It is no secret that I love John Scalzi’s books. From the first time I found a copy of Old Man’s War to his recent release, The Consuming Fire, I have always thought of him as one of the best Sci-Fi writers, and not just because Old Man’s War shone like the sun in comparison to The Forever War when it comes to books that critique war in a space-centric futuristic setting. He’s one of two writer’s I’ve gotten to sign my laptop, a request reserved for my favorite writers of a genre I want to write in. All that bias acknowledged, I still think you should take it seriously when I say that the Interdependency Series is one of the best science-fiction series I’ve read in recent years.
The first book in the series, The Collapsing Empire, sets a complex, multi-faceted stage. We are introduced to The Interdependency, a series of Human colonies spread through space, connected by something called “The Flow” and ruled by an Emperox who is not only the leader of the government but also the head of the official religion. The Emperox we are introduced to, a younger woman named Cardenia Wu who assumed the throne somewhat unexpectedly after the death of her half-brother. There’s trouble brewing in the system of Human colonies, something vague her dying father only hints at before his death, and she must rise to the challenge of assuming a role she doesn’t really want and convincing the entire Interdependency to take her seriously. Helping her is the son of the scientist who spotted the problem, who is also an accomplished physicist in his own right and who has to escape his home planet and the noble family who wants to grab power during what they think will be a time of great vulnerability for the Interdependency and the Emperox.
All of the characters are incredible. The Emperox is a mixture of a confident, trained leader who has clearly been prepared for their role in society and a woman who never expected to be the head of anything but a few charities. She perfectly rides that line between fitting in with the part she must play in the Interdependency and wanting someone who sees her as a person instead of just as the Emperox. She is sympathetic to the reader, but her character is never dependent on that sympathy. The male scientist, Marce, is a giant nerd who studies The Flow, a series of wormholes that connect our realities to streams of altered space-time that allow ships with properly configured reality bubbles to travel great distances quickly along the flow of said streams, and who is clearly along for the ride when it comes to getting off-planet. He always seems a little bewildered, but never lost. He’s clearly intelligent and it shows as he quickly grasps whatever plans are laid around him, even when he’s clearly out of his element and just trying to keep up with the women who are trying to keep him alive.
Even the antagonists seem Human, showing us not just their plotting but also why they’re trying to grab power when they are. Most of them have a softer side, making it clear they are concerned for the survival of all Humans even if they’re taking this chance to enrich themselves while they try to safeguard Humanity. The only exception is the ring-leader, a woman named Nadashe Nohamapetan, who seems like a cackling villain from the beginning and whose behavior does nothing but reinforce that image of her. I want to believe there’s a chance at redemption for Nadashe coming (I haven’t reading The Consuming Fire yet), but all signs seem to point away from us seeing her as anything but an ambitious woman trying to grab power for herself and her family with little regard for the survival of Humanity.
She’s clearly a political expert, though, given the way she relentlessly positions herself to be in the right place for each step of her plan. Watching the political maneuverings is interesting since the whole system of government is a lot more difficult to influence that it is in more politically focused novels. For instance, in Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, the government is ruled by whoever has a claim and sits on the throne. In The Interdependency series, not just anyone can become the Emperox. Anyone can try to grab political and economic power, but the absolute rock-solid certainty of the house of Wu being both the head of the government and the head of the church means that power will almost always tip back to the Emperox in the end. Which means the politics in both The Collapsing Empire and The Consuming Fire are a little tame compared to what people generally look for, but the unique setup of the government of the Interdependency is more than enough to make them interesting.
The universe itself is well-developed in exactly the right ways. The specifics of everything aren’t incredibly important and Scalzi tends to brush past them quickly, instead focusing his time and attention on the important details. For instance, there is only one planet in the entire Interdependency on which Humans can live without some kind of habitat. Every other human settlement is either some kind of space station or hive, a bubble of habitability for Humanity to occupying in an otherwise hostile environment. This is important because it means there is only one place all of Humanity can survive for an extended period should something happened to the Interdependency’s linked economies is this planet, End. If the empire actually does collapse as the first book’s title suggests, then it is likely most of Humanity will die out except for those who live on End, a planet called such because it is as far from the center of the Interdependency as it is possible to get. All of the world details we get, from how The Flow works to how the various Human populations behave shows us how connected everything is and how reliant every single Human settlement is on being able to trade with all of the other settlements.
Like all good science-fiction, Scalzi’s books make a few statements about modern Humanity. The way all of the settlements rely on each other for long-term survival closely mirrors the situation we have on Earth, and how our survival as a whole is dependent on us working together in the modern age to fix the problems we’re all facing. The story has yet to show how The Interdependency works together to solve the problem, but I imagine it will fit Humanity’s current process all too well: argue for too long to do anything positive and then find someone to blame for the lack of results. Additionally, the deterioration of The Flow is a decent analogy for the environment and the way The Interdependency as a whole receives Marce’s scientific presentations completely matches the way most governments reacted to the initial findings about Global Warming. Some people take it seriously and a lot of people fear that it is true, but the idea of having to change on that big of a scale is so much more terrifying that people will cover their ears and yell so they can’t hear the truth. As someone who tries to fight that behavior in the real world, it is refreshing to find characters in a book who are trying to do the same thing, albeit in a more fantastic setting.
The entire series is worth reading and The Consuming Fire is even better than I hoped it would be. I would go into it more, but so much of The Collapsing Empire would be entirely spoiled if I did. You should definitely start there and enjoy the various twists and turns of the plot, even if it does pretty much match up with the title. The entire series is a solid chunk of science-fiction and I’m definitely putting this on my list of Christmas gifts for other people so I can spread the love of this series as far as possible. Let me know what you think once you’ve read it!