Book Review: The Collapsing Empire, John Scalzi

Book Review: The Collapsing EmpireJohn Scalzi

0765388901

Science Fiction: The Collapsing EmpireJohn Scalzi

*2018 LOCUS AWARD WINNER OF BEST SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL*

*2018 HUGO AWARD FINALIST FOR BEST NOVEL*

 

“The Interdependency,” a galactic empire spanning dozens of far-flung human settlements, has stood for a thousand years. The descendants of Earth long ago discovered how to access “the flow,” a current that runs parallel to real space and allows ships to travel vast distances in very short times. The flow only intersects with real space in certain areas, so human habitation and the empire cluster around these access points. Without the flow, interstellar travel is impossible. Without the flow, most humans would die, since the access points are usually near stars which have no naturally habitable planets, so the various planets of the empire are truly interdependent. Without the flow, the empire collapses. And the flow is collapsing.

 

The Collapsing Empire is the first book of a planned new series by John Scalzi, and it has exploded onto the science fiction scene. Winner of the 2018 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, it is also a 2018 Hugo Award finalist for the same award. Scalzi brings his trademark humor and irreverence to this novel of an empire potentially facing destruction. He cares about the science, avoiding things like faster-than-light travel that violates known physical laws. But his gift is in imagining complex worlds and populating them with complex people. His characters include an “emperox” who never planned to become a ruler, a scientist who did not want to leave his home planet, a very horny and foul-mouthed mercantilist who does some of her best thinking while amorously engaged, and a family of ruthless and ambitious nobles who do not mind shedding blood to reach their goals.

 

The worlds of The Interdependency are quite different from the norm in science fiction. Scalzi imagines an empire connected only by access to transportation. Earth became inaccessible long ago. When humans discovered the flow, they learned they could travel unimaginable distances but only reenter real space at specific points. This meant that settlements were limited to the stars that were accessible via the flow, whether or not they had inhabitable planets. The capital planet of the Empire is Hub, a planet tide-locked to its sun. One side always faces the star, one side always faces away. Humans have created a vast underground settlement where millions of people live. Many essentials must be imported from other places in the empire. Some stars have no inhabitable planets, but huge space stations housing vast populations have been built there to support mining and other extraction of resources. Only one planet in the entire empire, “End,” is capable of sustaining human life on the planet itself. Hub became the lead planet of the empire because all currents of the flow led to it. (This reminded me of the saying, “All roads lead to Rome,” which Isaac Asimov adapted in his Foundation series to “all roads lead to Trantor.”) All planets in the Empire directly connect to Hub, while few of them have direct connections to any other planet. If the flow is disrupted, though, Hub and most other human settlements will become isolated and alone, and within a very few years will be incapable of supporting life.

 

The Collapsing Empire shows both the power and the danger of interdependency. It was written before the 2016 US election (but after the Brexit vote), so it is not a direct commentary on contemporary politics. It is, though, a compelling statement. A surface reading would say, “independence is good, interdependency is bad” because the flow is failing. Without the flow, interdependence is impossible and the settlements that rely so heavily on each other would fail. But the better understanding is to see that humanity was only successful because of interdependence. They may be facing a crisis because of environmental change (and I assume future novels in the series will further explore that crisis and human responses to it), but the only reason they have come this far is because of their interdependence. Because of interdependence, humans were able to spread across the galaxy. They were able to build settlements on moons, on space stations, on ridiculously inhospitable planets, and they were able to maintain a coherent, unified government for a thousand years. Yes, it’s a work of speculative fiction. It is also, though, a powerful statement of hope in the collective power of humanity when they pull together and rely upon each other. Scalzi is not one to ignore the venal and self-serving ambitions of individuals. His characters are petty and lusty and greedy and ruthless. But some of them are also caring and passionate and thoughtful and deeply committed to the survival of humanity. I am eager to see what happens next, when The Consuming Fire is released in October, 2018.

0765388901

Book Review: The Collapsing EmpireJohn Scalzi

Book Review: Head On, John Scalzi

Book Review: Head OnJohn Scalzi

076538891X

Science Fiction/Mystery: Head On, John Scalzi

Fans of John Scalzi’s previous novel Lock In will be delighted with this 2017 sequel. Head On features the return of FBI agent Chris Shane, his partner Leslie Vann, and the world of the “Hadens,” people who have survived a usually fatal illness only to be completely frozen in bodies that cannot move. They are awake and aware, but permanently immobile. In this world, Hadens are able to physically interact by using “Integrators,” people who have had a neural implant inserted to allow their bodies to be remotely controlled, and by using “Threeps,” androids also designed to be remotely controlled by Hadens.

 

Agents Vann and Shane specialize in crimes involving Hadens. In Head On, an athlete is killed during a game of Hilketa. Hilketa is a sport where specially designed Threeps physically assault each other, with the goal being the literal decapitation of a specified opponent Threep and sending that removed head into a goal. Since Threeps are not alive, what could go wrong? Apparently quite a lot, as Agents Vann and Shane explore the world of professional sports, where sex and money lead to a trail of bodies that hits too close to Shane’s home.

 

Scalzi specializes in these genre-bending novels and stories. Head On is fully science fiction. A world reshaped by a global plague which led to specific new technologies and adaptations? Check. But Head On is also a mystery and FBI procedural. Two agents pursuing clues that lead to a surprising conclusion? Check. The beauty of Scalzi is that neither genre suffers from the combination, and both are essential to the story. This is not a story that could be written into any other world than the Lock In universe. Agents Shane and Vann know Hadens. He is “locked in,” and spends most of his time in a threep–often one that will soon be destroyed. She was an integrator. Their relationship is often familiar to the mystery/procedural fan: good cop/bad cop, grizzled veteran/young rookie. But it is their experience with Hadens that gives them the extra insight needed to solve these challenging crimes.

 

Some series do not require their books to be read in order. This is not one of those series. If you have not read Lock In, stop. Go buy it or check it out, and read it first. Trust me, you will thank me. Scalzi is a funny writer, and one of the most humorous passages of Head On is in chapter 1. If you have not read Lock In, you won’t get it, and that would just be a shame. It is funny enough that I had to read it aloud to my family, but then I had to explain the background before I could read the passage, and that just took some of the joy out of the joke. Read Lock In, then read Head On, and laugh out loud. In this case, the sequence matters.

 

John Scalzi is one of the top writers in science fiction today, and with Head On he proves that he can be equally effective when writing mysteries. He is a busy man, with four active series currently in development (in 2018). Fortunately, the quality of his writing, his plots, and his characters, are all excellent. Head On is a winner!

076538891X

Book Review: Head OnJohn Scalzi

 

Book Review: The Dispatcher, John Scalzi

Book Review: The DispatcherJohn Scalzi

1596067861

SciFi Mystery: The DispatcherJohn Scalzi

 

Part fantasy, part science fiction, part mystery, and all Scalzi. The Dispatcher is set in a near future when the rules of death have changed. People no longer die violently. For reasons no one understands, with no warning or preparation, violent death just stopped.

 

Tony Valdez is a “dispatcher” in Chicago. If someone is nearing death from natural causes, it is his job to kill them. Quickly, violently, and legally. When someone is killed like this, 999 out of 1000 times their body disappears from the site and they immediately wake up naked in their own bed. Death is still possible from natural causes and from suicide, but murder is next to impossible. Shoot or stab someone and their body resets to the state it was in roughly twelve hours before–and they find themselves at home, memories intact, in need of new clothes.

 

Dispatchers legally work in hospitals and limited other venues. If an operation goes wrong, the patient is killed by the dispatcher and wakes up at home. However, there is a demand for their services as well in less legal settings. Fight clubs now feature deadly weapons; dispatchers make sure that the severely injured are reset to fight another day. Young rich men have started dueling again, using swords to maim each other for real and perceived slights. Rather than face lifelong crippling injuries, the dispatcher makes sure that the healthy walk home, and the wounded…wake up at home. No one knows how this works. No one knows why this works. But it works almost every time.

 

Valdez is called in to help the police solve a mystery. A fellow dispatcher has disappeared. Clearly he has not been murdered, as his body has not reappeared at home. But equally clearly, something has happened to him. Police found signs of a struggle at his home, along with some blood. The only lead they have is his occasional involvement in services on the grayer side of the law. Valdez may have been the last person to speak with him before he was taken, and his knowledge of the ins and outs of dispatching on both sides of the law makes him valuable to the police detective working the case.

 

In this short (130 pages) novella, Scalzi raises a number of interesting questions about life and death. How does police work change when murder is no longer easy? How does crime change? If violence does not result in death, is killing someone who is about to die from natural causes giving them a second chance? At what point should we let someone go? And if you cannot murder someone in the old fashioned way, how can you successfully murder someone? These questions challenge us in these days when violence easily leads to death, but the questions and the answers both change when death is no longer a natural consequence of violence.

 

Another reason to read Scalzi: characters representing different populations. Tony Valdez is an urban Chicago hispanic, not a group typically chosen for the protagonist of a science fiction story. Detective Nona Langdon is an African American woman. Although their personal characteristics are not central to the story, it is refreshing to see characters in books that reflect the reality of our multi-ethnic society. The easy choice for an author is to write characters that look and sound like her or him. John Scalzi often chooses to take the more difficult and rewarding choice of populating his fictional worlds with the same type of people we see in the real world. This adds a layer of realism to a book with a very fantastical premise.

 

The Dispatcher is a quick read. Although it is short, it is packed tightly with plot, characters, dialog, and intriguing ideas. I easily read it in one afternoon, but I suspect story will come back to my thoughts again and again like a dispatched character from the story. 

 

1596067861

 

Book Review: The DispatcherJohn Scalzi

Book Review: Metatropolis, Edited by John Scalzi

Book Review: MetatropolisEdited by John Scalzi

0765335107

Science Fiction: MetatropolisEdited by John Scalzi

 

Imagine a future where cities are built on the remnants of the cities we know. Portland/Seattle/Vancouver have merged to become “Cascadia.” These meta cities transcend national boundaries and have cultures, alliances, and citizenships of their own, sometimes coming at the expense of the surrounding countryside that used to support their previous iterations.

 

This is the world that John Scalzi and four other science fiction authors have imagined in Metatropolis. No longer are people American, or Canadian, or Chinese, or Swedish. Rather, they are part of the larger and pan-national metatropolis, or they are not. Citizens of, say, St. Louis, can travel without need for passport to Hong Kong or Stockholm or Cascadia. Travel to geographically nearby St. Charles, Missouri, is much more problematic. Technology has divided these green cities from the “wilds” surrounding them, and a private corporate police force (or other militia) enforces the separation of the people within from those without.

 

Metatropolis is an anthology, five stories by five authors, set in a single “world,” but very different in their approach. Jay Lake introduces us to Cascadia, structurally overlaid on the Pacific Northwest, struggling to both create a new utopia and escape from corporate and nationalistic interests that would bring it back to the carbon-using heritage it rejected. Lake’s “city” is both anarchic and rigid, both urban and agrarian, high-tech afraid to show up on the grid. Tobias S. Buckell writes of a Detroit that ultimately moves to reject cars. Elizabeth Bear also looks at Detroit, at a community within the community that finds trust and interdependence are essential to life in this new world. John Scalzi moves us to St. Louis, where placement exams determine your role within the city and refusal to conform means banishment to the wilds that have replaced former suburbs. And Karl Schroeder takes us to Europe and to a new, virtual reality that is looking to replace the metatropolis, perhaps at the expense of everyone not part of the experiment.

 

Anthologies bring both strengths and weaknesses to a world. They bring different perspectives. None of the authors see the world (either ours or the one they’ve created) the same way, which creates both a fullness that would be impossible from a single writer and certain inconsistencies that would not be permissible in a tighter narrative. They are five distinct stories. It is possible they happen consecutively, but that is not required by the format nor spelled out within the narratives. There is no specific relationship between the stories, other than they all take place in the same general landscape. No characters move from one story to another. Even the two stories set in “Detroit” make no direct mention of each other, except for a brief and oblique reference in one to an event that occurred in the other. Frankly, were the stories not in the same book, I would not have necessarily recognized that they were set in the same world. Even the shared names (e.g., Cascadia) barely acknowledge any relationship among the stories. These are five solid individual stories, but their differences are more noticeable than their common heritage.

 

Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable in court. Having five writers tell us their vision of the same world gives us both larger picture and and occasionally a disjointed and even contradictory picture. It is not my usual cup of tea, but it makes for a nice change of pace from the usual novel.

 

0765335107

Book Review: MetatropolisEdited by John Scalzi

Book Review: The Android’s Dream, John Scalzi

Book Review: The Android’s DreamJohn Scalzi

0765348284

Science Fiction: The Android’s DreamJohn Scalzi

I will admit it. Part of me is still 13 years old. It probably always will be. So when a book’s opening chapter involves a complex plot to murder an alien trade negotiator using provocatively scented flatulence to send coded messages, messages understood by the negotiator as questioning his virility, I could not help but laugh. Loudly. As I said, part of me will always be 13.

 

The Android’s Dream may be the funniest science fiction book I have read in a decade. Written in 2006, I am so sorry that I was not aware of it years ago. It has the trappings of serious sci-fi. An alien race, nominally aligned with the earth, is facing a succession crisis. Part of the succession plan for the ruling clan involves the sacrifice of a sheep, a sheep specially genetically designed for the ruling clan by biologists on earth (a result of a previous treaty between earth and this planet’s rulers). However, all of the sheep on the alien planet succumbed to an illness, so the original line is only available on earth. And someone is killing those sheep.

