The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

In John Sclazi’s first series of science fiction novels, Old Man’s War and its several sequels and companion volumes, the Milky Way near earth (well, near in interstellar terms) teems with life and spacefaring civilizations. Humanity has to make its way in a galactic neighborhood that’s full of life, and nearly as full of war. The Collapsing Empire concerns an interstellar human civilization at the other end of the Drake equation: nobody here but us. In this setting, travel between solar systems proceeds thanks to the Flow, something like an extradimensional river that enables interstellar travel in a matter of weeks and months. Ships maneuver to an entry shoal that is more or less stable in space, translate themselves into the Flow, and follow it to an exit shoal in the destination system. Communication proceeds at the speed of travel, as it did on earth in the ages prior to the telegraph. Moreover, Flow connections are not symmetric: a route from A to B does not necessarily imply a route from B to A. The geometry of routes means that some systems are more important than others. Within the story, the ruling power set itself up about a thousand years before the book’s opening by controlling the most important set of Flow connections and building its empire outward from there.

Over that time span, the Flow has been stable with notably rare exceptions. Many centuries ago, the connection to earth was lost. This bit of narrative convenience gives Scalzi a much freer hand in shaping the overall setting for his space opera, which is likely to run for at least three books. (The second in the set, The Consuming Fire, is scheduled to be published in October 2018.) In a more recent century, the Flow to the planet Dalasýsla collapsed. Cut off from the rest of humanity, the settlement of some 20 million people on Dalasýsla also collapsed within decades.

Although the book’s title mentions an Empire, and one of the leading characters is the new Emperox, the star-spanning polity is actually known as the Interdependency. Not only is the universe of this story bereft of other forms of intelligent life, there is precious little habitable real estate in the systems connected by stable Flow links. Most of humanity lives in artificial habitats, either in space or under domes on planets that are otherwise inhospitable to human life. Rather than attempting to make every colony autonomous, an expensive and probably unattainable proposition, the leaders of human colonization chose to make the settlements dependent on one another. The resulting web of settlement is stronger and more prosperous than a string of autarkies would be, and they stand or fall together. For the better part of a thousand years, that has been an advantage.

At the book’s outset, there are signs that the Flow is not as stable over the very long term as humanity has assumed. Over the course of the book, these signs turn in to certainty, but plenty of power players are willing to overlook the fact that fundamental and inevitable change is coming to human civilization.

Here is what happens to a settlement cut off from the flow, based on the case of Dalasýsla:

[T]he intentional nature of the Interdependency is that each system is reliant on the others for essentials. Remove one system, and its ruling house and monopoly, and the dozens of other systems will survive. But that one system will not. Over time it will begin to fail. The habitats in space and outposts on otherwise uninhabitable planets and moons will fall into disrepair and over time will become harder to fix. Farms and food production factories will also start to fail. Social networks will break down predictably, commensurate to failures of the physical plant and the realization that ultimately nothing can save the people in the cut-off system. Between the physical and social failures that will follow the collapse of the Flow stream, system-wide death is inevitable. (p. 145)

Flow failure is not instant, like a switch turning off. It is more like a stream drying up or shifting its course: a little bit at first, and then quite a bit very quickly. Dalasýsla could have been evacuated, but rivals to the power of the Emperox said it was a manufactured crisis, an attempt to strengthen imperial prerogatives at the expense of other legitimate pillars of the Interdependency. The problem was studied until it was too late to take action.

What would happen if the alarm were raised about the impending large-scale Flow collapse?

“The parliament would still see raising the concern as a political move to marginalize them. No one wants to disrupt trade or the privileges of the guild houses. And in this case, it won’t be just one system, like Dalasýsla. It will be all of them. There won’t be anywhere to run. What happened at Dalasýsla will happen everywhere.” … [The speaker is a voice from the Interdependency’s past.]
“This is all stupid,” [said the current Emperox]. “We’re doomed only if we keep doing what we’re doing. If we know a collapse is coming, we have to reform the Interdependency. End the house monopolies. Help every system prepare for the collapse.” (pp. 146–47)

But there’s a possibility worse than powerful people not believing in a future crisis for their own parochial reasons: some may want to use the crisis to strengthen their position at their rivals’ expense, no matter the cost to humanity as a whole.

The Collapsing Empire follows several strands of the net that is about to unravel, all with Scalzi’s usual brisk pace and snappy storytelling. The book opens with a prologue about a mutiny on a ship that is unfortunate enough to experience first-hand the Flow disruption that is becoming more common in the Interdependency. I was sorry not to see that cast of characters after the prologue, and I hope they will appear again in future volumes. The main storyline follows the new Emperox, an accidental heir whose brother was expected to take the reins of government but who met an untimely end. Another depicts a rebellion on End, a world that is the very definition of backwater and a place where many of the Interdependency’s misfits are left to their own devices. Imperial authorities tend to ignore the rebellions that occur every few years, and recognize the winner, whoever that may be, as Duke of End. Unusually, End is an open world, where humans can live freely on its surface. A related strand follows the owner’s representative of a trading ship that has stopped at End before heading back to the imperial center.

These intertwining narratives show the very small group at the top of imperial business and politics whose families are interrelated. Most of the key players have known each other almost all their lives. It’s interesting to see dynastic and oligarchic politics portrayed as squabbles among people with long histories; it’s a good reminder of how often that happens in terrestrial politics as well. The Collapsing Empire is fun and fast to read. Its pace and types of people are nearly opposite to Axis. Scalzi enjoys showing people openly jockeying for position, one-upping each other directly, and forcing choices. These are mostly brisk power games, not subtle machinations. There’s a cliffhanger ending, too, but I didn’t mind that at all because it’s a terrific set-up for whatever comes next.

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