Storytelling

Lessons From the Fractured Plotting of The Collapsing Empire

Cover Art of The Collapsing Empire, showing a shuttle moving in to dock at a large space station.
The Lessons From Bad Writing series has long been one of our most popular segments here at Mythcreants, and for good reason. Authors learn a lot from seeing a popular book’s early chapters broken down and analyzed, and spec fic fans enjoy our snarky comments. But the Bad Writing posts have their limits. Specifically, they’re limited to only the first chapter or two, because quoting a whole novel would be ridiculous.

This time we’re trying something different: analyzing a novel’s entire plot. Instead of direct quotes from the text, we’ll summarize what happens in each chapter and then analyze how it affects the plot. We’ll look almost entirely at big-picture plot issues, not wordcraft or dialogue problems. Our book for today is the Hugo-nominated The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi. It’s a space opera epic about environmental collapse and economic organization, but how good is the plot? Let’s find out.

Spoiler Notice: The Collapsing Empire

Beware the Post-Prologue Reboot

In the prologue, a space captain is dealing with a mutiny while her ship is still in the Flow, this universe’s version of hyperspace. Just before the mutineers put a bullet in her brain, the ship is unexpectedly thrown out of the Flow. This is a problem because it leaves them stranded in empty space with no hope of rescue. Everyone is forced to work together to get the ship back into the Flow, and that’s when the captain turns the tables on the mutineers. She takes their leader by surprise, kills him, and the prologue ends.

Scalzi has a history of strong openings, and this one does not disappoint. It has fun action and compelling stakes: if the captain doesn’t defeat the mutineers, they’ll kill her! We’re on the captain’s side from the first paragraph, even when she banters with her charismatic enemy. We’re ready to hate her opponent because he wants to kill the captain and her loyal crew in the name of higher profits.

The prologue also effectively piques reader interest in the Flow. It’s a cool take on hyperspace, a set of currents to navigate rather than a uniform dimension that will take you wherever you want to go. Not only that, it also seems like the Flow is directly linked to the plot because something is happening to it. We don’t know what yet, but it spit the ship out when it wasn’t supposed to. That kind of cosmic change will get the reader’s attention every time, especially when mixed into a plot with personal stakes.

Unfortunately, as strong as the prologue is, it does have a problem: it’s a prologue. If the captain were a major character, Scalzi would probably have just labeled this chapter one, so I’m betting we never see her again. That’s too bad, because she’s very engaging, and now we have to go through the process again with a new main character. That’s the catch-22 of prologue characters: if the characters are likable, the reader will expect to see them again. If the characters aren’t likable, then the prologue is a slog to get through.

Open With Compelling Conflict

Moving on to chapter one, we meet our new POV character: Cardenia. Her father is dying, which is bad enough, but her father is also emperox* of the Interdependency, a massive trade-based empire. When he dies, Cardenia will be emperox, but she’s not prepared. Her half-brother was supposed to take the throne, but he died in an accident, so she’s the only one left. She was raised far away from the capital and doesn’t know the first thing about imperial politics. But she’s prepared to take the throne anyway. If she doesn’t, there will be a power struggle, and that’s bad for everyone. At least Cardenia still has her childhood friend Naffa to help organize things.

Once we get over the disappointment of leaving the prologue protagonist behind, this chapter is an excellent start to the story. Cardenia has everything a good protagonist needs. First, she’s sympathetic because she puts the needs of others ahead of herself. She’d much rather go home and never deal with politics again, but if she does that, the people of the Interdependency will suffer, so she stays. Responsibility is one of the most reliable ways I know to generate character likability, and what greater responsibility is there than leading all of humanity?

Second, Cardenia faces an excellent conflict. She doesn’t know how to rule, and we know from the dialogue that she’ll face enemies on every side. We don’t know what those enemies will want yet, but that’s okay since this chapter only needs to establish that they exist, and we can infer from the prologue that it will have something to do with the Flow streams. Finally, Cardenia is just a well-written character, wordcraft-wise. She’s grieving for her father, but at the same time, she barely knows him, and that contradiction comes across in her dialogue. She’s also witty, and her jokes about politics show that she’s clever despite being inexperienced. The perfect recipe for a likable protagonist.

This first chapter also does a great job showing how diverse the setting is. We’ve got an imperial line that doesn’t care about gender, as indicated by the title “emperox,” but there’s so much more. From the discussion of Cardenia’s marriage prospects, it’s clear that’s a gender-neutral affair as well. It doesn’t matter who she marries as long as it secures an alliance between space fiefdoms, which is what I call traditional values. From all the names being mentioned, it’s clear this is a setting where human racial groups are heavily mixed, and Cardenia herself is of Asian descent.

