Friday, December 29, 2017

Snark in Space: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

If you're caught up in Star Wars fever but need a break from overpriced snacks and rude moviegoers, why not read some space opera?  John Scalzi's The Collapsing Empire isn't Star Wars per se, but you should check it out if you like snarky humor .... in space!

The patented Scalzi Snark is turned up to 11 on this one, but behind it is an interesting story that's a melange of Asimov's Foundation, Herbert's Dune, and Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga ... with of course several heaping teaspoons of that aforementioned Scalzi Snark to spice things up.

If you've never read Scazli before, imagine a novel in the form of a snarky, clever, foul-mouthed twitter account, but somehow with characters, plots, and ideas.  And then imagine this somehow actually being pretty good.  Many of the characters here clearly give no fucks.  Or rather, they give lots of them in the form of frequently using the word "fuck" or in their (PG-13, mostly off screen) sexual exploits.

Can all of this snark and no-fuck-giving be a bit distracting?  Yes.  I find it amusing for the most part, but sometimes I wanted to tell the characters to take it down a notch.  I also wonder how this sort of style is going to read in say, 20-30 years.  On the other hand, one of the main characters is a thoughtful, vulnerable person with little snark who is pushed into the role of leader of a galactic empire, and thus has an empire's worth of fucks to worry about.

The most surprising thing about Scalzi, though, is that this is all surface-level stuff.  If I were a more cynical person, I'd say it's about selling books to snarky nerds who wish they lived in a world where everyone was as clever with their off-the-hip snark as a Joss Whedon character.  But I'm not that cynical.  And Scalzi is pretty clever and funny, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

If you scratch beneath the surface, there's actually some really great stuff here.

I mentioned Asimov at the beginning, because this is about a collapsing space empire.  The title to me sounds like it was a working title that somehow stuck (Scalzi also assures us in the postscript that it's not intended to be direct allegory for contemporary politics).  We also have an empire filled with great noble houses, like Dune but what the characters lack in mystical spice-fueled abilities they possess in having more relatable human emotions, which makes it more like Bujuld's Vorkosigan Saga on that count.  (Don't get me wrong, I love Dune with the fiercest of nerd passion, but whenever I re-read it I realize that we're supposed to be scared of Paul, not relate to him).

One of the characters is the one I've already mentioned who finds herself as the Emperox (a gender-neutral title).  We also meet a lesser noble from a far-flung planet of End (who is also a physicist; take note, you'll need to know that later).  The "bad guys" are a scheming royal family, like Dune's Harkonnens, only less over-the-top evil and more obnoxiously ambitious.  There's also a noble who is also a snark-turned-up-to-12, zero-fucks-giving starship captain.

If there were a Star Wars crawl for The Collapsing Empire, it would talk about the rebellion going on on the planet End, but it might also mention that the empire called the Interdependency relies on a feature of space-time called the Flow that allows quicker travel between planets (not technically faster than light, I guess, but yeah, it basically amounts to the same thing).  The thing is that the Flow is in danger, or so at least a handful of amateur scientists would claim, one of whom, as those of you paying attention will guess, is one of the main characters.  (I guess professional physicists don't get funding in this universe to work on issues that could upend their civilization.  Too bad.)

The Philosophy Report: Disagreement Dramatized

For me the most interesting issue in the novel, aside from the cool world building, is that the plot hinges on a case of scientific disagreement.  Specifically, there's a disagreement (based on different mathematical models) about whether the Flow is going to change in a way advantageous to one planet or whether it's going to upend the entire civilization.

Disagreement has been a big issue in philosophy lately, especially in epistemology (aka, the theory of knowledge), but it goes back as far as ancient Greek skeptics and the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi.  This makes sense, since philosophers disagree all the time.  But as much as the naive, textbook model of science would like lead you to believe otherwise, scientists disagree all the time, too.  How to react to disagreement?  One route (the route of "freshman relativists" in Philosophy 101 classes) is to just say "whatever you believe is true for you."  I think this is wrong on a number of accounts, but one is that the mere fact of disagreement doesn't mean there is no answer.  It might mean you should be less sure that you've got the answer, or that you know what the answer is, but this isn't going to help climate-change deniers deal with the effects of climate change and it's not going to help the citizens of Scalzi's Interdependency if the basis of their civilization changes.

In the plot, the disagreement becomes the basis of the actions of rival royal houses, which is a nice way to dramatize it.  If anything, I wish Scalzi had a bit more of a hard SF writer in him to tell us just a little bit more about the bases of the disagreement and how it could be resolved.  I don't want equations (which I wouldn't understand, anyway), but just a little something aside from "this smarter character believes A and this less-smart character believes B."  I'd also like to see the disagreement left a little more unresolvable, but that's just the kind of thing you'd expect a philosopher to say!

Is Scalzi doing ground-breaking stuff?  Not really.  But if you like a healthy dose of snark in your space opera (or can abide it at least) and are looking for some mildly thoughtful entertainment, check this out.

Rating: 85/100

See my Goodreads review.

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