So, I have I new space opera series on the way, which starts with The Collapsing Empire, a book which—as the title cleverly suggests—features an empire of planets and habitats, potentially on the verge of collapse.
Now, when I say that the series is “new,” I mean that it’s a story that hasn’t been told before, with characters you’ve never met. But as with so many creative works, The Collapsing Empire has some clear antecedents in literature, in books that inspired me while I was writing my book, and in authors I gleefully borrowed from in order to build out my own new universe.
Which books and authors? Here are five of them.
Dune, by Frank Herbert
Oh, sure, you try writing a science fiction novel about a culture centered on a mercantile nobility headed up by dynastic emperor and not bring Dune into it. See how far you get! Rather than trying to run away from it, I decided to embrace Dune as a creative inspiration for The Collapsing Empire—indeed, when I first started writing the book I tried writing with a sort of Herbert-esque tone. That… turned out not to be a great idea, although I certainly did learn some things about myself as a writer. The final version of Empire sounds like me, which is a good thing. But it was useful to see how Herbert handled many of the same themes I would attempt, both to see what I would do similarly, and what I would do differently.
Grass, by Sheri S. Tepper
I consider Tepper’s Grass to be a world (and universe) building feat equal to Dune and one of the great underrated science fiction novels of all time, and it’s got a great heroine in the figure of Marjorie Westriding Yraier, who goes up against an entrenched hierarchical society (more than one, in fact!) to both get to the bottom of a mystery plague, and to save her own family. It’s accurate to say that Marjorie is the spiritual godmother to one of the protagonists of The Collapsing Empire, as someone who is going to keep on pushing, not regardless of, but in spite of, the cost.
The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison
One of the main characters of The Collapsing Empire is an emperox (that’s a non-gender-specific word for the royal head of an empire) who comes to the office essentially by accident—much like the emperor of Katherine Addison’s wonderful, charming and deceptively gentle (in that it’s not really gentle at all) novel. Addison pulls off the task of having her emperor learn as he goes, despite so many who’d be happy to keep him tractable and in the dark (or “out of the way” if they can’t manage that). Basically, I cribbed a whole lot from Addison, and unashamedly, and I think if her Maia and my Cardenia ever met, they’d have a lot to talk about.
The Hydrogen Sonata, by Iain M. Banks
I note this book, because it’s the most recent Banks book I read, but honestly any of his Culture series would do here—his universe is so vast, capacious and smart that I can’t even be envious of his skill, I just sit back and enjoy it. The Interdependency of The Collapsing Empire could be something that is tucked into a backwater of the Culture (which I’m sure would see it as hopelessly quaint); nevertheless I took many many notes for my own system of planets and habitable structures from his books, and snuck in a small salute to Banks in the names of my ships.
Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
What, that hack? Yes, yes, I know, but hear me out: When you’re a writer who already has a well-established space opera series, starting a new one is fraught with, if not actual danger, at least the worry that you’re going to repeat yourself in some obvious way that sucks the enjoyment out of the new universe for your readers. So one of the things I did before writing The Collapsing Empire was to read the Old Man’s War series again, to have it close enough in my brain that I could avoid replicating major themes and technology (well, to a point… I mean, I still have spaceships). As a result, I think Empire has a good balance of what readers like about me as a science fiction author, and the cool new stuff that will make them want to explore this new universe I’ve created for them. Am I right? We’ll see!
John Scalzi is the author of several SF novels including the bestselling Old Man’s War sequence, comprising Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony, Zoe’s Tale, The Human Division, and The End of All Things. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Fuzzy Nation and Redshirts; the latter novel won science fiction’s Hugo Award in 2013. He also won a Hugo Award for Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, a collection of essays from his popular blog The Whatever. He lives in Ohio with his wife and daughter.