How to write a negative review

Now THIS is a proper negative review, of such quality that even the professional reviewer can only salute and applaud. An actual scientist provides the fake reviewers of Corrosion with an exemplary masterpiece of devastation in his review of John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire, which he took the innovative approach of actually reading in order to criticize it more effectively:

A Slipshod, Incompetent Disaster

I gave this book a fair shake. While I disagree with John Scalzi on sociopolitical issues, that doesn’t mean he can’t be a good, or even great author. After all, I disagree vehemently with Margaret Atwood and Stephen King, but I consider them brilliant scribes whose works I adore. Unfortunately, “The Collapsing Empire” is a mess so wretched that I can’t see how even Scalzi’s biggest fans can defend it.

A major problem is the lack of logical sense to the proceedings. This goes beyond mere plot holes, although there are no lack of those. For instance, the Prologue features a ship mutiny. One in which the ship’s chief engineer is murdered and there are plans to do the same with the captain and her supporters. Risky business, no? Not only do the mutineers face the prospect of armed resistance, putting their lives on the line, but they have committed a serious criminal act. Who is to say they won’t be found out by an investigator? Or one of the many fellow mutineers won’t blackmail them or squeal later on the others?

In other words, they need a damn compelling reason to mutiny. The one provided by Scalzi is that the executive officer leading the mutiny will receive a 30% premium on their weapons cargo by selling to the rebels of the planet instead of the government. Yes, you read that correctly. 30 percent, not 30 times.

This is absurdly stupid, the equivalent of burning down one’s house because one spotted a spider in the bathroom.

There are other problems with the mutiny. Inexplicably, the ship has all the weapons stored in one and only one cabinet in the entire ship. Which is conveniently taken over by the mutineers. This is of course preposterous, and shows again that Scalzi has no clue about the military science fiction he writes about.

Oh, and neither the captain nor any of her loyal officers is armed beyond a single futuristic weapon that works inside of three feet.

With the mutiny proceeding poorly, Scalzi interjects with some long exposition. In the middle of the tense life-and-death stand-off, we suddenly get multiple paragraphs explaining the pseudo-science behind “The Flow”. This completely shatters a reader’s immersion into the story, and is done so poorly a fan fiction writer would wince. Scalzi even breaks the fourth wall, explaining to us about how things function in “this universe”.

Moreover, this exposition exposes Scalzi as being as clueless about science as he is on military matters. Now, “The Flow” itself seems to be a rip-off of similar teleportation concepts from older, classic science fiction works like “The Forever War” by Joe Haldeman. But whereas Haldeman has a degree in physics and astronomy and writes credibly on the topic, Scalzi, a philosophy major, is hopelessly lost.

He tries to mask this confusion with meaningless mumbo-jumbo. “Topographically complex” is not a term, but word salad to impress laypeople with. And just what the hell is “metacosmological structure”?! Hilariously, Scalzi then throws up his hands and admits defeat;

“And even that was a crap way of describing it, because human languages are crap at describing things more complex than assembling a tree house. The accurate way of describing the Flow involved the sort of high-order math probably only a couple hundred human beings across the billions of the Interdependency could understand, much less themselves use to describe it meaningfully. You likely would not be one of them.”

In that case, why not delete the previous section entirely? There are other absurd passages. For instance, the crew is told of the speed (a scalar) of Scalzi’s teleportation mumbo-jumbo, but not its direction (a vector) or its acceleration. A high school freshman taking physics for the first time would be embarrassed for the writer.

Now, while I’m a scientist for a living who enjoys hard science fiction, there is nothing wrong with a science fiction author having a poor grasp of science, provided he excels in other areas. Harry Harrison is a favorite of mine, and the less said about his understanding of physics and mathematics, the better. However, Harrison avoided this problem by very rarely bothering with these subjects at all. Scalzi, meanwhile, engages with them and looks like an absolute fool in the process.

Even when it comes to basic human interaction, the mutiny is a failure. In this tense, life-and-death situation, the characters react with…snark. Consider this exchange;

“Eva Fanochi probably could have answered that for you,” Gineos said. “If you hadn’t murdered her, that is.”

“Now’s not a great time for that discussion, Captain.”

This doesn’t exactly inspire a reader to care about what the hell ends up happening to the characters. After all, they themselves don’t. Oh, and the captain wins by a bluff that makes no sense. She says that if she dies, her hand on a control panel will “blow every airlock the ship has into the bubble”? Sounds convincing, but what is it supposed to mean? And why would the mutineers, all experienced crewmen, fall for it when it’s revealed to be absolute rubbish a moment later? Wouldn’t they know the ship and its capabilities?

The following chapters I read, while not as error-laden, are still inauthentic and boring, when they’re not vile and outrageous.

Other reviewers have noted the introduction to Kiva Lagos, a powerful noble who is busy either raping or sexually coercing a lowly male subordinate through her vastly superior rank. He begs her to stop. She doesn’t let him. Lagos also swears and insults others constantly. One might think she is a main villain, but instead Lagos is a primary protagonist. Scalzi even called her one of his favorite characters ever. Apparently, behavior that would be considered sickening and abhorrent even in an unrepentant male antagonist is considered admirable and empowering so long as the gender is switched to female.

Scalzi tries to write cool, even female cool (which is harder), but it comes off as sophomoric and laughable when it’s not vulgar and repulsive. We are also told that Lagos was pursuing (stalking?) this junior purser for six whole weeks. Men pursue women for that long, but women don’t. Once her mind is made up, a confident woman would express her feelings long before that, and the man would either reject or accept her. Add “sexual dynamics” to the list of subjects Scalzi is ignorant of.

We are told the “emperox” Cardenia has to marry a member of a merchant guild. Why is she compelled to do so, when she is the most powerful person in the universe? Surely, it’s lesser individuals and families that have to scheme and marry to accrue more power rather than the top potentate? I’m not saying there aren’t circumstances where doing so wouldn’t make sense. However, it has to be EXPLAINED. Instead, Scalzi, in murky fashion, notes it would be advantageous for dealing with the merchant guilds (why?), with nothing further.

Speaking of lack of explanations, that dovetails with the most startling weakness of the book. The complete and total lack of any description. We are told nothing, absolutely nothing about the physical characteristics of any character, including main protagonists Emperox Cardenia Wu-Patrick, Kiva Lagos, and Captain Gineos. Naturally, there is no description of any buildings, rooms, objects, or spaceships, either.

While I generally dislike voluminous, multi-page descriptions, favoring sparser brush strokes, one still expects SOMETHING. With nothing offered at all, these characters, and the story as a whole, become little more than an amorphous blob. It adds to the feeling that this is lazy, bad fan fiction…. Avoid this, even if you’re a die-hard Scalzi fan.

While the book review is borderline sadistic in its heartless attention to detail, it is certainly informative for prospective readers, particularly when one compares it with a negative “review” of similar length, which is chiefly notable for the fact that the reviewer is as unfamiliar with Isaac Asimov and Foundation as he is with Johan Kalsi and Corrosion.

Ceterum censeo Tor Books esse delendam