Wednesday, September 12, 2018

sf novel review

Which I've so headed because I don't read too many of those these days, but I liked this one.

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi (Tor, 2017)

This is the other book I had electronically - it came in the Hugo voters packet from earlier this year, though I didn't read (or vote) on anything in it at the time - that I turned to when the MythSoc discussion book bogged down on me. Being wrapped up in the plot of this one kept me occupied during the lonely hours in my hotel room in San Diego, and it was both engrossing - a rare quality in SF these days - and not too long - an almost equally rare quality.

Reviews of this book have, more than once, compared it to Game of Thrones and Dune. Those are not what I'm reminded of. Yes, it's about high-level politics, but the intrigue is of a different flavor, until just before the end it doesn't get too convoluted, it has neither the bloodthirstiness of Martin nor the bizarre mind-games of Herbert, and above all it differs from both in being neither overlong nor tedious.

Instead, what it reminds me of - almost uncannily so, and more so than any other subsequent work I've ever read - is Asimov's Foundation trilogy, especially its first book. And since the Foundation trilogy is the work I was weaned on as an sf reader, I'm primed to like such a work. But in style, it's updated to a 2010s kind of sprightliness, instead of the now-dated 1940s sprightliness of the Asimov. Since Scalzi has been generally touted as a later-day Heinlein, and I vastly prefer Asimov to Heinlein, I consider this a plus.

The similarities with Foundation are impressive. There's a far-future all-human interstellar empire - check - from which Earth has been lost and largely forgotten - check - with a medieval/Renaissance imperial hierarchy imposed on top - check. The empire is threatened with collapse - see the title; check - and a lone scientist is a voice in the wilderness warning of the danger - check. There's a religion imposed on the system - check - which is largely actually a fraud - check. The plot is largely political machinations at a high level - check - with a minimum of violence - check - and a maximum of clever people outwitting each other - check - but without mind games and a minimum of the Arlington Road trick (where you know exactly how your opponent will respond to a stimulus you've deliberately made subtle and obscure so they won't figure out they're being manipulated) - check. And the novel ends exactly the way the first Foundation story ends, with the protagonist having a brilliant brainstorm which isn't revealed to the reader, but it doesn't feel like a cliffhanger because the rest of the plot threads are pretty much wrapped up.

There are some differences. Most notable is the cause of the imperial collapse. In Foundation it was political/sociological. Here it's ecological: the hyperspace-like environment which makes interstellar travel feasible and the empire possible is breaking down, and the inhabited planets are not self-sufficient. Parallels to climate change are obvious, especially in the reactions which include heated denial of the "if we sweep it under the carpet it'll go away" sort, and acknowledgment that it's true combined with delusion that it won't be so bad. But there's no solution offered in this book, and the political situation is different enough that I doubt we'll learn anything useful from the sequel. Any equivalent to the actual Foundation in the Foundation trilogy has yet to be introduced; that's another big difference. The one false note in this story was the protagonist feeling strangely exhilarated by the challenge of dealing with this. This reaction ought to have been drowned out by deep existential despair, though that would have made for less fun of a story.

Though two of the later big stories in the Foundation trilogy were notable in their day for strong female protagonists, it's otherwise a very male series. This book, though, is full of female major characters, though with one major exception they don't feel very female to me. This raises the question, "So what do you expect a female character to be like?" which is a fair question, but I think the best even of male authors can create women who seem like women without loading them down with female stereotypes.

Scalzi's snarky dialogue style, which I enjoyed in Agent to the Stars where it was appropriate, but which was part of what caused me to bounce off the other three subsequent novels by him I've tried to read, seems under control here. It's less relentless, and it's light and appropriate rather than heavy. I had trouble with a couple of the names, though. The Empire is ruled by an Emperox, which I guess is a made up word to avoid having to alternate between Emperor and Empress. I found myself ignoring the "x" and reading the title as Emperor, despite its holder for most of the book being female. The antagonists are a family named Nohamapetan. I quickly gave up on trying to pronounce this, even in my head, and decided to render it mentally as "Northampton", which gives a pleasing Old Imperial British touch to the story.

The plot zipped along, and just as it started to become too heavy and ornate - a second terrorist attack with mass casualties intended to assassinate the Emperor, I mean -ox? One was more than enough - the book ended. Which leaves me less than whetted for the sequel, The Consuming Fire, which comes out next month, but I'll give it a shot and see if Scalzi can hook me again.

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