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 TroubleGet 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. 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.


I went last night to the Evans Theatre to check out Anomalisa, which was an Oscar nominee in the Animated Feature category.


I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t expect what I got. The story is pretty simple, in a way, but trippily complex in another way. The way it’s told leaves it up to the viewer to figure out certain things, which I prefer to hand-holding and spoon-feeding. The puppetry / animation was amazing; sometimes it was solidly in the uncanny valley, other times it was so lifelike that I forgot these were puppets.

If you’re looking for a movie that makes you think, that makes you wonder, check it out. If you’re looking for the feel-good hit of the summer, this may not be for you. (I’ve seen it called “hilarious” and “laugh-out-loud funny”; I don’t agree. I did find some amusement in it, but mostly in the small details (“Try the chili!”, for instance), not in the broader story.)


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.


Ascension, ep. 1

On the weekend I recorded the first episode of Ascension on CBC. Tonight I watched it.

This post contains spoilers for episode 1 of Ascension. You Have Been Warned.

Ascension is the story, ostensibly, of a secret Kennedy-era generation ship (named, conveniently, Ascension) launched sometime in the 1960s toward Proxima Centauri. As the story opens, the ship has been underway for 51 years, contains 6001 people, and is nearing what the captain and XO refer to as “the Rubicon”, or what normal folks would call the point of no return. While everyone in the upper decks enjoys a dance, the lower-deckers (a lower caste, apparently) drink their illegal (?) whisky (?), and a woman named Lorelei goes for a swim in a pristine blue pool right next to the greenish tanks of the fluid-reclamation systems. (Must smell lovely.) Lorelei ends up dead, the apparent victim of an accident — or is it?

Of course it isn’t.

Meanwhile, on modern-day Earth, the architect of the Ascension project, hospitalized after a stroke that apparently makes him quote something that sounds vaguely like Scripture, is visited in the hospital (or the hospice, maybe?) by his son. The son finds out that someone else has been visiting Daddy-O, and storms off to catch this interloper. The visitor turns out to be doing his Ph. D. thesis on “the early Space Age”, and tries to talk to the son about Ascension. Sounds like everyone on Earth that’s heard of it (other than Mr. Ph. D.) thinks that Ascension is a myth. NASA’s projects are open, says the student; Ascension was a military project.

Back to the starship. Was it accident, or murder most foul? The discovery of a .22 bullet in the victim’s head seems to point at the latter. The captain orders his XO to investigate — but keep it low-key, right, we don’t want everyone to panic.

Oh, and hey, everyone seems to be shagging someone else’s wife.

I realize I’m sounding a little less than impressed with the show, and that’s probably because I am. This episode had a lot of strikes against it:

  • Clunky exposition tumbling from almost everyone’s mouth (“As you know, as XO, you’ll need to learn to play politics.” “As you know, my husband is conveniently working the late shift. Let’s do it here on the table.” “As you know, Ascension was a pipe dream.” (Super-subtle cut to Ascension plodding through space.))
  • Apparently they worked out a system of stable and continuous artificial gravity in the 1960s, which makes me wonder why they’re not using it on the ISS. Here I am, thinks Samantha Cristoforetti, floating around like a sucka.2
  • I kind of liked the fact that the Captain’s and the XO’s uniforms look like US Navy or US Air Force uniforms, but (and this is nitpicky, I know, but if you’re gonna do it, do it right) the XO either needs a different collar device or a couple more stripes on his epaulets. The silver oak leaves go with the Lt. Commander stripes, not the Lieutenant ones he’s wearing. (Military folks, please feel free to correct me on this. I’m getting my info from Wikipedia. Yes, I know.)
  • 600 people isn’t even a small town anymore. It’s a village; a hamlet. Everyone knows everyone’s business in a community that small. But there seems to be plenty of infidelity going on, and the cuckolds don’t seem to realize it’s happening. Odd.
  • The stars in the forward observation lounge are awfully red. If they’re traveling fast enough to see a red-shift that extreme (and they might be, if the shipboard gravity is due entirely to constant acceleration3), then you’d expect to see it to the rear of the ship, with the stars up front shifted to the blue end of the spectrum…
  • …and oh look, the stars just to the right of the red ones, those guys are all blue. (Also, a child actress tells us that the red stars are “death”, and the blue stars, “those are life”. I… see.)
  • Also: What the hell are those dark clouds that stream by the forward observation windows?
  • Also also: Next week’s episode apparently features an “ion cloud” (ooh, how Star Trek-y) that sneaks up on them quickly enough that they have only 30 minutes to save the ship and everyone aboard her. You’ve been traveling for 51 years and you only noticed this death-dealing cloud of ions (I guess?) half an hour before you’re going to plow right into it? Fire your forward watch astronomer, then. (Possibly toward the ion cloud, in the hopes that the body might disperse it.)