 

Harry Creek is a low level state department employee, but he is much more than that. A computer prodigy, he won the Westinghouse Science Award as a teenager. A war hero, he single-handedly saved the few members of his battalion who were not wiped out in a pivotal battle. Back on earth, he just wants to live a quiet life. When he is asked to try to find the sheep for the government, he traces their DNA to a very unlikely source: Robin Baker, a young woman who owns a pet store near Washington, DC. What follows is a combination of humor and hijinks that send Harry and Robin from a shopping mall to an interstellar cruise ship to the halls of power on the planet Nidu. All of Harry’s formidable skills are needed to keep Robin and himself alive and one step ahead of their adversaries.

 

Scalzi is hilarious. He introduces us to characters like Takk, an alien on a religious quest to experience sin, who occasionally eats people when his job requires it (were he not on a quest to experience sin, that sort of thing would be too sinful to contemplate). We meet Chet, whose job it is to monitor a play space in the mall (it uses an anti-grav generator that requires the use of special shoes) and who lives to regret giving those special shoes to Harry and Robin before they get into the play space. A computer possessed of a human consciousness (uploaded upon the person’s death) realizes just how horny she is. These are not the usual tropes in science fiction, and they make for some laugh out loud moments throughout the story.

 

And, because it’s John Scalzi, we are asked to consider some deeper questions. What are the ethics involved in genetic manipulation? Is a computer with a human consciousness a sentient being? Do the rights of individuals trump the needs of a planet? With his usual deft touch, Scalzi presents the dilemmas without being heavy handed or dogmatic. His characters find their own answers, but seldom does he leave us thinking that their answers were the only possible right answers.

 

Science fiction as a genre has long been marginalized, not considered worthy of serious consideration by literary critics. Frankly, this is ridiculous, and says more about the critics than it does the genre. Any who still hold this prejudice should be silenced by two words: Margaret Atwood. The Android’s Dream is not a literary classic, but it is a delightful work by an author who himself is creating great books that belie that stigma. Even in a book that is comedic and lighthearted, Scalzi tackles deep, current issues of identity and ethics. He might be playing in The Android’s Dream, but he is playing with grownup toys in the grownup’s playground. And he proves with each new chapter that he belongs.

0765348284

Book Review: The Android’s DreamJohn Scalzi

Also see

Book Review: Redshirts, John Scalzi

Book Review: Lock In, John Scalzi

Also read Head On: A Novel of the Near Future (Lock in) — the next book in the series.

Book Review: Lock In, John Scalzi

Book Review: Lock InJohn Scalzi

076538132X

Science Fiction: Lock InJohn Scalzi

In Scalzi’s Near Future universe, Haden’s Syndrome, named after former first lady Margaret Haden, who was one of its first victims, has claimed millions of lives worldwide. Over 400 million have succumbed to the disease, which usually presents with meningitis symptoms. Most die. A lucky few survive without apparent long-term effects. But for a small percentage of survivors, there is a permanent change. They suffer from “lock in.” Their minds are alert, but they have no control at all of their bodies. With care, they can live a normal lifespan, but they will never be able to so much as blink their own eyelids.

 

To help these lock-in survivors, three major technologies have been developed. One is called the “Agora.” More than just an online meeting place, the Agora allows lock-ins to inhabit an avatar, create their own private and public spaces, and interact with each other in a virtual reality. A second is called “threeps.” Androids that can be completely controlled by the minds of lock-ins, threeps (short for C-3PO) can interact in the real world and allow lock-ins to hold jobs that healthy persons can do. A final technology allows lock-ins to control neural networks implanted in the minds of people who are both willing and able to get them. These people recovered from Haden’s, but the neural mapping of their brains was changed allowing them to become “integrators,” able to host the neural network that allows those fully locked in to share their bodies temporarily. This allows lock-ins to actually experience life in a working physical human body, though the technology does not completely remove the body’s owner from the equation. It is a shared experience, giving lock-ins sensory experiences like taste that would otherwise be impossible.

 

This is the setting for John Scalzi’s masterful work, Lock In. Chris Shane is a Haden, locked in since infancy but now an adult and just hired by the FBI. He is partnered with Agent Leslie Vann, a former integrator. They are part of the Washington, DC, field office in charge of Haden related crimes. Since location is not a factor in Haden involved crimes (a person’s physical body can control a threep or be in an integrator from anywhere else in the world), the FBI is automatically in charge of any crime involving a Haden. And on his second day on the job, Chris falls into a doozy. One man is dead, his throat slit, and an interrogator is sitting in the room with the body, refusing to talk.

