I’ve read 8 science fiction novels so far this year, and most of them were quite good, but none were as unabashedly fun as John Scalzi’s new space-opera adventure, The Collapsing Empire, out this week from Tor Books. It’s like Game of Thrones in space, if George R. R. Martin limited himself to 300 pages and liked to curse more.
Hundreds of years from now, humankind’s interstellar civilization is threatened by the collapse of the natural wormhole-esque system (the Flow) that makes faster-than-light travel possible. Three people — a kind scientist named Marce Claremont, a cutthroat businesswoman named Kiva Lagos, and the naive new “emperox” of it all, Cardenia Wu-Patrick — get caught in the web of a political conspiracy to profit off the catastrophe.
Last year, Scalzi signed an unprecedented ten-year, thirteen-book deal with Tor Books (which he explains in greater detail below), and The Collapsing Empire is the first of those books. One sequel has already been confirmed, but a trilogy is possible. I recently spoke with Scalzi over the phone about his writing process, the Collapsing Empire universe, climate change, and how to pronounce “Emperox” and “Nohamapetan”.
Adam Morgan: This book is almost effortless to read — the prose flows very smoothly from one scene to another. Do you naturally write with that kind of pacing and minimalism, or does it require a lot of self-editing in later drafts?
John Scalzi: Like any writer, part of my job is to make it look easy for you as readers. Now, I don’t do drafts in the traditional way, I do what I call a rolling draft, where I edit as I go along. By the time I get to the end, most of the editing that would be covered in second or third drafts is already taken care of. Part of that is just an artifact of writing with a computer, as opposed to the way that people had to edit by hand or by typewriter. And since I started writing right around the time that the first Macintosh came out, I never had to do sequential drafts, and that makes my life much happier.
Adam Morgan: If I did that, I would get stuck rewriting the first chapter over and over and over again, ad infinitum.
John Scalzi: There is no gospel in terms of process. A lot of what writing is — particularly early on — is discovering what process works for you. I have friends who exhaustively outline every single thing, and I would hate that. It would suck all the fun out of it, because I like writing to find out what’s going to happen next. But for them it works, so they should absolutely not do it my way. You find out what works for you, and then you do it. And over time, things can change. I do a lot more outlining when I write non-fiction as opposed to fiction. Understanding how your brain works and embracing that so the writing comes easier and the result looks effortless…that’s a huge part of writing.
Adam Morgan: Did you have to make any hard decisions to cut anything from The Collapsing Empire?
John Scalzi: Because it was this galaxy-spanning thing with imperial houses and noble houses at war, I initially started writing it with a more Dune-like, Herbert-esque feel, and that was unbelievably bad. I want you to put “unbelievably” in italics there to accentuate how bad it was.
Once I did a couple chapters of that, I was like, “Oh, this is definitely not the direction it should go.” A lot of times I find, particularly recently, that I’ll get anywhere from 10 to 30,000 words into a book and realize I’ve done absolutely everything wrong. It’s become common enough for me to budget it into my process. I don’t freak out. The first time it happened, I freaked out because I’m like, “Oh, my God! I’ve now set myself behind schedule! I have to redo this entire front half of the book!” Nowadays, I realize that’s just part of my process. When it happened with The Collapsing Empire, I didn’t panic. I was just like, “Yep, I’m not Frank Herbert, nor should I ever pretend to be.”
Adam Morgan: You’ve said that Kiva Lagos is one of your favorite characters that you’ve ever written. Why is that?
John Scalzi: She’s a totally give-no-fucks character. It’s fun to write a character like that. She definitely has her own agenda and her own thoughts, and doesn’t worry about it to a substantial degree what other people think of her. On one sense, those are always fun characters to write, but on the other hand, in the real world, characters like that can be sociopathic assholes and so you have to really thread that needle.
I’m not 100% sure I would want to spend time with Kiva in real life. She’s the friend who, when they call you, you look at the phone and ask yourself, “Should I answer this, or should I let this go to voicemail?” And then immediately after, she would hang up and text you: “Motherfucker, I know you’re there. Pick up the goddamn phone.”
Adam Morgan: I liked Kiva a lot, but I also loved Marce Claremont’s sister, Vrenna. I hope she pops up in the next book (or two).
John Scalzi: Yeah, I expect that she will. I’m not promising anything, because I still have to write the book, but I’m looking forward to revisiting some characters that I didn’t get to spend as much time with this time around.
Adam Morgan: The bureaucrats on Hub and throughout the Interdependency refuse to believe in the collapse of the Flow, even when presented scientific evidence…which of course reminded me of the real world. Why is it so hard for people in power to accept inconvenient truths?
John Scalzi: There’s that Upton Sinclair quote: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” What you have in the Flow is this mercantile system that is designed to work in a very specific way, and if the Flow goes away, then everybody’s money and standing also goes away. Even the people who absolutely realize that this is true are going to go, “Well, I’m just going to ride this out as far as I possibly can before the collapse happens, because once the collapse happens, that will be somebody else’s problem.”
Everybody does this, and it’s certainly not new in literature. Henrik Ibsen wrote a play called An Enemy of the People, where there’s a town with a hot spring where tourists go to recuperate, and somebody finds out that the hot spring is polluted. Rather than everybody saying, “Oh my God, we have to do something about it,” a lot of people in town are just like, “Yeah, no. We’re going to ride this one out.”