I guess my major complaints about the show are a) clunky dialogue with waaaay too much exposition happening, and b) a lack of science solid enough for me to suspend my disbelief. (One example: you want me to believe this generation ship has a constant 1g pulling everyone to the floor? Build the habitat like a torus and spin it, then. Have an external shot of the torus spinning. Show me that that gravity is earned.)

You want me to believe in a science fiction show? Then put some science in it. It doesn’t have to be rigorous, dry, this’ll-stand-up-to-peer-review science, either. Just show me you made an effort.

All that said, I have set my DVR to record the rest of the series, for two reasons:

  • It’s short — there are six one-hour episodes in the miniseries.
  • Despite my complaints, there was enough to keep me interested. I’ll give it another hour. Hopefully now that all the pieces are in place, and the world is established, the dialogue will improve.

  1. 599, actually, I guess. (Sorry, Lorelei. We hardly knew ye.) 
  2. Not really. 
  3. …though 51 years at 1g acceleration would have them moving waaaaaaaaaaaaaay faster than light, which doesn’t seem to be the case. 

Black Bottle Man — the play


We attended the première of the stage version of Craig Russell’s Black Bottle Man. The play, like the novel, was quite enjoyable. I was impressed at how the cast almost all took on multiple roles. This was helped by the stories-within-stories framing of the play.

The story held the same heartbreak and hope the novel did. The good-vs.-evil struggle remained the core of the story; the struggle of a family–of many families–torn apart was just as wrenching. The translation to stage was well done.

Review: Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead

I can’t remember the second-last book that I read in a single day, but I can tell you what the last one was: Sara Gran‘s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead.

Thanks, Doug, for suggesting that I check out this author.

Claire DeWitt is hired by Leon to find out what happened to his uncle Vic, the DA in New Orleans. Vic has vanished; Leon isn’t sure if he’s alive or dead, though he suspects the latter. Leon hired Claire because she’s the best, but she’s far from ordinary. A disciple of a little-known French investigator, Jacques Silette, who wrote a single book on his investigative principles, Détection, back in the ’50s. Silette’s style of detective work is only partly about finding out who done it; it’s more about solving the mystery of one’s own self. Everyone already knows the solution, he claims; it’s just that very, very few are willing to accept and admit the truth.

Claire DeWitt reminded me of both Sherlock Holmes and his latter-day avatar Darryl Zero1. She has the uncanny ability to construct entire truths out of the thinnest of clues; after learning that one young man’s sister used to call him Nee-Nee, she not only divined his name (Nicholas) but also his place of birth, the number of siblings he had, and the ice-cream parlour where he’d most recently worked. Like Holmes, too, she has a fondness for the drugs: booze, weed, various mushroom-based compounds — heck, at least once, she smoked a joint laced with embalming fluid. (No kidding.)

But Claire is a completely original creation. She’s a fatalist, a mental case, a perhaps-murderer. She’s a deeply flawed character, an anti-hero who grew up in a decaying mansion, a blood-sister who gave up looking for her best friend when she vanished. Her mentor was murdered in a random act of senseless violence.

The setting, too, is key. The novel is set in New Orleans, post-Katrina, and the city itself is a character: it’s a wounded beast, perhaps mortally so, trying desperately to recover, but it’s not clear if it can recover, or even if it’s worth recovering. It’s not a city for happy endings, a fact that is repeated several times, by different people. It’s a warning to the reader, too: This doesn’t end well. (Does it end well? You’ll have to read it to find out.)

The story itself is tautly plotted, and moves along at a great clip. Claire’s leaps of logic are (mostly) explained to the reader, and they (mostly) make sense in the end. The story kept me immersed, completely — like I said, I read it in a day, something I haven’t done in a long time.

I loved this book, and I eagerly look forward to reading its sequel, Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway.

Get it from:
McNally Robinson
| Chapters/Indigo
| Amazon

  1. If you haven’t seen Zero Effect, hunt it down.