Friday, April 17, 2020

Book Review: The Last Emperox

An anonymous book reviewer reviews THE LAST EMPEROX by Tor's Three-Million-Dollar Man, John Scalzi. While I have not read any of the three books in the trilogy myself, it would not appear that Tor made a wise investment.

I was a few chapters into The Last Emperox when Scalzi did something he’d never done before in the Interdependency trilogy.  He made me laugh.

It was not a snicker at one of his jokes.  It was not a wry chuckle at the semi-snarky dialogue that passes for humour.  It was a genuine laugh when it hit me that Kiva Lagos is Donald Trump, with breasts!  Intentionally or not, Scalzi’s foul-mouthed rapist mess of a hero has a lot in common with the leftist perception of Trump, from the manners of a bullying braggart to the habit of rolling the dice time and time again until she comes up trumps.  There is a certain irony, in fact, that the titular character is someone who has so much in common with a populist politician Scalzi detests.  I’d apologise for the spoiler, but really there’s little to spoil.

Scalzi’s fans compare him to Heinlein.  A better comparison would be Harry Harrison.  Harrison’s comic novels didn’t take themselves too seriously, making light of everything from planetary invasions to full-scale war with a coalition of alien races.  When Harrison tried to write more serious novels, they were rarely satisfactory.  Scalzi has the same problem.  Old Man’s War was funny, but Scalzi is simply incapable of turning his keyboard to more serious work.  The Collapsing Empire and its two sequels are based on a cool concept, but their author fails to do them justice.  They simply don’t live up to their promise.

Scalzi himself admits, in his afterword, that he has a habit of procrastinating for months before turning in the first draft.  This is a major problem, as he says, because the editors don’t have time to do their job.  The three books would have made a fairly decent story if they’d been written as one volume - and had a good editor, who had the time to fix the problems - but as a trilogy they simply don’t work.  There are entire sections that Scalzi skips over, or hand-waves, or relies on his audience to fill in the gaps.  The story hops from idea to post-idea without showing us the idea being put into effect, dancing through time-skips in the hope we won’t notice.  This is irritating as hell.

The real problem is that he was incapable of developing the concept into a story.  There was ample room for a space opera on the same scale as The Night’s Dawn trilogy, but he chose to skip over the details that would have made it feel real.  The interdependency feels like a very thin universe indeed, without the sense of age or depth that writers such as Hamilton, Sanderson and Jemsin work into their stories.  Instead, he focuses on a tedious political battle and struggle for power that I thought had been resolved in the second book.  The concept of saving the vast majority of the population through flow-manipulation is better than I expected, but it simply isn’t developed.  The story does not end with the salvation of humanity or the preservation of a chunk of human civilisation.  Instead, it feels more like a retread of old ground that solves nothing.  It is, indeed, difficult to summarise the book because so little actually happens (and most of the important events happen off-stage)!

This is best reflected in the endless struggle between Cardenia Wu-Patrick, Kiva Lagos and Nadashe Nohamapetan, a struggle that would have been cut short if either of the three had shown a little more intelligence or ruthlessness.  (Seriously, Nadashe showed a little more cunning than earlier, but she would have won if she’d shot Kiva).  The bickering over who will take power, if anyone can when the writing is firmly on the wall, comes across as more than a little pointless.  More interesting plots - ways to navigate the Flow, developments on End - are hand-waved away, as if Scalzi realised he was running out of words and wrapped things up quickly.  This flows from Scalzi’s limitations.  It’s fairly clear he knows little about how militaries, power brokers and monarchies work.  A comic book empress can afford to be ignorant.  A real-life empress who’s going to inherit real power (even if she’s the spare) will have been trained for the role from birth.  Kiva Lagos is a liability to any real power broker because people like her - “whirling amoral vortexes of chaos” - tend to make enemies, people who will try to knife her in the back out of sheer spite and/or a desire for revenge.  There’s no hope of building a permanent relationship with someone you treat like shit, even if they are petty small-minded gamma males.  That too is something she has in common with Trump.

Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat books featured the beautiful and deadly Angelina, whose comedic sociopathy is funny, as long as you don’t think about it too much.  Harrison gets away with it because he’s writing comic novels, where reality is twisted to accommodate humour; Scalzi does not get away with it because his books are meant to be serious fiction and Kiva’s behaviour is horrible.  Sure, running up behind someone and yanking down their pants can be funny, but it’s also sexual assault.  It’s always fun until someone loses an eye.  I’m not laughing.

The Last Emperox has its moments, but it does not live up to its promise.  It does not present a scene of humanity getting around the problem, nor does it present a desperate struggle for survival right out of a disaster movie.  It does not even end with the collapse of the Flow and the dawn of a new era.  The plan to avoid disaster and save millions of lives is workable, but we never get to see it.  Scalzi concentrates on politics and avoids actually coming to grips with his universe.  The interesting characters get shoved aside, or forced to make stupid decisions, while the boring ones carry the show.

The series overall has its issues.  The Interdependency itself doesn’t make much sense.  The idea of End being both the sole inhabitable world in known space and an isolated backwater is bizarre.  You’d think it would be the most valuable piece of real estate in the galaxy.  The Interdependency brought some of its problems on itself, but the way it did that should have prompted it to avoid the problems.  Scalzi tries to justify it, but it isn’t convincing.  He might have been better leaving the collapse of the Flow as a natural event, as unpredictable (to the average person) as a hurricane.

A good series should have a strong beginning, a firm middle and a resounding end.  The Collapsing Empire is a weak beginning, The Consuming Fire isn’t enough to save the series and The Last Emperox ends with a whimper rather than a resounding crescendo.

I stand by my earlier opinion.  As a single book, the series would have worked (with a decent editor). As a trilogy, it’s a waste of money.

Labels: ,


Blogger Gregory the Tall April 17, 2020 8:05 AM  

"Emperox" sounds like a gender neutral version of Emperor/Empress. No thanks, not for me.

Blogger Damelon Brinn April 17, 2020 8:22 AM  

I'm not surprised. Trump looms so large in the leftist eye that they can't help making everything about him.

Blogger Azimus April 17, 2020 8:52 AM  

Did it end up being a ripoff of Foundation?

Blogger Nihil Dicit April 17, 2020 8:54 AM  

Few things will demonstrate a marginally talented writer's limitations more clearly than attempting to write allegory. Political allegory, doubly so.

Blogger Balkan Yankee April 17, 2020 9:02 AM  

A serious review of an unserious work.

Blogger Weak April 17, 2020 9:07 AM  

Bad books aren't so much a waste of money. Most books are relatively cheap. Bad books are a waste of time. Reading a novel requires hours, hours that can never come back. Hours that could have been used reading something good instead.

It's why I'm grateful for the VD Reading List. It showed me several authors that I had never heard of, but I love their work. Like Murakami and Perez-Navarte.

Blogger Stilicho April 17, 2020 9:11 AM  

@Gregory well, scalzi is a gender neutral version of a writer, so there you go. I expect the shiv that hit scalzi hardest was the negative comparison to Jemsin. That made ME laugh.

Blogger Gregory the Tall April 17, 2020 9:15 AM  

proof of a corroding brain, not even worth a parody.

Blogger Scuzzaman April 17, 2020 9:19 AM  

without the sense of age or depth that writers such as Hamilton, Sanderson and Jemsin

This is also a most awkward triumvirate.

Pretending that Jemsin is in the same multiverse as either is a fatal credibility blow.

As my brothers and I used to tell our mother when she castigated us over our ideas about what properly constitutes entertainment;

It’s not fun until someone loses an eye!

Leftists lack the constitutional vigor to appreciate actual humour. That’s one reason why snark is all they do. Reality frightens them. They run from it rather than laugh at it.

Blogger Crew April 17, 2020 10:18 AM  

"You're a better man than I am Gunga Din" just for reading all three!

Blogger ASH April 17, 2020 10:21 AM  

The VD Reading List is great. I found out about Umberto Eco's death from this Blog. In VD's post he mentioned how Murakami is now the best living author. I've read every novel and short story. Killing Commendatore and The Wind Up Bird Chronicle being my favorites.

Blogger Harsh April 17, 2020 10:22 AM  

Can't wait for Scalzi's next magnum opus. Rumor is he's been seen reading the Dune saga while scribbling notes furiously.

Blogger Unknown April 17, 2020 10:42 AM  

Just take a look at the excerpts at Amazon and Tor: pages of nothing but eyes-glaze-over exposition including numbered lists! I can't think of anybody but JohnnyCon who better illustrates the Peter Principle.

Blogger Section 8A April 17, 2020 10:48 AM  

This reviewer not only wrote a great review, but also was something of a human sacrifice, reading these books so we don't have to.

Blogger Canadian Warlord April 17, 2020 10:50 AM  

I owe John Scalzi a huge debt. Years previous, Frederik Pohl crushed my dreams of writing science fiction with the "Gateway" series. Scalzi has given those dreams new hope!

If someone can make money writing that, especially when comparing "Old Man's War" to Haldeman's "The Forever War" in the forward, then there's hope for me!

Just recently read (finally) the first three books of "Stainless Steel Rat." I think another big divide between Scalzi and Harrison, is Harry's snarky characters have snarky actions more than dialogue. The main character likes robbing banks, in the 3rd book he travels back in time to 1975 Earth. First thing he does is befriend an outlaw biker and burgle a bank. That's just funny! Characters saying snarky things to each other? Meh...

Blogger Verne April 17, 2020 10:56 AM  

John Scalzi wrote one good book, it was his version of Starsghip Troopers. And that one book suckered me into two more of his books. Fortunately they were not big books and did not waste too much of my life. He is not a good writer. He crafts words together well enough. he picks exciting subjects. But he still manages to be boring. Maybe he needs to copy better authors or stick with copying Robert A. Heinlein.

Blogger Shane Bradman April 17, 2020 11:12 AM  

Perhaps it's just the dreck that the sci-fi community keeps putting out, but I can't figure out what's so appealing about the genre anymore. There haven't been any interesting or original ideas since the 80s when cyberpunk took off. No author I can think of in the last 30 years has done anything genuinely creative with sci-fi. It's all copying sci-fi tropes or ripping off other authors like what Scalzi does. With the fantasy genre, many authors create new species that have a completely different functionality and way of life. In sci-fi, all I've found is the present with better technology that can magically do things that couldn't be done before. Scalzi and his kind have been killing off sci-fi for a while.

Blogger VD April 17, 2020 11:27 AM  

John Scalzi wrote one good book, it was his version of Starsghip Troopers.

And the reason it was okay was that it was a color-by-numbers imitation of Heinlein. But as soon as he stopped doing that, his novels ceased to be even modestly interesting. It turns out that the flaws in Old Man's War were the genuine Scalzi.

Blogger furor kek tonicus ( no need to be racist, Ratchets can Karen better than anybody ) April 17, 2020 12:17 PM  

without the sense of age or depth that writers such as Hamilton, Sanderson and Jemsin work into their stories.

damn, son.

i thought abuse like that had been outlawed by the Geneva Conventions.

Blogger Revelation Means Hope April 17, 2020 12:21 PM  

Written by one of his own ilk, no less. The feminization of sci fi gatekeepers is why they think Jemsin is a Hugo worthy writer. As a rule, the female mind seems to prefer character building, navel gazing, illogical and emotion and narrative driven writing.

A coherent plot and consistency from chapter to chapter is NOT important. It may even be seen as patriarchal interference with the feminine imperative to constantly adjust your standing in the female pecking order and their fluid stance on facts and past timelines.

To be unfavorably compared to Jemsin has GOT to scald Scalzi's putrid soul. If he responds to this review, unlikely as that may be, expect him to make some transparently false reference to it not being an insult.

Blogger Geir Balderson April 17, 2020 1:50 PM  

For some reason I thought Scalzi no longer wrote novels.
And, after this review, I see I am correct.

Get a real job John!!!

Blogger Pseudotsuga April 17, 2020 2:25 PM  

The current Woke Wave of speculative fiction really seems to be all allegorical in purpose and tone.
As for allegory, I always subscribe to what J. R. R. Tolkien wrote about allegory (including C. S. Lewis' allegorical Narnia books):
“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

Blogger Cataline Sergius April 17, 2020 3:37 PM  

"EMPEROX" *snort*

Scalzi used to be sharper than that.

Yeah, coming with a silly-ass gender-neutral name get will get him good reviews and suck-points with the rad feminists but that doesn't sell books because SJWs never buy anything.

Current Amazon rank 296, which would be good but that's for a just launched book by MacMillan. He should be a LOT higher in the listings than that.

At the very least he should be number one in all of his categories but he is currently being out sold in Galactic DUNE.

Blogger Jack Amok April 17, 2020 4:46 PM  

Emperox. A ruler who is fat, dumb and stubborn?

Blogger Balkan Yankee April 17, 2020 5:54 PM  

Emperox to give the reader heartburn. Maalox to make it go away.

Blogger The Black Cat April 23, 2020 4:57 PM  

Number 6 on this week's NYT bestseller list.

Post a Comment

Rules of the blog
Please do not comment as "Anonymous". Comments by "Anonymous" will be spammed.

<< Home

Newer Posts Older Posts