Hugo reading 2018: The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi

Last novel!  And it is John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire, which I expected to like, but found quite hard to get into.  I read Scalzi’s blog, and enjoy it, but I do find it disconcerting that his fiction-writing voice is so similar to his blog-writing voice.  It’s almost jarring.

The collapsing empire is more political space opera, because apparently that is what the Hugo novel section is about this year.  In this particular iteration, the human race is scattered across a range of planets, each colony dependent on the others for vital resources, and all linked by the ‘Flow’, which sounds to me like a slow-motion tesseract – one swims through it (and never knows how long one will be in it), and when one emerges, one is in an entirely different part of space.

Except that it doesn’t seem to be working properly any more, and there are several theories as to what it IS doing.

Also, the old Emperox is dead, his chosen heir died a few years previously in an accident, and the new Emperox is a very nice young woman with very little training or obvious aptitude for her role.  This is a problem, because if ever humanity needed a strong Emperox to hold things together, it’s now.

This is a bit of a weird book.  It should be more depressing than it is, given the body count and the premise (and this is perhaps why I found Scalzi’s breezy style a bit uncomfortable).  There are plenty of smart, interesting characters, with a wide range of ethics.  There is some cool stuff – I like the Memory Room, accessible only to the Emperox, where she can confer with computer-generated versions of all her predecessors.  These predecessors have all the memories they accrued during life, but no emotions, so they are quite helpful, but also very blunt.

There is also a character who I have heard is controversial, because she is almost incapable of saying three words in a row without one of them being ‘fuck’.  Also… her seduction of another character late in the book is a little uncomfortable.  I feel as though if the genders of the characters in that scene had been swapped, it would have been problematic, and I feel as though that sentence is itself problematic.  There is an opportunity for him to say no, and one presumes she would have accepted it, but there is also a significant power imbalance between them at the time, and… it just made me feel ever so slightly squirmy.  I think it’s OK.  But it is very close to not being OK.

The ending is not *quite* a cliff-hanger.  It resolves the immediate situation, but it does signal loud and clear that it is the first in a series and if you want to know what happens, you will need to read on.  It stands alone, but only barely.

This category is a tricky one.  Six Wakes and Raven Stratagem are both exceptionally good, and there’s not a lot to choose between them.  Provenance is comfortably in third place, no higher, no lower – I really enjoyed it, but on reflection, there was a pretty sudden plot shift towards the end that was a little clunky.  Collapsing Empire comes in just ahead of New York 2140, just because it was easier to read.  And The Stone Sky is last, I’m afraid, because it did nothing for me.

Having said that, this Best Novel section was worlds more fun to read than last year’s one.  Three books I actively enjoyed, zero books that enraged or traumatised me, and only two which I had to kind of force myself through (and even one of those had fun sections in it).  Nice work, I say.