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.

Anomalisa

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

anomalisa2

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.

Help?

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

20140706-160339-57819910.jpg

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.