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 Last Emperox is the third and concluding part of the story, following The Collapsing Empire and The Consuming Fire. The third of three books in a series about the collapse of an interstellar civilization is seriously not a good place to start, even if there is a prologue that sums most things up in a list, in the guise of the thoughts of a privileged minor character wondering “How did all of this happen to me?”
One of the surprises from The Consuming Fire was the contact with other humans from outside the Interdependency. The Flow links to Earth and other settled world had been broken at the Interdependency’s inception centuries ago, and the accepted wisdom was that links could not come back. The expedition to Dalasýsla turned up a starship home to a former interstellar ruler of another realm, preserved in the ship’s computers much as previous Emperoxs were preserved in the Memory Room. Chenevert is not quite Mycroft from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress taking Grayland’s side in the current intrigues, but he is definitely an asset with unexpected abilities. The same can be said for the Memory Room.
Because intrigues and reversals are what The Last Emperox is all about. The clock is ticking on Grayland; or rather, many different clocks are ticking. She has limited support within her own house. A major rival has come close to assassinating her on more than one occasion. That rival’s house is lining up support from the nobles and the guilds against this young, strange Emperox who wants to turn everything upside down. And of course civilization really is going to collapse. In fact, it will collapse sooner rather than later because the Interdependency is built on specialization and monopolies. It works as a network in which different areas can provide for others, while in turn receiving what they themselves do not produce. Trade rather than autarky has propelled the prosperity of the present arrangement, but when nodes start to drop out of the network problems will cascade beyond the ability of individual settlements or of fragments of the Interdependency to solve them.
Scalzi paints all of this in broad strokes. The Last Emperox is not a book about logistics or carrying capacities of habitats, it’s a book about personal scheming and score-settling at the most elite levels of the star-spanning polity. Only a few people really matter in this story, the vast numbers in inhabited space — even the merely wealthy and influential within a particular system — are resolutely off stage, an abstraction that Grayland and her partisans care about and her opponents largely do not. (Contrast this with, for example, Luna by Ian McDonald, another series that concentrates on the machinations of several ruling families, but also goes out of its way to show what life is like down at the bottom of the social ladder, and that even rulers are affected by what happens among the population as a whole.)
In this last book of the series, none of the characters has plot armor; though Scalzi is not writing a tragedy on a large scale, there are no guarantees that any of the characters that I came to care about as a reader will make it to the end. Except for Kiva Lagos, I think. Scalzi was clearly having too much fun writing her to let her get killed carelessly.
The Last Emperox ends well. The bad guys get their comeuppance, the good guys get a chance for everything to turn out reasonably well. Which, given that civilization really is coming to an end, is a big win. Also, almost none of them are guys; Emperox, rivals, heads of house, chief counsel — all of the key decisions in the book are taken by women. Some of the guys provide key information or support, but Scalzi has cast them into secondary roles. Scalzi does not take readers all the way to the end of the Interdependency, nor even to the beginning of the end, but to the end of the end’s beginning. For this series, that’s enough to find resolution.