The Collapsing Empire – John Scalzi

The Interdependency has existed for a millennium, ruled from Hub by the House of Wu, whose monopoly on military equipment and strategic location enables it to control access and charge demand tariffs on commerce. Hub is so named because it is the nexus of “the flow,” a poorly understood phenomenon that allows (in relative terms) rapid transportation between the far-flung systems that humans occupied after leaving earth. The stability of the flow has allowed the the development of the Intedependency, an artificial social system of family-based monopolistic guilds, the church, and parliament, all headed by the Emperox. By design, no part of this system can exist on its own, as the new Emperox Cardenia learns soon after her accession, but that does not stop the ambitions of the Interdependency power players.

At the heart of events is the Nohamapetan family, which has aspirations to a marriage with the royal family and designs on End, the most isolated planet occupied by humans and one consistently beset by rebellions. The question is why.

Caught up in the conspiracy are two additional families, Claremont and Lagos. The latter is logical enough in that Lagos is a major trading family and rival of the Nohamapetans, and so a natural target. Claremont, on the other hand, is a minor imperial representative on End, sent away from the center of politics decade ago for reasons that were never made public. Jamies Claremont is not, however, a mere bean counter, but a flow physicist working on a secret project: his models predict that the flow, the very foundation of the Interdependency, is collapsing, or at least access to it is. With his model finally complete, he decides to dispatch his son Marce on what may be the last ship out, represented by Kiva Lagos, to deliver the report in person.

The Collapsing Empire consists of two interlocking threads. The first is the story of the political intrigues of the Nohamapetan clan; the second and more significant one is the race against the impending disaster that will end human life as it is currently known and could end human life altogether. The second thread gives the book a sense of urgency, but remains ultimately unresolved.

The Collapsing Empire is in some ways vintage Scalzi. It is irreverent, with plenty of sex and cursing, thoughtful social and scientific constructions and quickly moving plots. In other ways, it represents the next step in his evolution as a writer. First, its four groups of characters mean that variously intersect mean that the book is the most complex narratives of his that I have yet read. Second, while Scalzi’s characters have always been fun with their snappy dialogue, the characters in The Collapsing Empire struck me as more mature. Not in the vocabulary, but more well-rounded on the one hand, and more varied in their motivations and personalities. (By his own admission, these were some of his favorite characters, too.) While Scalzi also hints at deep insights about humanity in how the Interdependency will be forced to adapt, those issues are put on hold while people resist the inevitable changes to come.

Scalzi’s appeal, and one that he fulfills in The Collapsing Empire, is a witty, fast-paced science fiction adventure. The optimistic potential of human society, tempered as it is by ambition and greed, and political resonances are just a bonus.

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I recently finished reading a collection of Camus’ essays. I’m not going to do a full write-up, but I like his lyricism and his aspirations to investigate the meaning of life. He is well-worth reading. Now I’m reading Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, which demonstrates how poverty has been articulated as a foundational sin in US history.

The End of All Things – John Scalzi

The End of All Things is the most recent installment of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series. Like it’s predecessor, The Human Division, The End of All Things was released in serial form, with each episode advancing the overall plot, while introducing new viewpoint characters. Like Scalzi’s other work, the book features snappy, sarcastic, and often exasperated dialogue, with a smart and sympathetic overall tone. The End of All Things is not my favorite book in the series, which, at some level seems to be running its course since the novelty of the original premise has grown old, but it nonetheless remains a worthy read.

At the conclusion of The Human Division Earth has been separated from the Colonial Union and is now hung between the CU and The Conclave, an alliance of alien species, many of whom hate all humans. The governments of Earth are convinced, and not without reason, that the CU is responsible for attacking them, but, in fact, the real perpetrators are a shadowy organization known as Equilibrium whose goal is to destroy The Conclave and, if possible, the Colonial Union. It is a race against time for scrappy misfits to stop an all-out war, prevent the genocide of the human race, and, in the process, save the Colonial Union from itself.