So we end chapter one with a great protagonist, the beginnings of a compelling conflict, and an inclusive world. Well done, Scalzi. The only red flag at this point is that it sounds like the emperox is an absolute monarch, which could make it hard to give Cardenia challenging obstacles once she’s crowned. No one can defy her if her word is law. That’s a solvable problem, though, especially if this is a setting where the monarch rules in name but someone else has the real power. We’ll see, but I’m excited to read what Cardenia does next!

Don’t Leave Readers Hanging

In chapter two, we switch to a different character: Kiva Lagos, the wealthy scion of a merchant house. She’s captaining one of her family’s freighters* to a planet called End. She’s having sex with a subordinate when someone interrupts to say that they’re not being allowed to sell their cargo. She yells at local officials until they let slip that this is all being done at the behest of Kiva’s political rival, Ghreni Nohamapetan. The chapter ends with Kiva in search of a new way to make money off this trip.

Remember how I said I was excited to see what Cardenia did next? Well, instead we get a chapter about this new character, Kiva. What does she have to do with Cardenia? I honestly have no idea. They’re part of the same universe, but that’s about it. I suspect their plotlines will meet up eventually, but right now it feels like I’ve started a different story altogether. This was annoying enough when it happened after the prologue, but at least I was ready for it. I was not expecting another story reboot so soon.

To make matters worse, the conflict presented in this chapter is far less interesting than what we had last time. Cardenia’s conflict concerned every human in the Interdependency. Kiva’s conflict concerns a shipment of fruit. If Cardenia fails, it could mean death and suffering for billions. If Kiva fails, it means her family will take a moderate loss to their obscene fortune. That’s just not as compelling. It’s certainly possible to make a story about fruit shipments compelling, but it’s harder when you’ve already introduced a much larger conflict, and it’s harder still when there’s nothing serious at stake.

Kiva is also less likable than Cardenia. A lot less likable. She swears a lot and gets angry when she doesn’t immediately get what she wants, which makes her seem rather immature. She doesn’t think about others at all. The final nail in her likability coffin is her predatory attitude toward sex. She doesn’t care what her partner wants, and she even orders him to stay when he strongly hints that he’d like leave after they’re interrupted. This would be bad enough under normal circumstances, but she’s also his boss. Disobeying her could have serious consequences for him, which makes the whole thing even more coercive. Gross.

It’s common for stories with multiple points of view to fracture into several threads that are only quasi-related, and that seems to be what’s happening here. In a merciful universe, Kiva would be a minor character thrown in for a bit of exposition, but all the focus on her inner thoughts makes me think she’s a secondary protagonist. Fantastic. Hopefully we’ll at least learn how she relates to Cardenia soon.

Continue the Plot

In chapter three, we’re back with Cardenia. Her father is dead, and she takes a few minutes to process that with her friend Naffa. Then she goes about the business of becoming emperox. She meets with the Executive Committee and learns about the most pressing matters of state, including a rebellion on the planet End, her dead brother’s betrothal agreement with the Nohamapetan family, and that her father was in frequent contact with a Flow physicist named Claremont.

Then Cardenia visits a place called the Memory Room: a chamber where all the previous emperoxes have stored their memories and personalities. She talks to her father’s imprint, and we get some foreshadowing about a major problem on the horizon. The chapter ends with Cardenia asking for more information.

Thank heavens we’re back with Cardenia. Things pick up smoothly where they left off, even with the interruption of Kiva’s subplot. Cardenia is still her likable self, trying to come to grips with her situation now that her father is gone. Also, she doesn’t coerce anyone into sex, which is an admittedly low bar but after last time we can’t be sure. The conflict is still simmering, but that’s okay! The tension is high because even though nothing has blown up yet, we still know what’s at stake.

This chapter also gives us at least a hint that Cardenia’s story is connected with Kiva’s. The planet End is mentioned, and we also hear about the Nohamapetan family, which Kiva is currently dealing with. I suspect they’re gonna be our main antagonists. These small connections aren’t enough, but they’re better than nothing.

The Memory Room is a great bit of worldbuilding. It’s a wondrous device, the first thing that feels truly futuristic in a setting that otherwise seems like a modern world set in space. It also makes for some great dialogue, as the former emperoxes’ imprints tell Cardenia exactly what they think of her: namely that she’s in over her head and too nice for the job. Not only does this reinforce the conflict, it makes me cheer for Cardenia even harder. I want her to prove those musty old fogeys wrong!

We don’t yet know what this big problem is, but I’ll bet money it’s about the Flow streams that connect the Interdependency. That’s an even more pressing conflict than I first imagined.

Secondary Plotlines Need to Matter

In chapter four, we meet Marce Claremont, son of Claremont the physicist, whom Cardenia learned about previously. Marce is teaching some kids about the Flow, but he dismisses class early on account of being in a war zone. Specifically, the war zone on End. He and his sister Vrenna return to their home and chat with their father about his research on the imminent collapse of the Flow streams. They are interrupted by Ghreni Nohamapetan, who tries to entangle them in his political maneuvering. Specifically, he wants the elder Claremont to help him get a bunch of money that he double promises will be used to end the rebellion. Ghreni is quickly shown the door. The elder Claremont decides that Marce must go to the capital and explain the Flow collapse research to the emperox.

In chapter five, Kiva decides she can make extra money by charging exorbitant prices to people fleeing the violence on End. Ghreni shows up, and they verbally spar for a bit. Then Ghreni offers to pay her if she hands over any information on Marce, and Kiva agrees.

First of all, wow, the Flow streams are collapsing. That’s big. I suspected that’s what was happening, but now we have it confirmed. We also have our third point-of-view character, and at this point, I just hope there aren’t any more. At first, it seems like Marce is clearly relevant to Cardenia’s story, because he knows about the Flow streams and is going to tell her about it. This is huge: the Interdependency is basically a series of extremely specialized trade routes. The end of faster-than-light travel would be disastrous since no colony is set up to be self-sufficient.

But then I looked back at the previous chapter and realized this must be what Cardenia was about to learn in the Memory Room, because it was specified that Claremont had sent along all his data. So Cardenia already knows what’s happening, and Marce traveling to meet her won’t change that. Claremont says that the emperox will need someone to walk her through the data, but it’s really unclear what that means. Did he not write abstracts with his previous reports?

So we’re still left with an extremely tenuous link between Cardenia and the other two characters. I’m hoping it’ll grow stronger, but I don’t have high expectations. At least Ghreni is solidifying his place as an antagonist, though at the moment we don’t know what he’s after. He also doesn’t come across as particularly threatening or competent, but there’s still time for him to grow.

Oh, and Kiva decides to squeeze people fleeing a war zone. Nice. I wonder what she’ll think of next to make me dislike her? At least Marce has a sympathetic motivation, even if his story doesn’t feel important. Kiva’s chapters are actively unpleasant.

Stories Should Focus on the Interesting Conflict

In chapter six, Cardenia finds out the full scoop about the Flow streams collapsing. She learns that this happened on a much smaller scale centuries ago, cutting off a major colony from the rest of the Interdependency. The colony quickly collapsed, unable to sustain itself without trade.

Then there’s an assassination attempt! Cardenia survives, barely, but her best friend, Naffa, is killed in the explosion. Cardenia doesn’t know who ordered the attempt, but she’s determined to find out.

Cardenia’s chapters keep getting better and better. This one has both personal and grand political drama. The personal drama is obvious: Cardenia’s best friend dies! This hits Cardenia hard, and readers are primed to grieve along with her. It also gives her an emotional stake in the conflict. She’s not only trying to save civilization, but she also wants to get justice for her friend.

The grand politics are really interesting too – at least to an economics nerd like me. It seems humanity is facing a problem of overspecialization, much like what happened to Britain in WWII. Prior to the war, Britain imported most of its food from abroad. Though it was possible to grow all the nation’s food at home, it was far more efficient to buy it from Canada through international trade. But you know what messes with international trade? German U-boats. Suddenly, Britain had to retool its entire economy for domestic food production before the population starved.

The Flow collapse will cause a similar crisis, except worse and on a grander scale. That won’t be easy to fix, especially since Cardenia has a limited window of time before she loses the ability to command her empire at all. The problem is further complicated by the prospect of denialism. When the Flow streams shifted before, entrenched interests quashed any research into the problem in the name of protecting the status quo, and that will almost certainly happen again. Anyone who’s listened to climate deniers can empathize with Cardenia’s situation.

At this point, I wonder what it would be like to simply read Cardenia’s chapters in total isolation from the other characters. So far I can’t see what we’d be missing. Ah well, let’s take a break from the woman carrying the weight of humanity on her shoulders so we can check in on an unnecessary scientist and a jerk-ass freighter captain.

Villains Shouldn’t Be Humiliated

In chapter seven, Marce tries to get passage on Kiva’s ship, but Ghreni’s goons capture him instead. Ghreni is hoping he can ransom Marce – though it’s still not clear exactly what he needs the money for, just that it’s somehow related to the rebellion on End. Vrenna quickly shows up, rescues Marce, and sneaks him aboard Kiva’s ship.

In chapter eight, Kiva reveals that she told Ghreni where to find Marce and then told Vrenna where to rescue him. This way, Kiva got paid twice. She lays into Ghreni for a while over a video call, telling him exactly how incompetent he is. Ghreni tries to sway her by hinting that he knows about the Flow streams collapsing, but she’s not interested.

I was wondering what Kiva would do to further her detestability, and playing both sides of a hostage situation certainly qualifies. At this point, I’m really wondering what her role in the story is supposed to be. She certainly gets more jokes than any other character, so maybe she’s supposed to be the scoundrel with the heart of gold? That would probably work better if she were a little more mature and not a sexual predator.

