Review: The Collapsing Empire

Cover Art

Cross-post­ed on Goodreads, sans foot­notes.

Every time I read a John Scalzi nov­el, I’m remind­ed what a good writer he is.* This one’s no excep­tion. He han­dles the big pic­ture and the small, per­son­al details with equal deft­ness.

After I fin­ished the epi­logue, I jumped back to the pro­logue. With the knowl­edge of every­thing else that hap­pens in the book, it was fun to see how this lit­tle piece of the sto­ry — large­ly uncon­nect­ed to the events in the remain­der of the nov­el, fea­tur­ing char­ac­ters we would­n’t see again — still added to the whole.**

When I start­ed read­ing the book, I was­n’t sure if it was a stand-alone nov­el or the launch of a new series. When I got to the end, it was pret­ty plain­ly the open­ing vol­ume in a mul­ti-vol­ume set. (Don’t get me wrong — the nov­el is com­plete in itself, but the end­ing indi­cates there’s more to come.) Under nor­mal cir­cum­stances, I’d have felt a twinge of irri­ta­tion at this, but in this case I was relieved. I want more time with these char­ac­ters, and I want to know just how they’re going to deal with an empire in col­lapse.

The Col­laps­ing Empire, by John Scalzi

One final note: Peer review is impor­tant. Read the nov­el and you’ll see what I mean.


* In a lot of ways, John Scalz­i’s writ­ing reminds me of Joe Halde­man, who is one of my favourite writ­ers.

** A note on pro­logues: Elmore Leonard famous­ly want­ed writ­ers to avoid them, and gen­er­al­ly speak­ing he’s right (IMHO). But any list of “rules” of writ­ing are real­ly guide­lines, and usu­al­ly reflect what works best for the author writ­ing the list of rules. I’ve read a lot of Elmore Leonard’s detec­tive nov­els, and I can’t recall ever run­ning into a pro­logue there.

I don’t skip pro­logues when I read, but I do notice when they real­ly don’t con­nect at all to the sto­ry. When that hap­pens, I agree, it would have been bet­ter to excise the pro­logue entire­ly.

The Col­laps­ing Empire’s pro­logue was fun enough — and con­nect­ed enough to the over­all sto­ry — that I read it twice.

Review: Fragment, by Craig Russell

Fragment, by Craig Russell

Fel­low Bran­don author Craig Rus­sell recent­ly had a new nov­el pub­lished, titled Frag­ment. I went to the book launch at McNal­ly Robin­son Book­sellers and bought myself a copy.

I fin­ished read­ing it last night, and I must say, I enjoyed it. It’s a short novel—not much over 200 pages—but it packs a lot into that space.

The Story

Thou­sands per­ish as ice over­runs a research/tourism base at the south end of the world. A mas­sive sheet of Antarc­tic ice—the Fragment—breaks free of the con­ti­nen­tal ice shelf and drifts into the ocean. Three sci­en­tists, sur­vivors from the destroyed base, must try to get the mes­sage out: This is a dis­as­ter. The Frag­ment threat­ens thou­sands, pos­si­bly mil­lions, of lives.

Stand­ing in their way is the cap­tain of the nuclear sub­ma­rine that res­cued them, under orders to run silent, run deep. Also, the Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States isn’t thrilled about the sit­u­a­tion, since it looks like it’ll be bad for his polls in the run-up to re-elec­tion.

And Ring, a blue whale, tries to warn his peo­ple of the dan­gers pre­sent­ed by the Frag­ment. But he’s only one voice in the vast ocean.

The Good

The sto­ry is cap­ti­vat­ing. Rus­sell1 does a good job of flesh­ing out his cast of char­ac­ters, espe­cial­ly the ones we’re going to spend a lot of time with. Ring in par­tic­u­lar felt like a well-devel­oped per­son, who just hap­pened to be a whale.

The stakes start out high and get high­er all the time. I could­n’t stop turn­ing pages, espe­cial­ly in the last half of the book, which I read in a sin­gle sit­ting.

The “Needs Improvement”

The end­ing, while com­pelling, felt like it could be fleshed out some­what. Sev­er­al dis­as­ters involv­ing the Frag­men­t’s unstop­pable force vs. an island’s immov­able object were deliv­ered in a few para­graphs, and it felt rushed.

The Verdict

Buy it. Read it. It’s an eco-dis­as­ter nov­el with polit­i­cal over­tones, and it’s a first-con­tact nov­el, all in 200-and-a-bit effi­cient pages.

 


  1. Craig is a friend of mine, and it feels weird to call him by his last name, but that’s the way things are done. Right? 

Review: Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble

Get in Trouble

Get in Trou­ble by Kel­ly Link
My rat­ing: 5 of 5 stars

Kel­ly Link writes sto­ries like no oth­er. Every one is dif­fer­ent, but they’re all linked by a curi­ous mag­ic and a sense that you have no idea where you’re going, but it’s going to be worth the ride.

View all my reviews


OK, that’s the short ver­sion. I’ve had time to digest, and so here’s a bit more.

I sus­pect that Ms. Link is a pantser, like, say, Stephen King. (Edit: She evi­dent­ly is not.) She invents ful­ly-formed char­ac­ters, then sets them loose in set­tings as var­ied as the hollers of the south­ern US, a sleep­er ship on its way to Prox­i­ma Cen­tau­ri, a hotel host­ing two con­ven­tions, and an island wed­ding. Then she sits back—in a man­ner of speaking—to see what hap­pens.

The open­ing sto­ry, “The Sum­mer Peo­ple”, was a beau­ti­ful thing. I’ve been work­ing my way through the last sea­son of Jus­ti­fied, and I kept imag­in­ing actors from the show in the roles of the two girls in the sto­ry.

