Modern readers, fresh from watching an “America First” United States and Brexit-ing United Kingdom turn away from their roles as global hegemons, could probably not ask for a more relevant book title right now than The Collapsing Empire. Author John Scalzi insists that he came up with both the title and premise for his latest science-fiction novel years ago, but that’s basically the point. Scalzi has constructed a thrilling novel so in tune with the flow of politics that it would feel relevant at almost any time.
It is true, though, that the characters who populate The Collapsing Empire face a political crisis so massive it forces them to re-examine their worldviews. The book focuses on three characters in particular, and shifts between their perspectives. First is Cardenia Wu-Patrick, a relatively normal woman who nevertheless finds herself crowned Emperox of the Interdependency, a wide-spanning galactic empire connected by a complex space travel network called The Flow. Then there’s Kiva Lagos, a foul-mouthed merchant heiress whose constant displeasure with everyone on her spaceship allows Scalzi to write F-words to his heart’s content anytime she’s on the page. Rounding out the trio is Marce Claremont, a physicist destined to continue his father’s important work of studying The Flow. All of them, in separate ways, end up confronted by the same problem: The Flow is collapsing. Since this network of wormhole-like space tunnels is the only thing that allows humans to travel from one end of the galaxy to the other, and since each planet of the Interdependency is reliant on all the others for resources and trade, this collapse is a civilization-level crisis.
But as with most great crises, most of the people affected are barely even aware of the problem. These characters’ time is mostly spent with smaller but more vicious concerns – in Cardenia’s case, it’s the bureaucrats and bishops trying to undermine her rule before it’s even begun, while Marce and Kiva have to deal with the machinations of the wily merchant Ghreni Nohamapetan, who may or may not be behind the armed rebellion currently plaguing their planet. Luckily, Scalzi is good at writing two-faced political cutthroats and usually manages to make their machinations interesting. He balances humor with action throughout the book, and always keeps the plot twists coming.
One annoyance is that The Collapsing Empire does not bill itself as the beginning of a new series (in the vein of Scalzi’s breakthrough Old Man’s War saga) and yet it leaves most of its story untold by the end. Scalzi does a good job of building this unique world and setting up a lot of dominoes, but only a few have fallen by the end of this book’s 300 pages. Scalzi has thrown a lot of volatile elements together and established grand stakes, but the real story feels like it’s only getting started. B+