Marce remains a passive character, but it’s really Ghreni who suffers. He’s the closest thing we have to an antagonist, and he can’t seem to do anything right. No one takes him seriously, his bribery attempts are laughable, and his goons are easily dispatched. It does seem like he has a deeper plan going on than we previously thought, if he knows about the Flow collapse, but that doesn’t matter when he’s so incompetent.

Antagonists provide opposition to the heroes, and Ghreni’s opposition is feeble indeed. That means there’s no tension when the heroes oppose him. If this were his exit from the story, that wouldn’t be so terrible, but I have a feeling he’ll stick around.

Reveals Should Change the Story

In chapter nine, Cardenia tries to find out more about the bomb that killed Naffa. Amit Nohamapetan, Ghreni’s older brother, tells her it was likely the work of the rebels on End, but Cardenia is suspicious of him. Cardenia takes a moment to grieve for her friend, comforted by her father’s old advisor.

She then heads to the Memory Room where she learns a startling secret. While the trade-based Interdependency is advertised as being beneficial, even necessary, for humanity’s survival, that message is a scam. In the distant past, humanity’s extreme reliance on trade was engineered by a powerful conspiracy to enrich a select few families who control access to the Flow streams.

Wow, that was a big reveal, right? The entire Interdependence is built on a lie. That changes everything! Except it doesn’t, because this reveal has no impact on the story. First, it isn’t necessary to explain anything. It’s perfectly plausible that the Interdependency could have formed on its own, so we didn’t need the backstory for justification. Heck, Earth is headed in that direction right now, with national economies increasingly specializing, and that’s just a result of market forces.*

Second, this reveal doesn’t change what Cardenia needs to do. The Interdependency is already going to end when the Flow streams break down. So even if Cardenia were fired up with anti-Interdependency sentiment, which she doesn’t seem to be, she’d still just keep doing what she’s already doing.

The best-case scenario I can imagine for this reveal is if it had come when Cardenia was in deep despair. Perhaps she’d looked at all the economic data available and concluded that humanity simply cannot survive without galactic trade, and everyone will perish when the Flow streams close. Then she finds this secret buried deep in the Memory Room. Humans once existed without the Interdependency, in a time where every world was self-sufficient. They did it before, and they can do it again.

Unfortunately, that’s not what happens. Instead, this chapter feels like Cardenia’s story has been put on hold while we wait for Kiva and Marce to resolve their part of the book. That’s frustrating because up until now Cardenia’s plotline was easily the best part of the story.

Pirates Are No Substitute for a Plot

Chapters 10–12 happen in quick succession. Marce is smuggled onto Kiva’s ship. He hears some rumors further hinting that the Nohamapetans know about the flow collapse, but it’s not clear yet how that figures into their plans.

As Kiva’s ship leaves the system, another ship starts following them. They figure out pretty quickly that it’s pirates and that the pirates have a spy on the ship. With Marce’s help, they capture the spy, and Kiva tortures him until he reveals that this is another of Ghreni’s schemes. The pirates are supposed to capture Marce or kill him if they can’t.

Kiva’s people make the spy look like Marce, and then they trick the pirates into taking the spy and a small bomb on board their ship. The pirate ship is heavily damaged, and Kiva’s ship escapes.

In a vacuum, this section is quite exciting. The characters are being chased by pirates and there’s a spy on their ship, what fun! Marce even gets to do something when he helps take down the spy, which is nice for a character who’s been so passive until now. However, this scene does not happen in a vacuum, and as such it has some major problems.

Most immediately, this pirate attack is Ghreni’s plan, which automatically makes it less interesting. We’ve seen how effective his plans are, so there’s never a worry that the pirates might actually win. This is why it’s important not to humiliate your villain early in the story; it comes back to bite you later. At this point, even revealing that the Nohamapetans are actually behind the Flow collapse won’t be enough to save them.

At a more structural level, these chapters serve no meaningful purpose. Despite the brief summary, the pirate attack takes up a lot of page space, what with all the planning and witty repartee. That’s a huge section of the book spent in service of getting Marce to the capital so he can tell Cardenia something she already knows. And Cardenia’s story is basically paused until he gets there.

To round out this waste of time, Kiva tortures someone, because why not? I guess I should have expected that since she’s absolutely the worst. But what really irritates me is that the scene is written with no understanding of how torture actually works. Somehow, Kiva magically knows the spy is telling the truth when he says he doesn’t have any more information. How does she know that? Why doesn’t she just keep torturing him until he invents something to make her stop? That’s what would happen if this were real torture. When fiction portrays torture as a magical means of retrieving information instead of the pointless horror it actually is, it encourages people to support torture in real life. Authors have a responsibility to do better.

