The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi. ★★★1/2
The Collapsing Empire is a promising start to a new space opera series. Relative to the rest of the genre, it’s also fairly short and easy to read.
In the future, far flung human settlements are united by one thing: the Flow. While not well understood by scientists, the Flow is a network of inter-dimensional space that humans can navigate via entry points and exit points. In a universe where faster than light travel is impossible, the Flow is vital for contact between the different human settlements. And here’s the thing: it’s ending.
An entire empire built on the inter-dependency of the human settlements is about to fall. All human settlements will now be on their own, cut off from the rest of humanity. And the space stations and bare rocks most humans reside on cannot support life on their own as things now stand. The Flow will collapse, but humanity doesn’t have to collapse with it. The new empress of the Interdependency, a scientist, and a noble of one of the merchant houses must work together to save what they can of the human race.
The Collapsing Empire is under four hundred pages long, when I’m used to most space operas being at least twice that length. Additionally, the prose isn’t very dense, making it a quick, easy read. I think it would work especially well for someone who is new to the genre or for someone who finds the hefty tomes of most space operas intimidating. Someone familiar with the genre may enjoy it as well, for I found it to be a lot of fun. The narrative practically skips along — I read all of it in less than twenty-four hours.
Additionally, The Collapsing Empire is a space opera that actually has women who do things. You wouldn’t think it’d be that hard, but it’s a low bar so many books fail to reach. Two of the three protagonists of the novel are women. Cardenia Wu-Patrick never expected to be empress, but after the accidental death of her half brother she suddenly finds herself with the throne and a whole lot of problems. Lady Kiva Lagos belongs to a house with a monopoly over certain fruits. She also can’t go a sentence without swearing. If you’ve got issues with profanity, this book is not for you. Finally, Marce is the son of the scientist who figured out the Flow is ending, and he’s been sent to Empress Wu-Patrick to alert her of the impending end of the empire. All three were fun enough characters, but I don’t know how long any of them will stick with me now that I’ve closed the pages of the book.
In general, there’s a certain “lightness” to The Collapsing Empire. On the bright side, that’s part of what makes this such a quick, breezy read. On the downside, it does mean that world building and character development often feels more sketched in than fully fleshed out. In particular, I think the future universe could have been developed more culturally. Sure, there’s a new socio-political structure based around trading monopolies and psuedo-nobility, but it still feels pretty similar to 21st century America for a culture set close to two thousand years in the future.
That said, I do like the idea of the Flow. It’s twisting the genre tropes regarding transportation in some interesting ways, plus the idea of all contact between human settlements collapsing is pretty darn exciting. I was also worried that the execution of it could end up going over my head (since it sounds a tad bit complicated), but thankfully that wasn’t the case.
In a lot of ways, The Collapsing Empire feels like set up for the rest of the series. The crisis humanity faces has been introduced, but a solution has not yet been found (and the collapse is only starting). It’s up to the sequels to deliver the rest of the story. Luckily, I fully plan on continuing with this series.