One of the things I enjoyed about The End of All Things (despite the opinion that the title, which is also a repeated line in the book, is a little too cute) is that its action-and-ingenuity form is set against a thoughtful discussion of politics wherein there are three camps: keep things the way they are, blow everything up, and aggressively pursue a more structurally sound system. The heroes are in the last camp. Moreover, Scalzi does a notably good job of building a diverse cast of characters who take on important roles, regardless of their gender, without coming across like he is preaching about these virtues. I add this last point because I find it somewhat ironic given his online reputation and also because some other science fiction and fantasy books have sometimes come across as moralistic, though, admittedly, generally within the strictures of their plots.

I have given a brief synopsis and a brief explanation of what I liked about The End of All Things, but want to conclude with some further thoughts about serialization and series. The End of All Things is the sixth book in this series, but unlike a lot of long genre series it doesn’t seem to be building to a single “last battle” or comparable event. If I recall correctly, I have put down every book thinking that a) there was a satisfactory conclusion and b) events outside that particular arc continued, whether or not they were even put down in a publication. This is not an easy task to accomplish.

Each new book picks up the grand plot of the series and features some of the same characters, but doesn’t simply perpetuate itself by finding some new skill for the protagonist to have or by needing to pick up from an incomplete story. Instead, each new book has a new angle or has a new perspective—-and the same holds true for each installment of the serialized books, with the final resolution coming at the end of the final installment. What I find interesting about this approach is that it avoids some of the pitfalls of long-running series that sometimes feel like they are coming apart at the seams because the author keeps introducing new viewpoint characters. Scalzi introduces new viewpoints, but usually because the other viewpoints are not likely to return.

As noted above, I liked The End of All Things, but it concludes at a very nice pause point for that particular universe and I am excited to see what Scalzi puts out next.

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Next up, I am reading Wicked River by Lee Sandlin and will probably open Orhan Pamuk’s The Silent House later today.

The Human Division – John Scalzi

I finished this book a few weeks ago and this is the last of the backlogged reviews, if only because life has gotten in the way of my reading.

Every book in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War universe is quite a lot of fun, being smart, clever, and modern military sci-fi. The core premise of the universe is that humanity spread out into the universe under the guiding hand of the Colonial Union and subsequently ran into other races that are stronger, smarter, or more technologically advanced, not to mention pissed that humans are spreading into their territory. To counter these problems, the Colonial Union kept the earth in a sort of stasis in terms of technology, collecting colonists from third-world countries and recruiting soldiers from the elderly in first-world countries. The soldiers do not, of course, keep their old bodies, but instead have their consciousnesses transferred into genetically enhanced bodies with computers in their heads giving them both a wealth of experience and bodies that give them a fighting chance against aliens (though mortality rates are still exceptionally high).

Now the Colonial Union has a problem. Their longstanding scheme to use earth as a source of manpower has been exposed and the people of Earth are furious at being used. The next installment in the series, The Human Division, explores the consequences of this rift.

The Human Division focuses on the exploits of CDF (Colonial Defense Forces) Lieutenant Harry Wilson, his human assistant Hart Schmidt, and Ambassador Abumwe. The first story, aptly named “The B-Team,” sets the tone for the book. When a diplomatic mission goes sideways and a star negotiator and her entire team are killed, the Colonial Union turns to the only available alternative. Abumwe’s team rarely gets things done in the most elegant fashion, but they get results. In these dangerous times, results are all that matter and so the team is assigned to missions where success is desired, but not at all expected.

The Human Division was originally serialized, released in digital form over the course of months in 2013. The project was well-received at the time (I followed the discussion a bit on Twitter), but I only read it in the overall book form. In this project, Scalzi talked about the challenges of writing standalone episodes that also formed a complete novel. While there are some hallmarks of serialization, such as noticeable time-lapses and some skipping around in viewpoints, but each individual episode is a fun story and there is a compelling arc for the entire novel, wherein the recurring characters develop their relationships.

I recommend that people start with the earlier books in the series. It is military sci-fi and, subsequently, tends to be an action romp, but one that carries with it clever dialogue, smart world building, and a progressive message. The action and quip-filled dialogue can threaten to make the characters come across as shallow, but Scalzi injects real emotional depth and real stakes even while the stories remain light and fast-moving.