Villains Aren’t Built in a Day

Next, we have an “Interlude”* chapter from Ghreni’s point of view. We flashback to a planning session with Ghreni, his brother Amit, and his sister Nadashe. It’s revealed that the Nohamapetans know something is happening with the Flow streams, but they think the Flow is shifting rather than collapsing. In their model, End will soon be the new center of the Flow streams, so Nadashe hatches a plan. Ghreni will go to End and take it over while she schemes in the capital. Amit, who doesn’t like the plan, will stay out of the way because no one thinks he’s very smart.

In the present, Ghreni complains to himself about how nothing is going his way. Then he gets chewed out by the Imperial marine commander for kidnapping Marce. Then Ghreni hatches and executes a plan where he murders the current Duke of End and frames Claremont for it. This seems to work, and Ghreni maneuvers to get himself declared the new duke, since the rebels have been in his pocket the whole time.

But when Ghreni visits Claremont’s cell in order to gloat, Claremont reveals the truth: the flow streams aren’t shifting, they’re collapsing. Soon, End will be flooded with refugees because it’s the only world in the Interdependency that’s close to self-sufficient. The chapter ends with the implication that Ghreni and Claremont will work together to handle the new crisis.

Ghreni has plot-whiplash in this chapter. He starts out as the world’s saddest villain, actually complaining about how everyone is threatening him and listing all his previous failures. Then, he suddenly gets himself declared leader of End, which was everything he wanted. Then he realizes everything he did was for nothing, and he has to ask for Claremont’s help.

There are a few technical problems with Ghreni’s plan, mostly that it doesn’t seem like the Imperial commander would buy that Claremont murdered the old duke, and if the commander doesn’t go along with the plan, then it won’t work. But more importantly, Ghreni’s victory doesn’t feel earned. He’s failed over and over again, so it’s incredibly contrived that this last-minute plan would get the job done. If it were that easy, why didn’t he do it before?

A villain getting an unearned victory isn’t as bad as a hero getting an unearned victory, but it still hurts the story. It makes the heroes seem truly incompetent, since they couldn’t even best the bumbling bad guy. This chapter also destroys the last shred of hope for the Nohamapetan family as villains: that they knew something the heroes didn’t, and all their seemingly failed plans were actually part of a deeper scheme. Instead, we find out they’re just wrong about what’s happening with the Flow streams. That could have worked as the fatal flaw in an otherwise functional scheme; instead, it’s just more failure to heap at the Nohamapetans’ feet.

All that said, a hero and a villain needing to team up in the face of a greater problem is a cool idea. It could have worked great if Ghreni were a villain worth respecting and if this entire End plot didn’t feel like a distraction from the story that actually matters. Instead, it’s just another underwhelming plot development.

Villains Shouldn’t Crumble Under Pressure

Chapter 13 opens with Cardenia being briefed on more bombings in the capital. Nadashe Nohamapetan arrives and continues Amit’s work of trying to convince Cardenia that the End rebels are behind the bombings, and she advocates military intervention, though it’s not clear why she’s doing this. She also tries to convince Cardenia that marrying Amit would be a smart political move. She and Cardenia both make fun of Amit’s intelligence. Cardenia is suspicious of Nadashe but agrees to give Amit a chance. The chapter ends with Cardenia being told that Marce has arrived.

Chapter 14 is back with Kiva. She and her mother team up to go extort money from the Nohamapetans in vengeance for Ghreni’s earlier shenanigans. They meet with Amit and browbeat him until he gives them all the money they want.

I have to say, despite how literally no one likes Amit, he’s actually one of the more sympathetic characters in the book. Earlier he tried to convince his siblings not to launch a zany plan that would risk the family’s entire fortune, and now he’s just trying to run a business when two of his rivals show up and blackmail him over stuff his siblings did. Give the man a break!

Unfortunately, Amit’s likability isn’t put to use. Instead, he just serves as another example of how unimpressive the Nohamapetans are as villains. Even at their corporate headquarters, the heart of their power, they have little choice but to roll over when threatened. Nadashe is the family’s last hope, and at least she hasn’t totally failed yet. Even so, she’s pretty lackluster. Cardenia is suspicious of her from the start, and because Cardenia’s word is law, it doesn’t seem like Nadashe can do much.

That’s the problem with making the hero an all-powerful monarch; it’s nearly impossible for the villains to threaten them. If Cardenia decided to eject Nadashe from the court, Nadashe would have no recourse. In order for this dynamic of a powerful hero and a weak villain to work, Cardenia has to trust Nadashe. That’s what happens in stories like Othello, where the hero could crush the villain at any moment but doesn’t because they don’t realize the villain is a threat. That’s not happening here, so it’s hard to imagine what Nadashe could possibly do to make her plan succeed – whatever that plan is.

At least we’re getting closer to Cardenia and Marce finally meeting, so Marce can tell her something she already knows. Maybe after that happens, Cardenia’s story will get to advance.

