The Collapsing Empire (2017)
John Scalzi (1969)
In the far future, mankind has discovered a means to travel faster than the speed of light: by accessing a phenomenon referred to as the Flow, spaceships can move between points in space many light-years apart in only a matter of months. Using the Flow, a group of some three dozen systems has been established in the stars.
The catch is that the Flow can only be accessed by so-called shoals — openings created by particular, if poorly understood, physical conditions at specific points in space. Thus, the Flow cannot be used to travel to any arbitrary point in space, only between systems that are near such shoals. And, if a shoal collapses or shifts, a system can find itself suddenly isolated from the rest.
In the story, just such a shift in the Flow had occurred in the distant past, and cut off the rest of the systems from Earth. As most of the far-flung worlds have no habitable worlds, and so consist of either enclosed habitats on desolate planets or satellites in orbit around them, life without access to Earth and its resources became a difficult challenge. To survive, an empire evolved, made up of a complex power structure of gigantic, complementary mercantile guilds, powerful families each with the sole license to produce and market particular goods. The empire became known as the Interdependency; for the centuries since its founding, the Interdependency has been led by the head of the most powerful of the houses, a leader given the title emperox.
As the novel opens, the daughter of the current emperox awaits his death with apprehension. Her brother had been raised to be the next emperox, but his death some time before the novel opens has thrust her unwillingly into the line of succession, and now the moment for her to ascend to power is at hand. In addition to having little appetite for the responsibilities that await her, she also discovers that she faces challenges far greater than she imagined, as instability in the Flow threatens the survival of the widely dispersed and highly specialized systems of the empire.
Though set well into the future, and built around a clear element of science fiction with the capability for faster than light travel, Scalzi’s story otherwise downplays futuristic technology to evolve as a tale of political and corporate intrigue and maneuvering. With the exception of the Flow, and the significant number of women in powerful positions, the story could easily be set in our present, even down to the characters dialogue and personalities which, despite being a millennium or more into the future, would fit comfortably into a modern-day adventure tale.
The focus on action generally trumps character development in the story; with the exception of a few upright citizens, most of the principal characters seem to be largely driven by the principle of 'honor among thieves;' perhaps not surprising in an empire built around highly competitive monopolies. And, who could have imagined that our most famous swear word would remain an integral part of the language so many centuries into the future? That popular profanity is not just used euphemistically, either, as Scalzi sprinkles in a bit of sex along the way, to further spice up the action. Hardly a surprise, I suppose, to learn (on-line) that the TV rights to the story have already been purchased.
But, these are minor quibbles; The Collapsing Empire provides an entertaining romp in an engagingly developed future world. I look forward to the (already announced) sequel, to discover where Scalzi will take his story next.
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