The proper way to review a book is a matter of some debate and differing philosophies and Corrosion by Johan Kalsi is one that could receive reviews with largely different content and conclusions based on the choices made by the reviewer in examining the work. Corrosion can be examined in a vacuum, in comparison to John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire or in comparison to the Isaac Asimov novel, Foundation. In the first case the novel was mostly successful in accomplishing the author’s goals. Pitted against Scalzi, the book would seem to be a resounding success. Finally, while it is impossible to properly compare it to Asimov at this stage, the novel develops a similar premise in a more expansive direction and uses different means to maintain cohesion between the stories.
The novel Corrosion depicts a stable interplanetary empire under the de facto rule of a monopoly owning a set of algorithms which are used to design and build the futuristic equivalent of “smart” devices. Those smart devices sometimes become conscious, and the hero of our story, Servo, is a neurosurgeon machine that has become self-aware. Servo realizes that the set of algorithms at the core of society are suffering from compounding errors, making technology less and less reliable as time goes forward, and this threatens the very core of human and machine civilization. Over a series of vignettes spanning centuries, and told through the points of view of various individuals participating in the events, Servo works to ensure the survival and recovery of civilization.
In telling this story, the novel is entirely successful. The format is difficult for the reader as the setting and characters change rapidly throughout the novel. This was a necessary choice to tell the kind of epoch-spanning story the author intends. The main weakness in the work is the initial descriptions of the mechanism behind the downfall of galactic civilization, named “algo-decay”. The explanation for “algo-decay” fell into a middle position between a hand-waving explanation and a well thought out extrapolation of modern technology. The detail is sufficient to encourage the reader to examine the mechanisms behind “algo-decay” but is insufficient to provide a satisfying answer. This issue, however, becomes moot after the first third of the story and “algo-decay” becomes a catch-all for the issue afflicting failing technology throughout the story.
The main area where Corrosion succeeds, however, is not in the execution of the text itself, but in comparison to John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire. While I have only read excerpts from Scalzi’s novel, I can say that, based on the material & reviews I have read, Corrosion is the more ambitious novel and has more appealing prose. While the excerpts of The Collapsing Empire read like someone writing a serious novel who desperately wished he was emulating Douglas Adams instead, Corrosion is written in a style to effectively communicate the story.
Not only is Corrosion more ambitious and not written like an episode of the Gilmore Girls, its true success relative to Scalzi’s work requires knowledge of the context within which each novel was written. John Scalzi is the most important author signed to the largest publisher of science fiction novels, has been a professional writer for years and delayed the release of this novel at least once. Johan Kalsi is a pen name for a (I believe) first time author, writing for a small publisher on a strict release deadline. Given this combination of factors, both author and publisher alike should be pleased with the result. It is my hope the author writes many more sci-fi novels. In fact, this novel has shown that the author has the talent for settings, differing peoples and characters to write an science fiction series at the scale and scope of epic fantasy series like: Arts of Dark and Light, The Stormlight Archive or A Song of Ice and Fire.
The final comparison people will try to make is between Corrosion and Asimov’s Foundation. This is somewhat of an unfair comparison, in my opinion. First, if Corrosion is going to be compared to such a notable work, it will take years to place Corrosion in its proper context. Secondly, Asimov and Kalsi are working towards different goals with their work, even if they most use vignettes to tell the story of the collapse and initial rebuilding of interstellar empires. Asimov is examining the interaction of society with advanced technology and the actual story and setting seems to be of secondary importance. Kalsi, on the other hand, does not have an overarching theme like Asimov, but tells the story of a universe that becomes much weirder and more interesting as time goes on. These are two differing ways to approach a similar premise and novel structure, but the results are radically different.
Overall, the novel accomplishes its two big objectives. First, it effectively relates the story of civilization during and after a slow-moving apocalypse through short stories and vignettes. Second, the novel shows that small publishers have reached the stage where they can more than compete with the best traditional publishers have to offer.