The Villain’s Master Stroke Must Be Formidable

We’re in the home stretch now. In chapter 15, Marce arrives in the capital, he and Cardenia hit it off, and both of them contemplate a galaxy without the Interdependency. He gives her some specific information on the Flow collapse, including that the stream from End to the capital is already gone, though travel back to End is still possible.

In chapter 16, Cardenia goes on a formal date with Amit, but she’s already decided not to marry him. Instead, she thinks about how she might be into Marce. Then she realizes that something is bothering Amit and talks the entire Nohamapetan plot out of him. Their date ends when a shuttle crashes into their ship, killing Amit and wounding Cardenia.

In chapter 17, the Nohamapetans try to frame Kiva’s family for the shuttle attack. The Imperial Guard place Kiva under surveillance, but it’s clear they don’t believe the charge. After a brief investigation, Kiva finds proof that is was in fact Nadashe Nohamapetan who ordered the attack, surprising no one.

In chapter 18, Cardenia and Marce confront Nadashe in a committee meeting, and Nadashe pulls her master stroke: while Cardenia was recovering, Nadashe blamed the shuttle attack on End rebels and convinced parliament to send a troop transport to capture End. The ship’s officers are Nadashe’s people, and she claims they can destroy any ship sent after them. Nadashe still thinks the Flow is shifting rather than collapsing. She is arrested.

In the epilogue, Cardenia orders the military to retake End and contemplates how difficult it will be to prepare humanity for the Flow’s collapse.

Well, now we know what all the buildup for Marce and Cardenia meeting was for: a potential romance in the next book! That’s not a super great reason to put the main plot on hold, but here we are. It’s not entirely clear why Cardenia likes Marce either. The book tries to portray him as the one person who will speak plainly with her while everyone else bows and scrapes because of her rank, but plenty of other characters have spoken plainly to Cardenia. Oh well, that’s something for the sequel to deal with.

The main point of this section is Nadashe Nohamapetan’s master stroke: another failed assassination attempt, a weak frame job of her rivals, and one troop transport sent to End. That’s her Hail Mary, and it totally flops. Cardenia is still alive, no one bought the frame job, and the Nohamapetans have one ship against the entire Imperial military. I don’t care how much the book talks about Flow stream bottlenecks – there’s no way one ship can hold the system. It’s not even a warship; it’s a troop transport! That’s like trying to hold a mountain pass by parking a Humvee in it. It’s not even clear if the ship’s crew is loyal to Nadashe beyond the officers.

But at least in exchange for this total failure, Nadashe killed her brother. Great job! The worst part of Nadashe’s plan is that the heroes didn’t need to do anything in order to thwart her. Her plan essentially defeated itself. Kiva did find proof of the Nohamapetan’s involvement, but it wasn’t necessary because Amit already confessed the whole plan to Cardenia, and Cardenia is the emperox. She can have Nadashe arrested on a whim. For that matter, Cardenia doesn’t even really need to control End, since it won’t be the new center of the Flow streams like Nadashe thought. It’s just a convenient place to send refugees on account of it being slightly more self-sufficient than other worlds.

And with that, the novel ends. The Flow streams plot has barely advanced at all since we spent most of the story on Marce’s trip to the capital. The only resolution is that the possible love birds have finally met, and that Kiva has even more money than she had before. The book dangled an exciting tale of environmental collapse in front of us, then snatched it away. But don’t worry, the epilogue promises that we’ll actually get to the Flow stream collapse next time. Maybe we will, but I’m not in a trusting mood.

What the Novel Needed

The Collapsing Empire’s main problem is that it tries to do too much and ends up doing very little. We start with the really high-level Cardenia plot, then awkwardly transition into the much lower-stakes plot of Kiva and Marce. This would have been awkward even if Marce’s journey were relevant to Cardenia’s story, and it isn’t. Cardenia is the one who actually matters, and her story is held back so she doesn’t do anything too important before Marce gets to her.

There are a couple ways this could be solved, and the most obvious is to cut Cardenia from the book entirely. That hurts to say; Cardenia is my favorite character, but she’s also completely disconnected from everything else. A natural build-up would have been to spend this book with just Marce and Kiva as they try to get Marce off End and to the Imperial capital. That would leave more room to develop Ghreni as a villain, and it would keep Cardenia’s higher-stakes plot from overshadowing the rest of the book.

In this scenario, Marce would expect his troubles to end once he reaches the capital because the emperox will fix everything; instead, he gets there and discovers Cardenia is newly crowned and completely unprepared for what’s coming. That would be the perfect lead-in to book two, where the issue of environmental collapse can be properly addressed.

This new structure wouldn’t fix every problem, of course. Ghreni would need to be a more competent villain, and Kiva would need to be made likable, but it would fix the fractured plotting that’s at the heart of the book’s troubles. Starting with the relatively small problem of Marce reaching the capital would naturally escalate to saving the Interdependency in the sequel. Of course, it would also work to cut Marce’s part of the novel and focus entirely on Cardenia, but that would be a harder act to follow in the next book.