Secret Iden­ti­ty” is a long email writ­ten by a young woman (almost six­teen!) who almost got involved with a man near­ly twen­ty years her senior. It takes place at a hotel host­ing two con­ven­tions, one for den­tists, the oth­ers for super­heroes.

The Les­son” felt trag­ic and beau­ti­ful and creepy.

Two Hous­es”, a col­lec­tion of ghost sto­ries on board a space­ship, was every bit as spooky and spacesuit‑y as you think, and it had echoes, as you’d expect, of Ray Brad­bury.

Every sto­ry in this col­lec­tion is worth your time. Every sto­ry dumps you into a sit­u­a­tion that you don’t under­stand, that you can’t yet under­stand, and then feeds you the infor­ma­tion you need to make sense of what’s hap­pen­ing. (It took me quite some time, for exam­ple, to decide if the super­hero con­ven­tion was a cos­play con­ven­tion, or a gath­er­ing of hon­est-to-God super­be­ings. I’ll let you read it so you can decide for your­self.) Every sto­ry is a lay­ered trea­sure, unfold­ing slow­ly or quick­ly, till the gem at its heart is revealed.

More jetpack envy?

From Daniel Han­dler’s review of Patrick deWit­t’s lat­est nov­el, Under­ma­jor­do­mo Minor, which I am cur­rent­ly read­ing and enjoy­ing:

It is said, for instance, that Mar­garet Atwood does a take on sci­ence fic­tion and there­fore is a lit­er­ary writer instead of a sci­ence fic­tion writer, and then we won­der why there are so few sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers who write as well as Mar­garet Atwood, while the sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers glare at us and order anoth­er round. This is bad. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is sci­ence fic­tion and should not be dis­qual­i­fied as such on the grounds that it has good sen­tences and makes you think, as does the work of Patrick deWitt. There­fore, “Under­ma­jor­do­mo Minor” is a ter­rif­ic piece of genre writ­ing, and that’s that.

I’m a lit­tle irritated—perhaps unjust­ly so—at the sug­ges­tion that sci­ence fic­tion (and oth­er gen­res) can nev­er con­tain “good sen­tences” or “[make] you think”. I just can’t quite decide if Han­dler shares my irri­ta­tion; I’d like to think that he does. In either case, I’d point those that may hold that opin­ion at works like Michael Swan­wick­’s Sta­tions of the Tide or Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, to name two exam­ples.

PS: If you haven’t read any­thing by deWitt, I high­ly rec­om­mend The Sis­ters Broth­ers and (even though I’m not yet done read­ing it) Under­ma­jor­do­mo Minor.

Library haul

Went down to the pub­lic library tonight, since my copies of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and John Scalz­i’s  The End of All Things were due back.

(Reviews: The Ocean at the End of the Lane was a spooky com­ing-of-age/mem­oir tale from a mas­ter of eerie fan­ta­sy; The End of All Things fur­ther solid­i­fied my view of John Scalzi as my gen­er­a­tion’s Joe Halde­man (though it might have been smart of me to read The Human Divi­sion first).)

So I went in with­out any plans as to what I want­ed to check out. I did check the cat­a­logue for the sta­tus of Emi­ly St. John Man­del’s Sta­tion Eleven, which has been checked out every time I’ve gone look­ing for it. Tonight was no excep­tion. One day (shakes fist at the sky).

But by and large I had no agen­da. I checked the New Releas­es sec­tion, and snagged Chuck Wendig’s After­math. Then I wan­dered over to the SF/F sec­tion, which is where I usu­al­ly end up. Grabbed anoth­er vol­ume there — a four-nov­el omnibus of Philip K. Dick nov­els, which either a) has fan­tas­ti­cal­ly small print or b) serves as a reminder of how short nov­els could be back in the 60s. And then I took a gan­der at the graph­ic nov­els, where I grabbed my third and final vol­ume: Scott McCloud’s Sculp­tor.

I’m look­ing for­ward to all of these. I just can’t decide which should be first.

Help?

The Once and Future King

For many years I fobbed it off, since it was fan­ta­sy, and I was for a long time a snob about such things. (Sci­ence fic­tion was good; fan­ta­sy was not. Thanks, Sir Ter­ry Pratch­ett, for final­ly show­ing me the error of my ways.)

For years I’ve meant to read it, but nev­er got around to it.

Now I’m read­ing it, and I’m won­der­ing two things:

  1. Why did­n’t I read this years ago?
  2. Why did no one ever tell me how fun­ny it is?

Cur­rent read: The Once and Future King by T. H. White.

(Well, so far it’s fun­ny, but I’m only get­ting near the end of Book I (of IV).)

A lesson in a line

Read­ing in bed last night, I came across this gem:

It is always a temp­ta­tion to say that such feel­ings are inde­scrib­able, though they sel­dom are.
— Gene Wolfe, The Sword of the Lic­tor (vol. III in the Book of the New Sun tetral­o­gy), chap­ter XXII: “The Skirts of the Moun­tain”

In a sin­gle line the author evis­cer­at­ed a fair­ly com­mon trope in SF/F writ­ing. Now and for­ev­er after, when I read a sen­tence stat­ing that X was inde­scrib­able or refer­ring to an inde­scrib­able colour or an inde­scrib­able feel­ing, I’m going to won­der: Is it real­ly inde­scrib­able, though, or is the author sim­ply not inter­est­ed enough to describe it to me?

I’ve tak­en the les­son to heart, though: from here on out I’ll be doing my best to excise inde­scrib­able from my own lex­i­con.

Series: Gene Wolfe

The entire series: The Gold­en Sen­tence; A les­son in a line; Inde­scrib­able; My head­’s swim­ming now; The Island of Dr. Death.