative passivity, whereby he spends all his time being bossed around by other characters without really contributing anything beyond Carrying The Sekrit Truth (That Quite A Few People And The Audience Already Know About), makes him a sort of reverse McGuffin: a plot-object who spends the novel questing to, instead of being quested for. If he had an actual personality, I wouldn’t mind so much; but as it is, beyond a few quips exchanged, he’s not given much space to distinguish himself. But it didn’t have to be that way, as proven by the few glimpses we get into the POV of the book’s antagonist siblings, Ghreni and Nadashe Nohamapetan.
Whereas Marce and his father know that the Flow is going to collapse completely, the Nohamapetans (it’s eventually revealed) have been working on the theory that the Flow streams will simply shift, making End – not Hub – their new focal point. All their politicking to get control of End – and for their brother Amit to marry Cardenia back at Xi’an – hinges on this assumption. The problem is that Nadashe’s information comes from a junior academic whose own curiosity in the matter was piqued by a years-old paper written by Jamies – and yet somehow, for reasons that are never explained, the Nohamapetans, who are actively dealing with Jamies on End, don’t know that he’s the original proponent of the theory. This glitch in the plotting is never explained, and niggles unpleasantly at the logic of everything it underlies – and as it underlies a great deal of the plot, it’s a small error with big consequences.
The simplest fix is for Jamies to have changed his name since his student days or to have published under a pseudonym, thus rendering him anonymous. The better fix is for the Nohamapetans to have known all along, and to have believed either that their research was superior or that Jamies’s was discontinued. That being so, the problem of Marce’s characterisation might have been obviated if we’d spent more time in Ghreni’s POV from an earlier point in the book, with Marce coming in later. More specifically: if we, the readers, had only known that Marce was on a Sekrit Mission to the Emperox, but not what that mission was – if Marce’s knowledge of the truth was hidden while Ghreni’s false beliefs were shown, and Cardenia, with her outdated information, had unknowingly assumed that Ghreni’s version of events was true – then the audience would have shared in the moment of Marce’s reveal to the Emperox and her council. Which would have been goddamn amazing, and completely altered the impact of the book. It’s not bad that we know the truth almost all the way through; it’s just a missed opportunity to have made us believe one type of shift was coming, and to have sympathised with the well-meaning but ruthless antagonists as a result, and then to have whammied us with the truth.
My other complaint is of a different nature, and can be summarised thusly: women, sex and worldbuilding. Given that The Collapsing Empire is the sort of SF novel that includes brief asides explaining various technological or scientific concepts, and given also that Scalzi is very clearly trying to create complex, interesting female characters – an aim in which he largely succeeds – I found myself profoundly jarred by a handful of moments where those two ambitions ought to have overlapped, but didn’t. Chief among these is Cardenia, on the day of her coronation, complaining about period pain. While the inclusion of such a detail struck me as being commendably well-meaning in its acknowledgment of menstruation, it also left me wondering why the hell a non-patriarchal spacefaring culture founded by a female prophet hadn’t found a medical solution to that particular problem, such that literally the most powerful woman in the universe is still suffering from it.
Similarly, while I’d been willing to handwave Cardenia’s mother accidentally getting pregnant to the Emperox – characters failing to think about birth control and/or the risk of pregnancy is a lamentably common narrative issue – the fact that there’s no perceived barrier to a female Emperox producing a legitimate heir with a female partner had me wanting more details. If this is so, then why, when Cardenia is asked about producing an heir, does she respond by snarking that it’s good to know she’s valued for her uterus? Does she physically have to fall pregnant to have a child, or can someone else carry one for her using her DNA and that of a donor, or via some other arrangement? If a novel can spare a paragraph or two to explain about artificial gravity push fields, which are barely relevant, then surely it can spare the same amount of time to tell me how Cardenia is expected to continue her dynasty, when the pressure she’s under to marry for political advantage – to say nothing of her own internal thoughts about children, sex and family – are a far larger part of the story.
And then there’s Kiva: a character whose brashness, swearing and ruthlessness I loved, and whose sections were some of the best in the book. But – and you knew there’d be one – she also manages to wander into a trope I truly, genuinely hate. Having smuggled Marce onto her ship, and on the heels of much frustration about how her sex life keeps getting interrupted, Kiva pulls Marce into her room, strips naked and propositions him with much insistence and grabbing. Marce, somewhat understandably, is a little flummoxed by this, as Kiva has more than once put him in real physical danger and has very recently stated her willingness to treat him as potentially expendable. Even so, he capitulates and sleeps with her – and while it’s not written as non-consensual, with a subsequent scene showing Marce to be enthusiastic, it’s skeevy as fuck in a way that’s clearly unintentional, especially as Kiva uses sex as a way to get Marce to divulge his secret information. I hate having to say stuff like “reverse their genders and see how you’d feel about it then,” but, well… if a man in a position of total power over a woman whose safety he’d just dismissed were to strip naked and proposition her, and she were to initially be confused and alarmed and then go with it, and he were to use the intimacy of sex to coax a confession out of her, I suspect that would more obviously hit the Hell No button for a lot of people than it does in this permutation.
The fact that Marce and Kiva then spend nine months together on her ship during their Flow journey to the Hub is neatly brushed over: as, for that matter, are the details of Cardenia’s rule during the same time period. The story just skips neatly from one point to the other: Marce and Cardenia flirt with zero sign from Marce that he’s spent nine months fuckbuddying with Kiva, who’s already moved on to seducing the female guard assigned to her for Plot Reasons (insert sigh of Bisexual Tiredness at the Louche Bisexual Who Seduces People For Information trope here), Cardenia shows no sign of having spent nine months grappling with the intricacies of imperial power, and the plot continues on.
It’s hard not to view The Collapsing Empire as a book that despite the clear brilliance of its underlying politics, motives and conception, was very much rushed. All the pieces for a stronger, sharper version of the story are right there, with not that much tweaking required to make them fit. Scalzi’s style is engaging and playful, the narrative streamlined: for all my complaints about the characterisation, I was always entertained. It’s just that, for a book with so much potential, I think it could easily have been a little longer, just a little more differently structured, without losing any of its paciness or momentum.
While I don’t doubt the merit of its inclusion on the Clarke longlist, I can’t honestly lament that The Collapsing Empire didn’t make the final cut. Even so, regardless of whether we hear from Captain Gineos again, I’m keen to see how the rest of the series plays out – because whatever the failings of this first book, the story has created a truly magnificent setup for what comes next.
Foz Meadows is a genderqueer fantasy author, essayist, reviewer, blogger and poet. She has most recently published An Accident of Stars, A Tyranny of Queens with Angry Robot, and Coral Bones with Rebellion. Foz is a reviewer for Strange Horizons, a contributing writer for The Huffington Post and Black Gate, and a repeat contributor to the podcast Geek Girl Riot. Her essays have appeared in various venues online, including The Mary Sue, A Dribble Of Ink and The Book Smugglers. She is a two-time Hugo Award nominee for Best Fan Writer in 2014 and 2017, and won the 2017 Ditmar Award for Best Fan Writer, having also been nominated in 2014 and 2016. In 2017, An Accident of Stars was a finalist for the Bisexual Book Awards.