 

Shane’s investigation takes him via threep to the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, to Los Angeles, and all over Washington. In the process, we the readers get to know him. A former “poster child” for Haden’s, his father was a Hall of Fame basketball player who later became a billionaire real estate investor and a very politically active resident of Virginia. Seemingly everyone knows who Chris Shane is. This opens doors, but also makes people think they know him without having met him. There is a tension between the public “boy with Haden’s” and the private man trying to become a good agent that Scalzi does an excellent job probing. I’ve had the pleasure of reading many of John Scalzi’s books, and although this book did not win the big awards that some of his others have, in my mind it is one of his best. Every character, even the fairly minor ones, is written with compassion and understanding. They are complete, whole people. Some are likable, some are appalling, but all are whole. You feel the pain of being locked in, the freedom and constraints of living life in the body of an android, the challenge of sharing your own body with someone else, the pain one character has being mentally challenged and how that leaves him open for manipulation and abuse by others, and the tension between those who are “able” and those who are “different.” Scalzi does not avoid the live electric wires of race, gender, sexuality, and ability. Rather, he grabs those wires to give power and life to the wonderful characters in Lock In.

 

A more timid author would shy away from some of the topics in Lock In. A lesser author might try for a simple or easy answer. Scalzi is a master. He is able to introduce subjects that make you think, yet avoid being heavy handed or dogmatic. Part of the backdrop of the novel is the political battle over rights and funding for Hadens. The fault lines look familiar to anyone who reads today’s news. But Scalzi avoids stereotyping or judging. Some are for, some are against, but all have their reasons and no one is completely with the angels.

 

Read Lock In. Read everything by Scalzi. You’ll be glad you did.

Book Review: Lock InJohn Scalzi

076538132X

Also read Head On: A Novel of the Near Future (Lock in) — the next book in the series.

076538891X

Also see — Book Review: Redshirts, John Scalzi

Book Review: Redshirts, John Scalzi

Book Review: Redshirts, John Scalzi

Celebrate First Contact in the Star Trek Universe, April 5th

Book Review Science Fiction: Redshirts by John Scalzi

Along with spin-offs, movies, toys, and inspiration to generations of scientists, Star Trek has given us something almost everyone can relate to: the “red shirt” joke.

Star Trek red shirt meme
Star Trek red shirt meme

Several episodes of Star Trek involved a minor or bit character getting killed. Disproportionately it seems, these extras who were in the script only to die, were wearing a red uniform shirt. Thus a joke was born that has inspired comedians and those who think they are for fifty years.

This joke is at the heart of John Scalzi’s novel Redshirts, a 2012 science fiction novel that blurs the line between author and audience, past and future, and invites readers to share in the love of and amusement at Star Trek. Andrew Dahl is a newly appointed ensign aboard the Universal Union’s flagship. Soon after arriving aboard, though, he discovers that the honor is, for many, short-lived. The Intrepid goes through young ensigns fast. Every away team has a victim (or victims). Avoid decks 6-10, especially if everything is going well. And try to stay away from one of the five key officers–although their presence may save you randomly, you are more likely to die in gruesome and improbable fashion in order to save one of them.

Dahl and his friends must discover why the body count is so high before they become part of it. The question, of course, is whether they can promote themselves to main characters before they become victims of the redshirt phenomena. When you’re not writing the plot of your own show, hijacking someone else’s show leads to a very strange and yet funny end.

Redshirts

Also, Other Books by John Scalzi

Fuzzy Nation

A reboot of the classic science fiction novel Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper. Jack Holloway is put on trial for murder, for defending a Fuzzy under attack by a human. When an entire planet’s ecology and indigenous species is on the court docket, the case will be determined by answering the question — what is sapience, are Fuzzies only cute animals or beings with rights?

Old Man’s War

The first book in a five book series.  Here’s the deal, at age 75 after you retire, you can fight for the Colonial Defense Force; if you survive, after two years you will be given a homestead on a colony planet.  Any takers? At age 75, John Perry decides to join the army.

For more on John Scalzi see

https://whatever.scalzi.com/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Scalzi

Of course, Celebrating First Contact Day in the Star Trek universe wouldn’t be complete without a Star Trek marathon featuring Star Trek – First Contact.

Be sure to serve cheese pirogies (a Voyager episode said these were Zefram Cochrane’s favorite)!

For more on Star Trek see

http://www.startrek.com/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Trek

Also see  — Book Review: Lock In, John Scalzi 

Share how you plan to celebrate Star Trek First Contact Day with your favorite Redshirt moment here: