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Saturday, April 01, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Collapsing Empire

An established author who wishes to remain anonymous became interested in Scalzi's latest as a result of the various shenanigans surrounding it and sent me his review of the book for posting here. His opinion of it is modestly more positive than mine, but I post it here, unedited, for the record. I also sent him a copy of Corrosion, so it will be interesting to see his perspective on that if he happens to read and review it.

The Collapsing Empire started its career as a published book with a major disadvantage - it had a great deal of hype.  Depending on who you believe, The Collapsing Empire is either the greatest space opera since Dune and Foundation or a millstone around Tor Books’ collective neck.  John Scalzi, known for Old Man’s War and Redshirts, has the problem that his latest novel will be judged against the hype, instead of being judged on its own merits.  In writing this review, I have done my best to ignore both sides of the ongoing culture wars and judge the book by its own merits.  You can judge for yourself if I have succeeded.

In the far future, interstellar travel is only possible through the Flow - an alternate dimension that allows FTL travel between colonised star systems.  (The science explanation is highly dubious, but I wouldn't hold that against anyone.)  Humanity is united by the Interdependency, a network of colonies that are (mostly) dependent on each other to survive, and ruled by the Houses, led by the ‘Emperox.’  Unfortunately for the inhabitants of this universe, the Flow is actually changing - it’s either shifting routes (what the bad guys believe) or collapsing completely (what the good guys fear).  Either way, humanity is going to be in for some pretty rough times.  The Interdependency is so interdependent that only one world is habitable without massive tech support.

This sounds like the basis for a great space opera.  Humanity can - humanity must - find a way to survive when the Flow vanishes and all of its scattered star systems suddenly find themselves on their own.  (The tech base described in the book should certainly be up to the task.)  A lone star system can work to survive when the Interdependency vanishes.  Or humanity can find a way to travel FTL without using the Flow, or find a way to bend the Flow to humanity’s will.  Or ...

These don’t happen.  Maybe they will in the sequel (the book ends on a cliff-hanger) but they don’t in The Collapsing Empire.  Instead, we get a mixture of local politics, interstellar shipping concerns and interstellar politics.  Some of these blend seamlessly into the story line, others don’t quite make sense.  I think it’s fairly safe to say that the most exciting part of the story is the mutiny in the prologue, which honestly doesn’t make sense (the mutineers are taking a terrible risk) and is completely unnecessary.  I’m happy to enjoy a Game of Thrones-style story about mighty aristocracies battling for supremacy, but that wasn't what I was promised when I downloaded this book.

The book flows well - I read it in an hour - but it was oddly choppy.  There are aspects that really needed an editor’s touch - the mutiny in the prologue stops long enough for the author to lecture us on his universe, which isn’t necessary as all the main points are covered in CH4 - and others that needed more consideration.  I had problems following the flow - hah - of time within the universe; we are told, on one hand, that it takes months to move from Hub to end, yet Marce leaves Hub (after a largely pointless escape sequence) and in the very next section he’s on Hub.

Cardenia Wu-Patrick is probably the most likable character in the story, although she takes pointless risks and is generally ill-prepared to assume the post of ‘Emperox.’  (Her aide quips that nice people don’t get power, which misses the point that Cardenia inherited her power - she didn't earn it.)  Marce Claremont is young and overshadowed by his sister, who I felt would have made a more interesting POV character.  And Kiva Lagos is - put bluntly - a potty-mouthed bully and a sexual predator.  Her good aspects are overshadowed by her bad points.

I admit it - I cringed when I read the first section, where it is clear that Kiva has pulled a very junior member of her ship’s crew into sexual congress.  Consent is dubious at the very least - there isn't even a sense that he’s using her as she’s using him.  And then, she comes on to Marce later in the book in a manner that, if she were a man, would be considered borderline rape.  To call her ‘problematic’ is to understate the case.  This might not be a problem if she was the villain - or the text even acknowledged the issues - but it does not.

There are other issues, deeper issues, that offend my inner critic.  On one hand, Count Claremont - the physicist who first realised that something was wrong with the Flow - makes snarky remarks about the lack of peer review, yet his own work has the same problem.  While this is acknowledged, it makes no sense.  Modern-day governments have no problem finding qualified scientists and putting them to work on secret government projects.  Why can't the Interdependency do the same?  And on the other, the bad guys - who have also realised that there is something wrong with the Flow - have a plan to take advantage of the crisis, but don’t seem to realise the potential of their own technology.  It suggests, very strongly, that no one takes the crisis completely seriously.

