November 22, 2017

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Setting the scene

First volume of Scalzi's new series feels more like fantasy than sci-fi

Ohio-based author John Scalzi is a stranger neither to space opera nor long-running series. A little over a decade ago, the prominent blogger, ex-journalist and writer-for-hire became a published novelist with Old Man’s War, the award-winning work that also spawned five well-received sequels. Over the same period, a number of his standalone works did similarly well with readers as well as critics.

Now, the sci-fi veteran is looking to do it again with a brand new series. The result is very Scalzi: well-paced and plotted, moderately expansive and populated with snarky but likeable characters who, independent of age, cultural background or gender, all sound an awful lot like the writer himself. Basically, this book is likely what many Scalzi fans wanted — a fresh story but with the same writerly sensibilities they have come to love.

The big idea of The Collapsing Empire is that a future interstellar human civilization (unlike Old Man’s War, no alien cultures have been mentioned in this universe so far) is about to fall apart.

Different planets have been knitted together by a wormhole-based transportation network called The Flow, but not for much longer. Though physicists had believed the network to be stable, the connections are beginning to disappear and only the newly minted Emperox and a handful of others realize what is about to happen.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/4/2017 (214 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Ohio-based author John Scalzi is a stranger neither to space opera nor long-running series. A little over a decade ago, the prominent blogger, ex-journalist and writer-for-hire became a published novelist with Old Man’s War, the award-winning work that also spawned five well-received sequels. Over the same period, a number of his standalone works did similarly well with readers as well as critics.

Now, the sci-fi veteran is looking to do it again with a brand new series. The result is very Scalzi: well-paced and plotted, moderately expansive and populated with snarky but likeable characters who, independent of age, cultural background or gender, all sound an awful lot like the writer himself. Basically, this book is likely what many Scalzi fans wanted — a fresh story but with the same writerly sensibilities they have come to love.

Athena Scalzi photo</p><p>Veteran sci-fi author John Scalzi’s latest brings a fresh story, but with the same sensibilities that fans of his work have come to love.</p>

Athena Scalzi photo

Veteran sci-fi author John Scalzi’s latest brings a fresh story, but with the same sensibilities that fans of his work have come to love.

The big idea of The Collapsing Empire is that a future interstellar human civilization (unlike Old Man’s War, no alien cultures have been mentioned in this universe so far) is about to fall apart.

Different planets have been knitted together by a wormhole-based transportation network called The Flow, but not for much longer. Though physicists had believed the network to be stable, the connections are beginning to disappear and only the newly minted Emperox and a handful of others realize what is about to happen.

This kicks off a series that will involve an empire using its waning days to try to save as many of its citizens as possible before they become isolated in the distant reaches of space. It will be politically and economically difficult; the entire empire came together based on an economic system of trade based on mutual need, each world producing some necessary product while not a single one is fully self-sufficient. And, of course, many individuals will try to use any moment of turmoil as an opportunity to increase their own wealth and power.

This fits the trajectory of Scalzi’s writing career, which began in the arena of military science fiction but has since shifted more to plots rooted in political intrigue, diplomatic strategizing and a greater emphasis on world-building.

In fact, the science fiction writer is almost moving more toward the kinds of plots and characters high fantasy is known for. His power-seekers, kingmakers and heart-of-gold rogues just trying to do the right thing might well fit in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, on which the HBO show Game of Thrones is based.

This is also relevant because, like a long fantasy series, Scalzi seems to have made less of an effort here to write a really satisfying, self-contained story in this first outing. Old Man’s War is a thought-provoking but mostly romping read, sans its sequels. The Collapsing Empire is clearly more focused on setting up the next book.

This is perfectly fine for many readers, particularly those who favour long series. But science fiction fans in general are less used to this story structure, and fans of Scalzi’s standalone works, or even his Old Man’s War series, may be less keen about reserving the payoff for some future volume. This is not to say they won’t still enjoy this new outing, but it remains to be seen whether it will be a universal favourite.

Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and educator.

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