John Scalzi Knows Optimism and Representation Matter: A Non-Spoiler Review of The Collapsing Empire

When humanity discovers The Flow, an extra-dimensional field that spaceships can enter and exit at specific places in space-time, a huge empire grows around The Flow’s interstellar path. With the help of The Flow, human civilization spreads across multiple far-flung planets and space station outposts. Each relies on the others, and access provided by The Flow, to survive. When three individuals begin to learn the truth about The Flow’s future—and that the stability of this path that the empire relies on might not last as long as the government believes—they must find a way to save as many people as possible.

The Collapsing Empire is John Scalzi’s latest offering, launching a brand new space opera series in a universe distinct from his Old Man’s War series. It’s got a fascinating premise, interesting characters, and brings the same charm and approachable narrative for fans new to SF that all of Scalzi’s books offer. It’s a great starting point for new, potential fans as well as great read for older fans familiar with his style and wanting their next fix. I enjoy most of Scalzi’s work on initial reads and on re-reads; I find him to be a highly reliable writer for rollicking literary adventure and for comfort reads, crafting books that feel cinematic in scope. The Collapsing Empire is no different: I read it once and then turned around to read it again. It was just as entertaining the second time through, and I’m sure there are still subtleties I’ve missed because I gobbled it down both times.

Quantifying why I’ve connected so thoroughly to Scalzi’s literary work has been difficult for me. I suspect it’s because Scalzi’s writing feels so much like the visual science fiction that I loved as a kid and a young adult. I loved the Lost in Space film. I cut my teeth on the Stargate movie. I was a devotee of Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis (although not so much Stargate Universe, which was the one Scalzi actually worked on). The grittier and darker the SF got, the less interested I became—but all the space opera that Scalzi writes feels like the humorous, optimistic futures that the space opera of my childhood told stories about. Things go wrong in his narratives, but there’s always hope. The Collapsing Empire‘s title suggests a complicated situation, one the characters we meet may struggle to survive, and it’s not without its darkness and loss—but it never feels pessimistic.

The lack of pessimism is a feature in the rest of his work, too, and that comes down to the characters he creates. Without getting into spoiler territory, The Collapsing Empire features one character I never expected to see from Scalzi, but as we get to know her it feels utterly natural to have her there, as she brings tons of levity to the mix and consistently eschews easy classification by those around her. Given our current cultural and political environment, the kinds of characters that authors choose to write about and represent have even more relevance now than ever before. Scalzi has been making politically relevant character choices for quite awhile in his work, which is significant for a mainstream author with a huge platform: his use of nongendered pronouns, his habit of placing women in positions of power and incorporating issues relating to disability, gender, and race are key features of his work. At first glance, The Collapsing Empire might seem as if it doesn’t go as far as some of his previous work, compared to something like Lock In, for example, with its clever narrative conceit. But in The Collapsing Empire Scalzi’s written two incredibly powerful women, one with an excellent and filthy mouth, as well as a third protagonist: a haphazard male scientist who is incredibly smart, but somewhat ill-equipped to navigate the political and social environment of the Interdependency. It’s important not to overlook the significance of this decision: when an author creates characters and chooses their gender and personalities, their place and agency within the narrative matters, and in The Collapsing Empire, the most powerful characters are women.

Overall, The Collapsing Empire is a fun book filled with drama, intrigue, and quippy characters it’s easy to root for (and against—the book has a great set of antagonists). It’s a promising start to a new series, and I highly expect that it will leave readers clamoring for the next volume as soon as they reach the last page.

The Collapsing Empire publishes March 21st from Tor Books.
Read the opening chapters of the novel, beginning here with the Prologue.

Renay Williams stumbled into online fandom, fanfiction, and media criticism via Sailor Moon in 1994. Since then, she’s become an editor at Lady Business and a co-host of Fangirl Happy Hour. She can be found having emotions over the lives of fictional characters on Twitter @renay.

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