And yet, it is made clear that the Flow has shifted before.  Humanity has lost contact with Earth - in the distant past - and a relatively small colony world in the more recent past - but this does not appear to alarm anyone.  Is Earth really that insignificant?  One may draw a comparison between the Flow’s slow collapse and global warming, but the loss of two entire worlds is a little more significant than anything we’ve seen on Earth.  I would have expected a serious effort to reduce the degree of interdependency since that disaster.  If nothing else, shipping foodstuffs and suchlike between star systems must be an economic nightmare.  (And the ‘lie’ that binds the Interdependency together is obvious from the setting.)

To be honest, the text tries to balance humour with story and fails.  The fact that there is a legal way to mutiny - which no one bothers to follow - make me smile and roll my eyes at the mixture of humour and absurdity.  There are moments of banter that are oddly misplaced or unintentionally ironic.  The ship names sound as though they have come out of Iain M. Banks - Kiva’s ship is called the ‘Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby’ - but they have a very definite air of absurdity.  Banks made it work because the names suited the Culture - they don’t work so well in The Collapsing Empire.  And the very first line in the book is stolen directly from Scooby Doo.

In the end, The Collapsing Empire left me feeling oddly disappointed.  It’s shorter than I expected, given the price, and very little is resolved in the first book - the bad guys have taken a few blows, but the good guys haven't even started to come to grips with the real problem.  I know that most books are set up as either trilogies or open-ended series these days, but there should be at least some resolution.  (If only because the second book might be delayed, increasing reader frustration.)  Off Armageddon Reef and The Final Empire, both also published by Tor, show how this can be done.

The Collapsing Empire is not the best SF novel of the decade, nor is it the worst.  It has high ideals and grand ambitions, but it doesn't live up to them (nor the hype).  I probably won’t be picking up the sequel.

Labels: ,

58 Comments:

Blogger bob kek mando ( Death To The Boor-geois, Keks To The Lol-etariat ) April 01, 2017 6:57 PM  

sounds like $13 million well spent.

Anonymous Ilk#10,191 April 01, 2017 7:05 PM  

Delenda Tor est

Blogger Lazarus April 01, 2017 7:06 PM  

SF scammer John Scalzi

https://images.duckduckgo.com/iu/?u=https%3A%2F%2Ftse2.mm.bing.net%2Fth%3Fid%3DOIP.CiYKxT5tSJopbkhYr1WwXgEsCm%26pid%3D15.1&f=1

Climate scammer Michael Mann:

https://images.duckduckgo.com/iu/?u=http%3A%2F%2Fdv7gcmvxe5e8l.cloudfront.net%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2016%2F06%2FMichael-Mann-tree-ring.jpg&f=1

Anonymous VFM #6306 April 01, 2017 7:19 PM  

It was not the best of books, nor the worst of books?

Sounds like it has Hugo written all over it.

Nice to know Scalzi's finally getting the hang of rape.

Blogger Tatooine Sharpshooters' Club April 01, 2017 7:24 PM  

the very first line in the book is stolen directly from Scooby Doo.

Yet it's not "the worst SF novel of the decade"? Good God, what kind of dreck is out there?!

And 16 bucks for a book that can be read in an hour? That's a quarter per minute, almost as expensive as a San Francisco parking meter!

Anonymous kfg April 01, 2017 7:28 PM  

An hour?

"Sounds like it has Hugo written all over it."

No, Dude. That's Dickens. Hugo was the Miserable guy.

Blogger SixtusVIth April 01, 2017 7:31 PM  

There are moments of banter that are oddly misplaced or unintentionally ironic. The ship names sound as though they have come out of Iain M. Banks - Kiva’s ship is called the ‘Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby’ - but they have a very definite air of absurdity. Banks made it work because the names suited the Culture - they don’t work so well in The Collapsing Empire. And the very first line in the book is stolen directly from Scooby Doo.

This makes it sound like Scalzi was trying too hard to shout out to his pet fans. Perhaps he would have written a better novel if he hadn't created such a need to be the character he plays on the Internet.

Anonymous Avalanche April 01, 2017 7:40 PM  

@3 "SF scammer John Scalzi
Climate scammer Michael Mann"

That's actually HORRIFYING!

Blogger FUCK GOOGLE April 01, 2017 7:46 PM  

I'm hoping that the reviewer is just a very fast reader. An HOUR to read the entire novel? That's literally a short story length.

Blogger Student in Blue April 01, 2017 7:52 PM  

Modern-day governments have no problem finding qualified scientists and putting them to work on secret government projects.

An interesting assertion. I'm not sure how correct that is anymore...

Blogger ZhukovG April 01, 2017 7:59 PM  

Damning with faint praise. If I gave a performance evaluation like this to a subordinate when I was in the military, it would mean that the individual should be denied both promotion and reenlistment.

Blogger VFM #7634 April 01, 2017 8:00 PM  

Yet it's not "the worst SF novel of the decade"? Good God, what kind of dreck is out there?!

@5 Tatooine
There's that one submitted to the Hugo Awards where all characters were called "she". At least Scalzi doesn't do that.

Blogger Gordon April 01, 2017 8:06 PM  

That's the thing about snark. It's annoying in a conversation. It's much more annoying in written form. It's especially annoying when the author is known for snarkiness, and is too lazy to police his writing.

Blogger Notorious P.A.T. April 01, 2017 8:11 PM  

" as a result of the various shenanigans surrounding it "

What were those shenanigans?

Blogger Notorious P.A.T. April 01, 2017 8:14 PM  

" as a result of the various shenanigans surrounding it "

What were those shenanigans?

Blogger bob kek mando ( Death To The Boor-geois, Keks To The Lol-etariat ) April 01, 2017 8:16 PM  

8. Avalanche April 01, 2017 7:40 PM
That's actually HORRIFYING!



physiognomy is real.

Blogger Cataline Sergius April 01, 2017 8:17 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

Blogger Geir Balderson April 01, 2017 8:24 PM  

@#1

Scablzi got 13 million dollars for that crap? Or does your figure include all the hype and propaganda it took to promote his book?

Blogger Jew613 April 01, 2017 8:31 PM  

To summarize the book is mediocre.

Blogger bob kek mando ( Death To The Boor-geois, Keks To The Lol-etariat ) April 01, 2017 8:33 PM  

it's a ten book deal.

which Scalzi is already late on producing for.

iirc, Scalzi himself says he's supposed to submit three books THIS YEAR.

which is going to be quite the accomplishment, given that he seems to have spent MORE than a year producing 'Collapsing'( wiki lists no 2016 credits for Scalzi, other than a short story collection and a novellette ).

Anonymous 5343 Kinds of Deplorable April 01, 2017 8:36 PM  

the very first line in the book is stolen directly from Scooby Doo.

Yet it's not "the worst SF novel of the decade"?


To be fair, The Scoob is awesome. Just not sure I'd riff on him in a galaxy-spanning epic.

Blogger Harsh April 01, 2017 8:38 PM  

On a related note, I'm 1/3 through Corrosion and it's a ripping good yarn. Might purchase Collapsing Empire to do a comparison review.

Blogger Orville April 01, 2017 8:40 PM  

I think it’s fairly safe to say that the most exciting part of the story is the mutiny in the prologue

So Scalzi was only just starting to thrust away at the plot and suffered premature denouement leaving the reader wholly unsatisfied.

Blogger Cail Corishev April 01, 2017 8:44 PM  

I expect there will be sperges who say, "What, main characters can't be loathsome and do things like rape subordinates?" Of course they can, and they can even be redeemed, but the author needs to recognize that they're loathsome in the first place. Angus Thermopyle and Nick Succorso in Donaldson's "Gap Cycle" are utterly loathsome, but Donaldson makes that clear (some would say he belabors the point). He never excuses it, and he certainly wouldn't make one of them a woman because then all the horrible behavior would be cute.

Blogger Mr.MantraMan April 01, 2017 8:52 PM  

I never got past the free sample.

Anonymous SciVo de Plorable April 01, 2017 9:40 PM  

OT: I'm not on Infogalactic yet, but I think the Milo link would be better as http://www.breitbart.com/milo/ since that catches the articles about him, not just by him. Or maybe go with https://yiannopoulos.net and cut out the middleman.

Blogger Geir Balderson April 01, 2017 9:46 PM  

Ten Books huh? Gees, some cookbooks are more interesting.

Scalzi better get down on his knees and thank God for his good fortune. However, with those awful sex scenes he writes I am sure he thanks no one but himself!!

Anonymous Who Dat April 01, 2017 9:58 PM  

The saddest part is that with a decent editor McRapey could be a solid mid-list author. Instead his career is going to crash and burn in spectacular fashion. Between McCreepy's incompetence as editor and Scalzi's insufferable persona I cannot think of two more deserving of their impending demise.
I must admit, I am entertained.

Blogger Horn of the Mark April 01, 2017 10:07 PM  

That actually is an interesting story concept. Pity it's so badly squandered.

Blogger Stg58/Animal Mother April 01, 2017 10:35 PM  

I can't believe I didn't pick up on this immediately. Scalzi ripped off Hyperion minus The Shrike.

Anonymous Silly but True April 01, 2017 10:43 PM  

Heinlein: check.
Asimov: check.

What are the odds Scalzi does his Hogg homage next?

Blogger Feather Blade April 01, 2017 10:50 PM  

Cail Corishev wrote:wouldn't make one of them a woman because then all the horrible behavior would be cute.

Oh. Small dog syndrome. Suddenly it all makes sense.

Blogger Happy Housewife April 01, 2017 11:38 PM  

@Sgt 58/Animal Mother

I was about to post the same thing. Sounds like a less interesting Hyperion Cantos.

Blogger Beau April 01, 2017 11:44 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

Blogger Beau April 01, 2017 11:45 PM  

OT

Last night had a house guest, Rev. Ron Moon, cowboy evangelist. He had contacted me five years ago to set up a cowboy crusade in Roswell, NM. Up until that time Ron hit inexplicable roadblocks to booking anything west of Texas. We worked on putting together the revival meetings until my health necessitated a rushed transfer to a place with lots of doctors. Although I wasn't there for the the Roswell cowboy crusade, Ron told me that crusade led to invitations and meetings in eight states: Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Oregon, Idaho, Washington and Nebraska. Rod told me too he is invited to do ministry (daily invocation, church services, and prayer with the riders before they compete) at the National Rodeo Finals in December in Las Vegas. What we do today may seem small, but with God's blessing and willing hearts..

Blogger F.D. Stephens April 01, 2017 11:53 PM  

Tor is paying Scalzi $3.4 million for 13 books over ten years; an advance of $261,538 per book (before royalties).

The Relapsing Hair Dryer in hardcover is currently selling for around $16.00. Tor could normally expect around $5.00 revenue per book at that price. The Kindle version is $10.00, of which Tor will take more than $7.00. Those numbers will a bit higher because they're not deducting royalties until they recoup the advance.

Of course they also sent their manlet on a book tour and spent big on promotion. They also pay for paper, printing, binding, edition prep, returns, etc. And then they have overhead (e.g., Patrick Nielsen Hayden's salary, rent, insurance, etc.).

Nevertheless, I think they'll sell at least 50,000 hardcovers, and will end up selling a bunch on Kindle and then in trade paperback, and eventually foreign language deals (he does well in Germany, for instance).

But the point for Tor is that even if they make money, the opportunity costs related to publishing new authors is astounding. For the money they've thrown at Scalzi, they could have paid out 340 $10,000-advances to new or emerging science fiction authors over the next decade. They could have nurtured a whole new generation of scifi authors. I know, I know...they'd be crap authors. But the point is that the Tor of old would have done that. Now they're just adding insult to injury.

Anonymous GithYankee April 01, 2017 11:56 PM  

But is Scalzi even able to read Hyperion? I think his reading list consists of watching Saturday Night Live and laughing uproariously at all the funny.

Anonymous Albert April 02, 2017 12:23 AM  

Kiva Lagos seems kinda rapey. Is Barefoot Johnny trying to emulate GRRM?

Blogger Gospace April 02, 2017 12:40 AM  

There actually is a legal way, for the officers, to mutiny on board a US Navy ship. But they damn well better be able to justify it the Board of Inquiry that will follow, or a court martial will follow the Board.

Anonymous SciVo de Plorable April 02, 2017 12:56 AM  

OT: Picture this with "You Have To Go Home"

Blogger Commenter April 02, 2017 1:24 AM  

I looked at a copy in my local bookstore. There is an abundance of white space on each page, but the reviewer must still have excellent speed reading skills.

If you're feeling the need, you can hear a sample of Will Weaton performing the audio for it at audible.com. It's not the infamous Kiva scene, but it's still cringeworthy.

Blogger Franz Lyonheart April 02, 2017 2:06 AM  

it's a ten book deal.

Still not $13m. More like $3.1m. Or 3.4. About that order of magnitude. So this book wasted about $300k advance for Tor. Still a loss, but not a dozen millions loss.

Blogger Cataline Sergius April 02, 2017 2:06 AM  

The established author has a kinder heart than I do.



The other book that inspired the Corroding Empire by Johan Kalsi, is The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi. One of these books is a tribute band that knows it's a tribute band. The other doesn't have a clue that it can't rock like the original.

This is an excerpt from Scalzi's Collapsing Empire. The already infamous:

Chapter Two

Kiva Lagos was busily fucking the brains out of the assistant purser she’d been after for the last six weeks of the Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby’s trip from Lankaran to End when Second Officer Waylov Brennir entered her stateroom, unannounced. “You’re needed,” he said.

Editors are supposed to stop stuff like this from happening. And credit where it's due, PNH is a half way decent editor. This means one of two things. Either there was so much garbage that it was just too much work to throw all of it out or (and this is so much worse) Scalzi actually fought to keep this scene in.

This Kiva Lagos is supposed to be one of Scalzi's favorite creations of all time. And she is clearly by any measure a truly horrible little person.

“I’m a little busy at the moment,” Kiva said. She’d just finally gotten herself into a groove, so fuck Waylov (not literally, he was awful) (*Were you behind on your word count when you wrote this John?*) if she was going to get out of the groove just because he walked into it. Grooves were hard to come by. (*Yep, behind on his word count*) People have sex, and he was unannounced. If this was what he walked into, it was his fault, not hers. (*Waaay behind. This is three in the morning crap that most writers would be hideously embarrassed about having written the next day.*) The assistant purser seemed a little concerned, but Kiva applied a little pressure to make it clear festivities were to continue.

Seventy percent of the current bricks and mortar bookstore market is female. Scalzi like any traditionally published author is aware of this and tries to write stuff that will appeal to that segment of market. Which means he honestly thought women would like this.

For a typical woman this is a, put down the book and walk away, "Dude, I can't even," moment. This paragraph is deeply and profoundly unaware of what women want from sex.

Now weird ideas (fantasies really) about sex are one of the unfortunate hallmarks of science fiction. But this paragraph speaks to a view point of a straight man who sexually idealizes himself as a woman. Except normal women don't have sex like this and they never will.

I'm not joking about this fetish either. This whole passage is about projection. Women do not pursue men for six weeks. They just don't. For that matter most normal men can't be bothered after getting shot down a time or two. They just move on after that. But Gamma and Omega Males will stalk one woman for months.

The fact that this Kiva Lagos is rich and can ruin this lowly assistant purser with a word, seems to be give Scalzi the giggles. If the sexes had been reversed Scalzi would have been the first one to scream, rape!

Anonymous An Extremely Deplorable Paradigm Is More Than A Basket Of Twenty Deplorable Cents April 02, 2017 2:58 AM  

Kiva Lagos? How did I miss this blatant example of cultural appropriation and blatant raycism by Scalzi?
The Kiva was a round underground space used by that ancient Puebloans of the American southwest for religious purposes.

Among the modern Hopi and most other Pueblo peoples, kivas are square walled and underground, and are used for spiritual ceremonies.

https://infogalactic.com/info/Kiva

There is NO PLACE in Science Fiction for an author who callously appropriates sacred spaces from other cultures. Doubly so when it obviously has to do with the author's own sexual fetishes.

Anonymous Bz April 02, 2017 4:41 AM  

Furthermore, Lagos is a well-known Nigerian city. I see the outline of something highly problematic.

Blogger APL April 02, 2017 5:30 AM  

"Kiva Lagos was busily fucking the brains out of the assistant purser she’d been after for the last six weeks "

If a woman wants to be serviced by a man, it doesn't take six weeks to let him know.

Blogger Titus Quinctius Cincinnatus April 02, 2017 7:55 AM  

And Kiva Lagos is - put bluntly - a potty-mouthed bully and a sexual predator.

Unless it's DIRECTLY relevent to the plot, I don't see the point. I don't understand the obsession with modern sci-fi writers having to throw foul language and sex around an otherwise good story, almost as if it's simply being done gratuitously. If your characters aren't interesting without the sex and cussing, then your characters simply aren't interesting - period. Throwing some F-bombs in won't fix the problem. Much like real life, swearing simply shows an inability to think clearly or to have anything interesting to say. Far from making a person (either in real life or in a story) seem more "real" and interesting, it just indicates dullness.

Blogger Titus Quinctius Cincinnatus April 02, 2017 7:56 AM  

If a woman wants to be serviced by a man, it doesn't take six weeks to let him know.

Well, it might for Scalzi, though I doubt it's ever come up as an issue for him.

Blogger Jonathan Wales April 02, 2017 7:56 AM  

@47 Quite.

Blogger SouthRon April 02, 2017 8:19 AM  

Cataline, I made exactly that point in a review of an Asimov book where the sexual dynamics were fairly realistic.

Too many SF authors lean autistic and write the sexual fantasies of a 13yo dysfunctional boy into their adult characters. They write what they know. It is awful and painful to read.

I'm sure Rape'em Johnny would love to have a woman, maybe even his wife, pursue him for 6 weeks.

Unfortunately in this scene I'm pretty sure Scalzi is Waylov Brennir and not the purser. The leading lady thinks he's awful and has moved on to banging someone else while Johnny's thoroughly cucked and happy to watch her rape another man. Co-dependent rapists. Yipee.

Makes me wonder if the man's also a pedophile with the comments about his daughter out benching him.

OpenID thetroll April 02, 2017 8:35 AM  

> Which means he honestly thought women would like this.

Yes. Yes, I do believe he actually would.

> This paragraph is deeply and profoundly unaware of what women want from sex.

Um, yeah. About that.

People around here snicker a lot at the suspected dynamics of the Scalzi marital relationship, but me I've been thinking y'know, they sure remind me one hell of a lot of couples I know in RL in that rather odd nexus where Goth/fetish/BDSM blend. (By acquaintance, I was old school punk/rivethead myself, but that was all the same crowd in my neck of the woods.)

For those Family Scalzi-resembling couples, that paragraph would not, in fact, actually be unaware. If you see where delicacy forbids me going with this.

OpenID thetroll April 02, 2017 8:50 AM  

> Too many SF authors lean autistic and write the sexual fantasies of a 13yo dysfunctional boy into their adult characters. They write what they know. It is awful and painful to read.

Isn't it though? I swear to all the god(s), Harry Turtledove is the _only_ author working in the field who can write plausible sounding alpha, beta, and gamma relationships. Like _everyone_ else has _at best_ one form of relationship that reads as if they've ever met an actual human engaged in it...

Blogger Aeoli Pera April 02, 2017 9:44 AM  

Pff, amateurs. You want a horrifying Scalzi lookalike, look up Himmler.

Anonymous Longtime Lurker April 02, 2017 11:53 AM  

Scalzi and Himmler. Together at long last. In my mind's eye. Six months of therapy await. Maybe more. Thanks Aeoli.

Anonymous Cheshirych April 02, 2017 11:54 AM  

Utterly and badly stolen from Dune. And in the process of theft most of the meaning got lost.

Anonymous FP April 02, 2017 12:11 PM  

"Instead, we get a mixture of local politics, interstellar shipping concerns and interstellar politics."

So, its The Phantom Menace. Next up, Attack of the Flow.

Blogger Aeoli Pera April 02, 2017 3:11 PM  

You're welcome. I shitpost because I care, it's the Ilk way.

Blogger TheDanielsaur April 03, 2017 9:55 AM  

The author should post this review on Amazon! I've noticed that Amazon has already changed its system so now only verified purchase reviews show up on the product page. You really have to dig to get to the unverified ones, which actually helps Corrosion in this case, since it hides all the fake reviews.

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