Life has gotten in the way of my reading recently, between teaching, grading, writing, and job applications, but I am still working through and quite enjoying Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. After that the future is hazy, but I am particularly excited by Ken Liu’s The Wall of Storms, which arrived in the mail yesterday.

Fantasy Series- Recommendations

I believe there is a lot of great fantasy books in the world today. As a result I have collected a bunch of my favorites, with this representing the first of two posts. Here are my favorite series, though, in one case, I only like the first book. There are lots of other good books out there (one of my hobby-horses), and these absolutely represent my tastes more than any sort of objective criterion. There are also other series that I think are great and/or read with zeal, and still others that I am sure would appear on many lists of this sort–for instance, Discworld, which I think is merely OK. I have a long to-read list already compiled, but if there are suggestions I will gladly take them.

The Lord of the Rings [plus The Hobbit and The Silmarillion], JRR Tolkien

In many ways this is the Ur-series for the Western fantasy canon, though Tolkien himself was drawing on the Ring Cycle, Beowulf, and a host of other mythological and Romantic influences. Tolkien also set for invention high for all nerds (said affectionately) who built worlds for games, books, or fun. Call them excruciatingly boring, what with the large number of walks taken, and suffering from the drawbacks of the genre such as unnecessary descriptions of stew, there is quite a bit going on in these series. I am of the opinion that recent years have seen a literary-ization of genre fiction that has linked some of the ideas present in the past books with a craft not before seen, but I still love Tolkien for what it was. The world and the series has plenty of issues, including at times blatantly racist overtones and the general (but not complete) absence of strong female characters, but it does have a lot to give back. I also believe that it offers a better entry into this sort of writing for kids than do some of the more complex modern books.

Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan (completed by Brandon Sanderson)

Another series that I have a soft-spot for having starting reading it in elementary school. It too suffers from a lot of flaws, but also did a lot to drive the genre forward, including that Jordan helped launch the careers of other fantasy authors such as the fellow coming up next on this list. The Wheel of Time can be tropetastic, but that is the nature of the beast, particularly in a genre which usually has the paradigm of a few intrepid individuals holding the darkness at bay, and suffers for being such a sprawling epic. The same sprawl meant that things changed quite dramatically from early on, for natural reasons, for inexplicable reasons when he was still feeling things out, and perhaps for reasons whispered about on internet fan forums. In that way, The Wheel of Time was one of the earliest book series to generate dedicated online communities–and, sadly, one of the reasons for the perpetual fears over authors dying without finishing the books. I haven’t really said anything about the series itself, but I do like a lot of the characters, and it was one of the early series to play with gender dynamics in that the most powerful force in the land are women.

The Song of Ice and Fire, George RR Martin

Or, as it is known, Game of Thrones. Ultimately, a re-envisioning of the War of the Roses in a medieval fantasy world where, as they say, Winter is Coming. The environment of the series flips between long summers and brutally long winters where there is a chance of the White Walkers, and perhaps cold gods awakening. There is a core struggle for the heroes to save the world from utter oblivion, whether using magic swords, blood, or dragons, but Martin’s protagonists are usually too busy playing politics and pretending to be heroes to actually get around to do anything about the encroaching doom. Actually trying to be a hero is the fastest way to die. He has said that there is going to be a bittersweet ending, so we assume that we will see spring, but the question is how will people put aside their squabbles long enough to fight back.

Kingkiller Chronicles, Pat Rothfuss

This is my favorite series right now, though I have heard several viscerally negative reviews of it. The biggest determinant, I think, is how much a reader likes the main character, Kvothe, because this series very much is about him. Functionally, the series is a story within a story, with Kvothe’s life, which has become the stuff of legend, is being narrated over the course of three days. Each day is a book, and the driving question behind the story is how did the legendary individual, whose exploits are known the world over, become an impotent innkeeper in a small town in the middle of nowhere. Rothfuss’ writing is (in my opinion) beautiful, and I also endorse The Small Regard For Silent Things, a novella written about one of the side characters in the main series.

Dune, Frank Herbert

I nearly put Dune on my list of standalone recommendations because I found the first book to be such a revelation and the subsequent books to be such disappointments. Herbert sets up a galactic civil war between the Baron Harkonnen, supported by the Emperor, and House Atreides, which gets trapped on the desert world of Dune. The story is simultaneously intimate and cosmic in scale, with a messianic main character who may accidentally set in motion a military-religious tsunami that will overwhelm the galaxy.

