It can take five years for a piece of news to go from one end of space to the other, and the story’s going to change in the telling. So you don’t listen to the story. You listen to the pattern. And right now, the pattern is weird …
Almost from page one, it’s easy to see why Scalzi has such huge devoted fanbase, and why he’s met with such success since his entry onto the scene with a self-published novel in 1997. He’s known for his humor, and I was prepared for silliness. What I found was so much more.
I’m not always a fan of a lot of intentional humor in my fiction, and usually shy away from authors “known for their humor”. My feelings on Scalzi were no different. I knew friends who loved Old Man’s War, and Redshirts, but I didn’t see anything that appealed to me – until The Collapsing Empire hit the shelves. I don’t know why, but I had to read it!
And I’m so glad I did.
Yes, it’s funny. It’s witty! But it’s also charming, and thought-provoking, challenging, surprising, engaging. It’s all-around GREAT science fiction! More than that, it’s a wonderful example of the sheer skill some authors can bring to the craft.
As I’ve said before, one of the things I look for in books (particularly science fiction and fantasy) is how, and how well, the author introduces their world and its rules for the audience. Rarely have I seen such an introduction as The Collapsing Empire‘s prologue. Right off the bat, you learn an astounding amount of information about the world you’re about to experience, all smuggled in during a nail-bitingly exciting opening scene.
This is the first of many, many, many proofs that Scalzi’s writing is the perfect example of a cinematic style of writing. Not once did I struggle to get my bearings in a scene, or engage with the narration. Not only does this mean Scalzi’s writing is, well, engaging, it also means he’s done an excellent job executing all of the scene-setting and descriptive burden of his narration without bogging down a single scene with it.
“Without bogging down” is key, here, as at its heart The Collapsing Empire is a story of complex political and social constructs being challenged by a scientific revelation. This is my science fiction bread and butter, but it’s a kind of story readers can struggle to engage with. Well, nobody is struggling here.
He finds small moments between characters, or private moments where characters are thinking to themselves, to illustrate so much about the world he’s created and its complicated history. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered another author who does this so skillfully. All he needs is one exchange, one brief thought, one passing observation, and he unlocks a whole new facet of history, politics, or science for the reader, which may play a part in the next scene – or may not become relevant until the last chapter (or the next book).
The characters were charming and diverse, with cute interrelations that knit together a story that literally spans the occupied universe. I will say that Scalzi writes dialogue that is just a little more intentionally conversational than is my preference, and more than once I was so irritated by how contrived one curse word or another insult was that I was briefly removed from the narrative. I never struggled to jump right back in, though, and my overall enjoyment of the story wasn’t negatively impacted by this.
All-in-all, this is one of those books I would recommend to anyone, science fiction fan or not. Scalzi definitely won me over with this one, and I’m already raring to read the sequel: The Consuming Fire.