Certainly in the real world, there are a lot of people who absolutely want to deny climate change because it fucks with their business. And they really do think, “Well, whether or not it’s true, if we can just delay it five or ten years, then I will get all the money I need, and then it’ll be somebody else’s problem.”
Humans don’t change. We’re the same animals we were 40,000 years ago. We are in many ways fundamentally selfish and tribal, and just want to get through our lives.
Adam Morgan: Do you think power tends to corrupt everyone, the way it does the Nohamapetans? (How do I pronounce that?)
John Scalzi: Na-ha-ma-PEE-tins.
Adam Morgan: Oh…that’s good to know for Book 2. While we’re on the subject, how do I pronounce emperox?
John Scalzi: EM-per-oh. Like it’s French.
Adam Morgan: That makes a huge difference. Sorry, back to the question. Do you think power tends to corrupt everyone like the Nohamapetans, or are still good-hearted, down-to-earth people like Cardenia in positions of power in the real world?
John Scalzi: I do think that power corrupts, not necessarily because it makes everybody evil, but simply because when you are in power, the dynamic of the response to you changes. Particularly if you are in a position of huge power, you’re more likely than not to surround yourself with people who are going to facilitate your plans. There are not a lot of people who are going to say, “No, we can’t do this,” or “No, we shouldn’t do this,” or stand up to you.
Even the best, kindest, most wonderful people eventually — unless they make a concerted effort on a daily basis — are going to find out that the echo chamber is a real thing, and it does happen, even with the best intentions. This is one of the reasons why, for better or for worse, United States presidents are two-terms-and-out, because the longer you stay in power, the more your view of the world gets warped.
We see Cardenia as the Emperox in her first year, and she has come into power because of an accident. She was not in line for the throne, and then her brother died and she became the heir. We have the fortune to see her in the early stages of her reign, when people are still testing her, and when she is still testing the limits of her own power.
Over the course of the books, we will see how she responds to that. It would be unrealistic to have her be completely pure, because even the leaders we think are the most saintly still have their quirks and faults. If you want to go and look at Gandhi, if you go through his full record, there’s going to be some quotes there where you go, “He said what? That’s not the Gandhi I believe in.” Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, George Washington … Jefferson was having sex with his slave, and people are like, “Oh, she was his long time mistress.” It’s like, “No, she was his slave. It’s not like she had a choice in the matter.” Everybody has warts, and I think power will accentuate these warts.
Yes, it’s possible for very, very good people to be very good people even in power, but it takes a lot of effort.
Adam Morgan: Long term job security is pretty rare for a writer, so how has your 10-year deal with Tor impacted your writing process? Do you feel more pressure? Do you feel less pressure?
John Scalzi: I don’t feel more pressure. I feel relieved because I know for the next 10 years, I’m going to be able to sell the books I write, and that’s a great feeling. The reason they bought 13 books is that I came in with 13 very brief synopses and said, “These are the books that I could write for you.” I was assuming that they would pick maybe five, but they took all of them. But what that means is, we have a schedule.
We have some flexibility. For example, The Collapsing Empire books, they’re currently contracted for two, but if the first book does well and, if in the writing of the second book I find I need more time and space, we can expand it to three books. I find that freeing because I have to turn in one adult book a year, and three YA books over the decade, but the rest of the time I have free to do other things creatively. It’s a great setup for me. I don’t feel pressured at all.
The flip side is that Tor and I agreed that I would write the sort of books they would be able to sell a lot of. So if you want wild, experimental stuff from John Scalzi, it’s not probably going to happen with Tor. What I’m going to be writing for Tor is super-accessible science fiction that not only works for people who read science fiction, but can be given to people who don’t read it, too.
That said, you can do a lot with the super-accessible format. For example with Lock In, if all you want out of it is a murder mystery, you can have a murder mystery. However, it is also a book that has a main character, the protagonist, whose gender is never mentioned, and so there’s that dynamic that deals with disability issues, so that is something else. There is an opportunity to bring those things in and have them as part of the discussion if you want them there.
If I’m going to do weird, crazy, experimental science fiction or fantasy, I’m probably going to do it in short stories or novellas, and it’s probably going to go through Subterranean Press, which is the small press that I do a lot of work with.
Adam Morgan: Can you tell us anything about the second book in the Collapsing Empire series at this point?
John Scalzi: No! Not because I’m being secretive, but I literally haven’t thought about it because I’m busy writing the sequel to Lock In called Head On. That is the thing I’m thinking about today, and tomorrow, and probably through the end of June, after which I will take a two-week nap and then start thinking about where the Collapsing Empire goes.
That said, part of my brain is going, “All right, you put these cliffhangers in. You are going to have to resolve them.” There is the equivalent of a sourdough starter in the back of my brain, fermenting away, thinking about this stuff at a subconscious level, so that when I finally come around to it, I’ll have some ideas. But like I said, I write them by sitting down and writing them, rather than doing a huge outline. Honestly, I don’t know 100% where anything is going to go at this point. It’ll be exciting.
FICTION – SCIENCE FICTION
The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi
Published March 21, 2017
John Scalzi is the author of several SF novels including the bestselling Old Man’s War sequence, comprising Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony (a New York Times bestseller), Zoe’s Tale, and The Human Division. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Fuzzy Nation and Redshirts; the latter novel won science fiction’s Hugo Award in 2013. He also won a Hugo Award for Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, a collection of essays from his popular blog The Whatever. He lives in Ohio with his wife and daughter.
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Adam Morgan is the founding editor of the Chicago Review of Books and the Southern Review of Books. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere.