No, Speed Limit: John Scalzi’s “The Collapsing Empire”

By Gerry CanavanSeptember 23, 2017

No, Speed Limit: John Scalzi’s “The Collapsing Empire”

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

ACCORDING TO Donald A. Wollheim, Golden Age science fiction typically imagined the future would unfold according to a certain pattern:

  1. humans explore and colonize the solar system;

  2. humans explore and colonize extrasolar planets;

  3. a Galactic Federation/Republic/Empire emerges;

  4. the Empire enjoys a peak period characterized by a stable metropole in the galactic center (however constituted) and ongoing exploration at “the Rim”;

  5. this peak period is followed by decadence and collapse;

  6. the collapse is followed by a Dark Age (of whatever length);

  7. a second Empire is established that is imagined to be perfected and permanent;

  8. and, finally, the people of the future undertake The Challenge to God: sometimes this literally culminates in overthrowing some sort of malevolent God Thing, while at other times it involves innovating some way to survive the heat death of the universe (or evolving into energy beings of pure light, et cetera).

From Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov to Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas (and on and on), one discovers this basic narrative recurring over and over again in science fictional narratives about the human “destiny” to inherit the stars. And of course it’s a story, in various ways, we still tell: just think of how every failing US presidency eventually tries to prop itself up by promising manned missions to Mars.

Despite its prevalence in NASA’s branding and self-promotion, however, manned space flight is no longer a priority for the organization; missions to the Moon stalled after only a few years, and the anticipated follow-up missions to Mars, the asteroid belt, and the moons of Jupiter and beyond have remained only dreams. Current plans for Mars manned missions, only fragmentary, typically involve one-way suicide trips — hardly the stuff of our intergalactic dreams — and such trips very rarely satisfy anything like a rational cost-benefit analysis in terms of what we on Earth might get out of such projects. Our interstellar probes? They’re 3.5 centimeters wide. We’re stalling out at Wollheim’s first stage, long before we make the jump to lightspeed. Even the most unrestrained accelerationist futurism seems unable to sustain a vision of faster-than-light travel of the sort that would make a truly galactic civilization possible; our futures today seem earthbound, inside the computer, rather than “Out There” beyond the stars. And so, without some hyperspace corridor to lubricate our prophesied escape from Earth, space operatic science fiction discovers itself condemned, quite unhappily, as a future that failed.

But the wide-ranging influence of those cosmic stories, which once seemed so inevitable, means we experience our actual earthbound future as an incomprehensible betrayal. For humanity to flicker and die on Earth alone — and to leave no trace of itself save its garbage and the geological echo of incomprehensibly vast mass extinction — seems to us like a crime against the specialness of our species (not to mention all the other species we’ve made extinct just to get this far). Perhaps it says something about my personal psychology that I think so often of Margaret Atwood’s flash fiction “Time Capsule Found on the Dead Planet,” which addresses itself to “[y]ou who have come here from some distant world, to this dry lakeshore and this cairn, and to this cylinder of brass, in which on the last day of all our recorded days I place our final words.” These unknown and unknowable aliens exert a brutal judgment upon our civilization, discovering in some deep future time an Earth that has been absolutely ruined by human activity. These aliens have achieved the dream of science fiction that the 20th century placed so much imaginative investment in: they have traveled from their home world to others and accessed the full wonders of the cosmos. But humans didn’t; we blew it. We died. Those final words, inscribed on the capsule, are a bitterly passive-aggressive rebuke to a civilization that had fantasized about eternal progress but was able to produce only death: “Pray for us, who once, too, thought we could fly.”


John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire — whose title alone seems like an appallingly on-the-nose allegory for the state of the United States at this moment — is one of the most important revisionist hyperspace narratives to come along in some time. Scalzi, a master of science fictional parody and pastiche, has played with this problem before, unsettling the easy assumptions about hyperspace that characterized Golden Age science fiction. In Old Man’s War, his riff on Heinlein, hyperspace is indeed easy but carries with it a weird psychological cost: ships don’t actually move faster than light, they simply leap out of their original universe into a parallel one (which, the scientists assure everyone, is probably completely identical, more or less). In his Redshirts, a revisionist Star Trek, ships move at the speed of Narrative rather than according to any rational principle of physics; in his somber and understated The God Engines, the violation of physical principles we call hyperspace is made possible by flogging and torturing gods that our heroes have captured and enslaved.

Now, in The Collapsing Empire — another pastiche which combines elements of Asimov’s Foundation series with Banks’s Culture series, Herbert’s Dune, and Lucas’s Star Wars in ways that I found quite delightful as a life-long fan of the genre — Scalzi depicts stage five of that old eight-point Golden Age future: the collapse. The version of hyperspace we encounter here (called the Flow) is not simply “Ludicrous Speed” but a sort of bizarre physico-ontological formation lurking beneath three-dimensional space; the humans plying his millennia-old outer-space empire, called the Interdependency, have to access and exit the Flow using known access points not unlike wormholes. The result is a spiral of nodes not unlike a contemporary subway map, with a snarl of interconnecting nodes linking a central planet (Hub) to nearly all the others. Hub is naturally the seat of the empire, the Trantor- or Coruscant-like world city; we only spend time at one other location, End, the furthest inhabited solar system out on the Rim, which is connected only to Hub by a single long Flow shoal (so it’s Tatooine, Terminus, Arkanis, et cetera).

The Interdependency has been expressly socially engineered so that no one world in the network can survive independently without the others. On the surface, this represents an effort to promote peace; all worlds must trade resources in order to survive. Actually, of course, such interdependency ensures that the elites who control access to the Flow remain the masters of galactic society for all time. “Worlds,” in the traditional sense, hardly exist any longer: Hub, like most of the 47 other megastructures that humans now live upon, is actually an immense artificial habitat orbiting a gas giant; those that aren’t space habitats are often underground structures not nearly ecologically self-sufficient without constant import of new resources. The backwater, End, is the one and only habitable planet humans have found since their departure from Earth.

Access to Earth itself was lost over a 1,000 years ago, when the Flow shifted past Earth’s position in the cosmos and its entrance and exit points disappeared. Several hundred years ago, before the Flow was fully mapped, another planet, Dalasýsla, was lost due to Flow movement, but since then the Flow has been stable. Until, of course, our story begins, and the Flow begins to collapse altogether. Once this process reaches its completion, there will be no more trade among worlds; the doomed inhabitants of all the artificial megastructures of the Interdependency will fall into madness, despair, barbarism, and finally murderous rage as they lose all hope, a process already documented by the long-range telescopes that were pointed at Dalasýsla. Billions will die — and afterward the people of the Interdependency will survive (if they survive anywhere in the universe at all) only on End.

Thus the book violates our contemporary scientific understanding of the nonexistence of hyperspace only to immediately re-violate that violation and inaugurate an ongoing series of novels centered upon the struggle of humanity to survive, as we must, on a single world. This deformation of the concept of hyperspace is quite appropriate to the moment of the Anthropocene, both in thematic terms that I probably don’t need to belabor, and also in terms of its structuring allegory: an energistic-ecological nexus that capitalism has used to expand its power without first understanding (and in the process become utterly dependent on for its continued survival) has now reached its terminal breaking point. The Flow, like fossil fuels, represents a cruel optimism: the necrofuturological disaster it once seemed to stave off is in fact precisely the catastrophe it intensifies. And there in that galactic Interdependency, like here in our own earthbound one, an entrenched and denialist elite doesn’t want to hear about the problem, even as the evidence piles up and becomes undeniable, even as the crisis, and the need to act, begins to scream at them, and mass death and even human extinction becomes a near-term concern …

Denial is the only response — unless the elite see a way to make money off the catastrophe. The conflict the book sets up for its sequels is, unexpectedly, not so much the one between the denialists and the realists (as the loose climate change allegory might initially suggest), but rather between the radical environmentalists and the merely liberal ones — between the radicals, who recognize the full scope of the disaster and the need for wholesale transformation of our political and economic institutions in response, and the liberals who think we can just tweak things here and there, add in a carbon-trading market and (if you’re feeling really silly) a few new fossil fuel taxes, and go on more or less as we always have. The denialists are doomed from the jump, because they can't adapt to a problem they refuse to recognize in the first place; Scalzi actually makes the liberal environmentalists the real enemy, because they recognize the problem but, too in love with their wealth and their privileges, misread it, slow walking and misplaying their response to the crisis — and in the process endanger the future of the entire human race.


The title for this review comes from the title of Steven Shaviro’s excellent short book on accelerationism, No Speed Limit (2015), in which he characterizes accelerationism as a return to the more Promethean version of Marxism (as opposed to the backward-looking, nostalgic, or even pastoral varieties that have a bit more purchase today) in which “the only way out is through.” Capitalism (especially in its turbocharged, neoliberal, neo-feudal, and necrofuturological perfected contemporary form) has so transformed the coordinates of history that there is no going backward to some earlier form of production and distribution; instead, the accelerationists would tell us, the only option is to take hold of that grim engine of death and repurpose it in the service of what I at least would still optimistically call utopia.

Despite appearances, my insertion of the comma into Shaviro’s title does not denote an attack on him or even on accelerationism per se. Rather, the title came to me first as a dumb joke that I found I simply could not shake; eventually I became convinced — in that terrible power jokes sometimes have over us — that the joke actually held within it an important truth. That feeling of the future saying “no” is, I am convinced, central to the depressed mood that characterizes the Anthropocene. As in the Atwood story, the relentless nongaze of the Anthropocene, its maximum and brutally inhuman objectivity, is nonetheless still always experienced by us as a moral judgment on our civilization — and likewise in Scalzi’s novel we find characters who can’t help but feel like the purely automatic movement of the Flow is nonetheless “the universe commenting on” the social organization of the Interdependency and its (many) flaws. In The Collapsing Empire, as in our own rapidly collapsing American empire, the problem isn’t really ever-expanding speed, ever-growing imperial reach, or ever-more-fragile political consensus. It’s ecology: the natural world around us that we have always treated as a nonspace, a resource faucet and a pollution sink to be used and abused however we liked, finally talking back to us, telling us “no.” But if we can’t go back, and we can’t go forward — if the future just says “no” — what’s left? That’s the problem remaining to be solved in the coming sequel(s) to The Collapsing Empire — beginning with The Last Emperox, expected in 2019. As warships gather to battle over the grim dregs of a mostly doomed humanity — too late to solve anything, but with plenty of time to wreck what little hope is left — what sort of optimism or positivity might yet emerge? As Wollheim knew, these stories are always supposed to have a second act, a second chance after the Dark Age — the one thing, maybe, even more unbelievable than hyperspace.


Gerry Canavan is an assistant professor of 20th- and 21st-century literature at Marquette University and the author of Octavia E. Butler (University of Illinois Press, 2016).

LARB Contributor

Gerry Canavan is an associate professor in the English department at Marquette University, teaching 20th- and 21st-century literature. His research projects include Science Fiction and Totality, as well as co-editing The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction and the journal Science Fiction Film and Television. His edited collection of critical essays, Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, is available from Wesleyan University Press. He is also the author of Octavia E. Butler from the University of Illinois Press’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series.


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