If we’re absolutely stuck with the three POVs as they currently stand, then there should at least be something that connects them. Right now, they feel completely unrelated until the very end. I’m not sure what that connection would be, but at least Marce should bring something the emperox actually needs. Maybe someone’s been intercepting all communications between End and the capital, so Marce has no choice but to take the Flow data in person. That way when he and Cardenia finally meet, it means something.


Believe it or not, this is actually the second time Scalzi has created a grand political drama and then avoided it. He did the same thing in The Last Colony, where a minor character is busy putting an end to interstellar war while the main story focused on the hardships of setting up a colony without wi-fi. In that book and this one, Scalzi offered a Ferrari, then switched it for a beat-up Pinto. Readers have tolerated this bait and switch from Scalzi so far because he’s incredibly skilled in other areas, but that’s not a risk the rest of us can afford to take.

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Comments

  1. Dave L

    >However, this scene does not happen in a vacuum

    Yes, it does. It’s aboard a spaceship. In space. That’s a vacuum

    I know what you really meant. But I had to say it before someone else did

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Hah! Well if you wanna get technical the scenes mostly happen within the pressure vessel of a space ship, but then again I suppose even scenes aboard Spaceship Earth happen in a bubble if you stretch it far enough.

  2. Paul C.

    Oren, an excellent analysis. Thanks for putting in the work to do it!

    In general, I enjoyed, sort of, more or less, a bit, The Collapsing Empire. It felt thin, somehow, and I think you might have figured out why.

    I liked the way in which Scalzi drew his characters: they are all vivid, even if some are incompetent. I thought that the Flow was a great idea, and its impending collapse a great plot motivator. But the Memory Room obviates any mystery — it needed a flaw of some sort so that dangerous events and secret histories needed to be discovered rather than simply given.

    Perhaps Scalzi should have drawn more on Asimov’s Nightfall — which uses a similar conceit: one scientist sees impending doom, and no one believes. In CE, the King, and then Cardenia, believe the Flow will collapse. So…the problem is how to save everyone. But, the solution is wonky.

    The second “reveal” is Cardenia’s plan to save the empire: tell another lie so that people will escape the impending doom? Really? Doesn’t she have an army? Does she think all the people are stupid? Oh well.

    I have not read the sequel. When it hits the local library…maybe.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      See I’d have loved it if we really got into the economic and political change necessary to stave off collapse, but unfortunately that’s not what we got. I may read the sequel at some point, but I’m not eager.

  3. GeniusLemur

    Why is it that so many science fiction writers imagine a far-flung, amazingly advanced future spanning countless planets and full of people who said, “Bah, this democracy stuff is clunky. Feudalism, warring noble houses, hereditary titles, and absolute monarchs; THAT’S what we need.”

    • Cay Reet

      I’m not sure, but I think it may be because historically, we’ve had monarchies for much longer than democracies (Ancient Greek democracy is relative, because it required a specific gender and role in society to be active in it).

      I’m not really sure what kind of government such a society which spans countless planets would really have, because it shows that democracy as we practice it does get wonky with bigger crowds.

    • Dave L

      Because in a way democracy IS clunky

      Remember, feudalism and absolute monarchy thrived in a time of limited communication speed and limited travel (both of which are discussed on this site) and before computers

      If you have a nation spanning millions of planets, each planet having a population of billions, then on election night you’ll need to receive and count quadrillions of votes

      Some settings have communication networks and computers that can handle that load. But many don’t

      And as for feudalism, again it’s easier to let a local governor deal w/ most problems than to send a message all the way up to the correct agency, then all the way back down, much less send people

      Of course, if the tech is up to it, then we don’t need it as much

      • Cay Reet

        That pretty much hits the point, I think.

        Most feudal systems of the past were built on the premises that the local ruler would deal with all the average, every-day parts of ruling. They were taking care of law enforcement, collecting taxes, decided where the taxes staying local would be spent, etc. Usually, there was some kind of control, like officials coming by in certain intervals, but most of the local lords didn’t have to worry too much about what happened far away at the capital and in the royal family. Later on, it was common to have a family member or two in court, meaning staying with the supreme ruler, so a certain contact to royalty was there.

        Democracy, on the other hand, seems overwhelmed even with today’s country sizes. Now imagine that everyone on, say, 100 inhabited worlds (and I’m pretty sure a ‘good’ galactic empire would have at least that many worlds, colonies included) with about 10,000,000 inhabitants each (also a rather low number, earth has several billions at the moment) wants to vote. Even if you cut out a couple of 10,000 who are not eligible for vote (too young or prohibited for other reasons such as being in jail), you’ll end up with up to 900,000,000 or more of votes. If you have a democracy with more than two parties, these could be broken up into a lot of different parties. It would take ages to organize the voting on all planets, count out the votes, and bring it all together at wherever the central government sits. Much more complicated and much easier to attack for people who don’t mind cheating than a feudal system where nobody is elected, but your position in the succession decides.