Tao x3, Wesley Chu

[Lives, Deaths, Afterlives]. Chu’s three book Tao series is an action-romp where the alien Tao and his host Roen Tam try to save the world (and his family) from being turned into a warm primordial soup. I reviewed the first book in the series, and really enjoyed all three. There were times that I thought the later books were sloppier than the first and a little too on the nose about some contemporary issues, but those were slight irritations to what is an incredibly fun set of books that was really easy to blow through.

Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson

When I recommend a Sanderson series, this is the one, in part because it is just a trilogy. There are a lot of things that Sanderson does to tie his entire oeuvre together as part of the larger “Cosmere,” but what is important for this trilogy is that for most people the world consists of endless drudgery, toiling away in factories and farms in a landscape where both urban and rural features are covered in soot, not unlike an extreme version of the industrial revolution. There is also a strict hierarchy between the nobility, who are tall and more athletic and blessed with magic, and the masses, who are stouter, slower, and duller. The entire system is rigidly enforced by the Emperor, who is also the most powerful magic user, and his servants. Yet, Kelsier, a thief, is convinced that he can bring down the Emperor and takes his friends, including the urchin Vin, along for the ride. Except, as you learn, the Emperor is also a lynchpin that holds the system together and the changes were not just arbitrary. Sanderson is particularly known for his magic systems, which, in this case, involves the ingestion and consumption (and other uses) of different metals, each of which corresponds to a particular ability.

The Stormlight Archive, Brandon Sanderson

Tentatively placed here, if you are a reader who likes Sanderson’s other books and Robert Jordan, read this. Sanderson is planning the series more than Jordan did, but his writing is similar and this is in many ways his equivalent set of tomes.

Old Man’s War, John Scalzi

Technically OMW is the first book in a series, so it is included here. Scalzi’s military science fiction series is set in a future where most people on earth live entirely recognizable lives. However, to solve the third-world population crunch, they are allowed to colonize distant planets–no first-worlders need apply. That is, until you get old. Science allows the mapping of minds onto new, genetically enhanced bodies, so the military has taken to recruiting people with an entire lifetime’s experience, giving them enhanced bodies, and sending them off to fight against alien races. Survivors get set up with a new, un-enhanced body and a position in a colony. Each of the books set in the world, including the two collections of serialized stories that I haven’t yet read, are set in this universe, but told from a different point of view. They are well thought out, snappily-written, and action-packed, as one would expect from Scalzi’s work, and well-worth reading.

Sometime later this week I hope to post the list of stand-alone novels in these genres that I really enjoy. In the meantime, I’d be interested to know what you think I am missing.

January Reading Recap

  • Narcissus and Goldmund, Herman Hesse – Much like the rest of Hesse’s oevre, this novel is the story of male friendship and the different types of spiritual completion. Narcissus is an academic and a man of religion, while Goldmund is a young man who seeks experiences, but only finds satisfaction through art. Everything Hesse published is set in the German intellectual tradition of his lifetime, although his moralizing may be a bit more heavy-handed than in some of the other books. It is a good read if you like Hesse, but if you’re new to his work, start with Siddhartha, then move to Magister Ludi and if you haven’t lost interest yet, then pick up this one.
  • The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa – My favorite novel this month, and also the saddest, reviewed here. It the story of a life-long relationship between a translator, Ricardo, and the eponymous “Bad Girl.” He loves her, she abuses him; she stays with him for a while and leaves him for someone with more money. but she always comes back. It is a novel about love and obsession and one that continues to cling to me.
  • The Ghost Brigades, John Scalzi – A sequel to Old Man’s War, this is a novel set in space, where humans are just one of a number of intelligent species vying for power and the human government uses the minds and experience of the elderly moved into genetically modified and advanced bodies. It is light and fun, clever and witty, as one would expect from Scalzi.

Life got a bit hectic when the semester started, so I only got through the three books this month. But I am also in the middle of reading A Cultural History of the Arabic Language and recently received a copy of Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, which will probably be the next book I pick up.