How does a human civilization react to news of its possible impending collapse, with the only option for survival a major upheaval touching every person in it and changing its power structure entirely? That’s the overriding question of John Scalzi’s Interdependency series. The Consuming Fire is the second part of the story, following The Collapsing Empire.
The Interdependency is an interstellar civilization, a collection of human habitats linked together by proximity to connections in the Flow, an extradimensional medium that allows travel between stellar systems faster than light plodding its way through normal space. The Flow is something like a river: faster here, slower there, not connecting all places. Though it has been stable for the thousand-year history of the Interdependency, the Flow has something else in common with the rivers it metaphorically resembles — it can change course. Over the course of The Collapsing Empire it became clear that the Flow was moving away from Interdependency space. Links that had functioned for centuries were closing up in a matter of weeks or less.
Scalzi has set up the Interdependency as a sort of mercantile techno-feudalism. There is an imperial ruler, the Emperox, in this case Grayland II. She is young and had not been expected to ascend to the throne. The rest of interstellar politics are dominated by trading houses that are great family-run companies that have monopolies on certain businesses and are also hereditary rulers of various settlements. Another key aspect of the Interdependency is that it features only one habitable planet, a backwater known as End. All other human habitations are artificial, on inhospitable planets or themselves in space. Collectively they can support civilization, but individually they would eventually fall apart. Their interdependence is literal, and by design of the polity’s founders. Without the Flow, it will all come crashing down.
The Consuming Fire follows several strands of this star-spanning narrative, concentrating on the highest ranks of the Interdependency. The Emperox, Grayland II, says she has received mystical revelations of how to lead her peoples through the impending crisis. In this, she is following the precedent of the imperial line’s founder, Rachela, whose visions and acumen led to the creation of the Interdependency. But Grayland is bucking the precedent of all of the rulers in between, none of whom claimed supernatural inspiration and who were content to let the established Church tend to the people’s spiritual needs without much intervention. People, especially powerful people, are skeptical of Grayland’s claims, but when another Flow stream collapses exactly as she predicted it would, they begin to believe. This is a mixed blessing.
Another strand concerns people who would be Emperox, notably cousins from within Grayland’s own House of Wu and their wealthy but unscrupulous co-conspirators from the House of Nohamapetan. In The Last Emperox two potential imperial marriages between Wu and Nohamapetan had come undone by spectacular accidents. The first killed the expected heir and put Grayland on the throne instead; the second killed Grayland’s fiancé. After that, the Countess Nohamapetan and her daughter Nadashe decide to cut out the middleman and install a Wu of their choosing on the throne. The Nohamapetans also know details of the impending Flow collapse and have plans to turn it to their advantage; they are not deniers, they are users.
The Consuming Fire is a middle book that doesn’t feel like a middle book, very much to Scalzi’s credit. About a third of the way through, the two Flow physicists who have been struggling to understand the impending collapse pool their data and come up with a surprising result: streams can re-open. In fact, an important historical stream has been open again for a few years after having closed centuries ago. Nobody knew because there had been no need to keep looking for something that had been gone for so long. The link to Dalasýsla, a settlement whose collapse had become a cautionary tale in Interdependency history, was open again. Grayland decides to send a small and secret expedition there to learn about Flow changes and to see if any lessons can be learned from the settlement’s end.
The expedition is not as secret as she had hoped. Moreover, both the Flow and Dalasýsla have new surprises in store for Grayland and the Interdependency, not least about its deep history. The sections of the book that follow the expedition are the strongest parts of The Consuming Fire. Scalzi shows the tension of a small expedition and the reversals that they have to deal with as Dalasýsla turns out not to be what they expect.
Parts of The Consuming Fire read like they want to be The Goblin Emperor, and they are not up to the task. I think part of the reason is that Scalzi has a lot of story he wants to tell in about 300 pages, and to make intrigue work, he would need to slow down considerably. Grayland is interesting, and adapting to the role of Emperox, but to really show her growth and evolution, she simply needs more time on stage. Scalzi doesn’t want to write a character study, and so he doesn’t, but the sections concerned with politicking and intrigue left me feeling like they ought to be better than they are. He’s telling rather than showing, he’s having supposedly subtle operators say to others that they shouldn’t be stupid, and generally not giving the characters enough room to do what they are supposed to be doing. There’s a section about the unraveling of various plots that is dispatched in seven pages without a word of dialogue. Scalzi tells the reader what happened instead of portraying the events. I understand that he wanted to economize and get to the next scene where he shows what happened after those particular plots unraveled, but I have to think this compression was a missed opportunity, and that The Consuming Fire would be a better book if there had been one-third more of it.
The fun returns in the chapters that star Kiva Lagos, a wonderfully profane senior member of the House of Lagos. She’s the id of the book, and when Scalzi lets her on stage, scenery gets chewed, things get broken, the story zips along, and I wind up laughing out loud. She’s a hoot to have around, and imagining her reaction to being called “a hoot” has me chuckling all over again. In this book, Scalzi is also good with something of a scientific romance, and some of the complications that arise from all of the imperial officials, bishops, House leaders and so on being people in addition to their roles. The Consuming Fire is a fast, story-driven tale that opens up the Interdependency and offers a path to how its people might make it through the looming catastrophe, but no guarantees that they will. The Last Emperox, which is expected to wrap up the Interdependency trilogy, will be published in April 2020.