      • GeniusLemur

        Yeah, it’s simpler to just pick rulers based on their parents. You know what you get with that method? Crappy rulers. History is rife with monarchs who were completely unsuited to rule, and everyone around them knew it, but nobody could do anything about it except hope that they’d die young enough that the kingdom wasn’t completely ruined.

        • Cay Reet

          Monarchies usually have a way of dealing with such problems. Even though the king or queen (or whatever title the ruler has) do officially rule, there’s much going on behind the scenes. Even absolute rulers didn’t make every decision by themselves. Unsuited rulers usually end up having an ‘accident’ or falling prey to an ‘illness’ for reasons.

          And looking at the US at the moment, I dare say it’s not always the best one to rule who gets elected, either.

          • Lizard with Hat

            I agree that democracy has its flaws … but monarchy isn’t that preferable either.
            In a democracy at least people are asked and have some say on who gets to get in charge.
            It’s not perfect but I think it’s much better than hoping the next ruler won’t be to incompetent.

            Also with all the techno-magic hijinks happening in SciFi-Works, a proper election-system should be the least concern. Or if it is should make for a very intressting story.

          • GeniusLemur

            Worth noting: how many countries do we have in the world today that went from an absolute monarchy to a democracy?
            How many that went from a democracy to an absolute monarchy? And no, not a dictator, a bona fide official-hereditary-monarch-and-aristocratic-titles monarchy.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          This is highly speculative of course but I don’t see monarchies or other forms of autocracy as inherently more efficient at governing large space empires than democracies. Sure, collecting a popular votes from dozens of far flung worlds would be a chore, but there are ways around that, and autocrats face difficulties from larger, more populous countries as well.

          From a storytelling perspective, autocratic systems are often easier to tell stories around because their rules seem relatively straight forward, and more based in the decisions of individual characters. I don’t love that trend, but I can see why so many authors go with it.

          • Cay Reet

            What I could see would be a democracy shaped like the UN or the EU, where every planet (in that case) has their own government for the regular, everyday stuff and assigns a representative or several to the central government which decides on everything which includes more than one planet. Elections would still be challenging, especially for positions like ‘leader of the whole inter-planetary democracy’ (which might be why both in the UN and the EU the delegates vote among themselves for the leader, instead of letting all people living there vote), but the everyday life would be more manageable and the democracy would be more stable than with one central government.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            Yeah that’s about the size of it. The larger a country is, the more layers of delegation you need to manage things properly, whether you’re a democratic or autocratic.

            My favorite example of this is from the Roman Tetrarchy period, where Imperial territory was ruled jointly by four different emperors because one central authority couldn’t react fast enough.

  4. Mike

    I loved the analysis. The book really does feel kind of underwhelming. I don’t know if it would still be such a complete bummer while reading the full story, but it does feel that way from your review.

    I feel like a good way to manage characters with different levels of influence, in this case, would be to make Kiva and Marce deal with a specific detail that would help or hinder Cardenia’s plans. As the emperox, she’d have to deal with grand politics and broad strokes, and could gloss over a detail capable of ruining her schemes.

    All in all, that’s a great review, and it doesn’t make me want to read the book to confirm it. I might be a tiny bit biased against Scalzi anyway, though.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yay, I’m glad you liked it! The prose isn’t bad if you ever decide to pick the book up for yourself, but Scalzi seems to have picked up a bad habit of making everything a joke even when it clashes with the scene. I think he got fond of that style with Redshirts, which is a spoof, and now he can’t stop!

  5. Bunny

    Sometime in the future I think you should do a dissection of “Save the Pearls,” if only to address the blatant racism that the author apparently didn’t realize she was writing into her story. I learned about the book from the “Reasons Not To Write A Persecution Flip Story” post and followed one of the links to a page called “Save the Pearls Debunked” – which the author didn’t finish because of how horrible the book got! I’ve been poking around with a kind of morbid curiosity to see whether any similar debunkings exist, but the Internet is surprisingly bare. This atrocity does not deserve to remain whole and well . . . the only place it deserves to be is on your dissection table in several hundred thousand pieces. I know it’s not a popular book, like those you normally discuss, but the sheer racism inside, and the author’s apparent obliviousness to it, makes me think it deserves a good splicing and you folks are some of the best splicers out there. Not to mention the dry, nonsensical wordcraft; bland, overcandied characters; and incomprehensible setting and worldbuilding (I hope I used those semicolons right!). So please at least consider it . . .?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I can’t promise anything, but I have been looking for a book I can really tear apart from a plot perspective, so recommendations are always appreciated!

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