The empire in John Scalzi’s series by that name takes interdependence to new heights (pardon the pun, it’s set in space). As Wil Wheaton, narrator of the audiobooks, comments, “The Collapsing Empire [first book in the trilogy] works as a wonderful SF tale…but it also has important allegory, metaphor, and commentary on some things that are going on right now, for readers who are open to that sort of thing. For those who aren’t, it doesn’t beat you over the head with it, which is a neat trick.”
The few planets and many human habitats of various construction that are flung across the universe are connected by something called the Flow, which confounds natural physics by providing a river-like network between all the settlements. To use it for travel, spaceships must have a field that creates a “bubble” around them, whereupon they can onramp into the Flow, which carries their ship until they pop out at their destination, days, weeks, or sometimes months later—it’s somewhat predictable, but not reliably so.
The Interdependency has a top-down, static structure of emperox (the non-gendered term for their emperor), noble houses, trade houses, and everybody else. To keep all these widely spaced settlements together and avoid interstellar war, both necessities and luxuries have been assigned to or co-opted by the “houses,” which have monopolies on certain goods and services, for which the other houses trade and bargain, to the extreme that there are built-in fail-safes to ensure no one impinges on the monopolies. For instance, if a particular kind of fruit is sold, one would imagine that the seeds from that fruit could be collected by the buyer and grown elsewhere, thus disrupting the monopoly; but in anticipation of this, the produce has been designed so that the seeds go sterile after a short period of time, preventing anyone else from benefitting. (Don’t ask me how, just go with it.) The monopolies are jealously guarded, and there is a certain amount of jockeying for dominance amongst the nobles, but the empire’s structure is mostly stable, and lends itself to centralized control.
This has all worked for millions of years, barring an occasional assassination of an emperox, or a change in fortune for one of the houses. But all of that is about to change, for the simple and terrifying reason that the Flow has become erratic and, in fact, is about to fail in spectacular fashion, according to one lone physicist on the planet End, the furthest planet in the universe from the Hub, the center of the empire. When it collapses, most of the human habitats will be isolated within their systems and, without the cooperative network of supplies and services set up and supplied by the Interdependency through the Flow, they will fail to support their populations in fairly short order, presenting a stark fate of death by starvation or faltering life support systems.
Compounding this, the emperox who commissioned the physicist to research and report on the Flow has just died and, contrary to his plans and those of one of the other predominant noble houses, his illegitimate daughter, Cardenia Wu, has succeeded to the throne. She is naive, inexperienced, and not a particularly willing heir; but when the physicist sends his son, Marce, from End to the Hub to report the problem with the Flow to the emperox, Cardenia realizes she must rise to the challenge of saving as many as possible of the billions of people dependent on her empire. The noble and trade houses, of course, have other ideas, including eliminating Cardenia and putting one of their own clever but venal people in her place, and saving themselves (and their money, goods, and dominance) first, while leaving the commoners to their fates.
This is the rather long set-up and partial story of The Collapsing Empire, The Consuming Fire, and The Last Emperox.
This has been deemed a “space opera” by many reviewers and readers; I tend to think of space operas as the wild west played out in space, with smuggling, chases, and shoot-em-ups being more prevalent than, say, the thoughtful dissection of an empire into its component parts and the contemplation of what will happen to it, should no one take responsibility. The books definitely have some aspects of space opera, as there is a lot of adventure, multiple coups and assassinations (both attempted and achieved), and various exploding ships (due to both battles and sabotage). But along with all that are some amazing characterizations of both heroic and nefarious figures, along with some truly labyrinthine plotting, so the trilogy is a pleasure to read for both adventure-seekers and philosopher-anthropologists. Along with the clever, sometimes laugh-out-loud triumphs of one character over another, there is also much to consider from both an intellectual and practical viewpoint, with parallels, as Wheaton noted, to many aspects of our own culture’s functionality and possible future.
Scalzi has pulled off a coup, himself, by managing to marry the level of detail contained within his Old Man’s War series with the humor and humanity of his more lighthearted works (such as my favorite, The Android’s Dream). The dialogue is witty, the descriptions are engaging, the world-building is thorough, and the group of main characters who tell the story—the Flow physicist, the new emperox, the trade representative of a major family, and the wannabe traitor—are quirky, endearing, and profane. (If crass language bothers you, this is not the series for you!) I thoroughly enjoyed this three-part story, and couldn’t wait to see what happened.