I read John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War when it came out. I enjoyed it. I then read Agent To The Stars and likewise enjoyed it. I bought a copy of Lock In and…
Lots of reasons one fails to continue reading a book or an author, many of them having nothing to do with either. As a kind of funhouse mirror response to the long line of homages to Starship Troopers, Old Man’s War was fine, more interesting than most, and written in a manner that allowed easy enjoyment. I laughed out loud at Agent To The Stars and again, the voice was pleasurable. I can’t say there was any valid reason to not keep reading Scalzi. Other than the growing pile of to-be-reads, research for my own projects, reading I need to do for the day-job, and, well, life itself. I have many books to hand that deserve a read and are languishing because I am mortal.
When the first volume of his new trilogy came along, I bought it, with the full intention of getting back to a writer I felt I ought to pay more attention to. And then, it sat there. The next volume was released and finally the third. I bought them all, in hardcover, and when the last book arrived, I determined to read them straight through. Why not? I hadn’t done that in some time, read a trilogy in one go.
I’m glad I did. The pleasures of the whole work justify the time.
The Collapsing Empire is, firstly, a lot of fun. The characters are nicely-drawn humans of wide ranging eccentricities, proclivities, and ambitions. Following them is rewarding, because even when they do something expected, the way they do it and the outcomes are not.
The setting is not unfamiliar, but Scalzi’s perspective is refreshingly realistic. The Interdependency is an interstellar community which relies on the Flow to move from one system to another. The Flow is a kind of extra-dimensional bypass. We are told repeatedly that analogies to rivers and so forth are inaccurate and also that no one actually knows what the Flow really is, but humans use it like a river system. For a thousand years, the Interdependency has operated over numerous systems, its make-up based on an imperial hierarchy joined to a church and a collection of noble houses each with a monopoly. The Emperox (an intentionally nongendered term for an old idea in a new form) has been from the same House since the Interdependency was established, the House of Wu, which holds the monopoly on shipbuilding and access to the Flow Shoals, the points of entry into the Flow.
It is clear from the outset that this system has found stability. Throughout one thing is evident—this is a post-scarcity polity. There are no poor, although there are discontented, the truly obdurate of which get sent to End, a world at the edge of the Interdependency where over time the malcontents have been deposited. Which has resulted in a local culture of anti-authoritarian rebelliousness that results in repeated cycles of revolution and the overthrow of the local Duke.
End also is the only human habitable planet in all of the Interdependency, the rest of which exists on stations and in surface colonies that have been dug out of worlds inimical to human life.
At some point prior to the creation of the Interdependency, these systems were cut off from Earth by a collapse of the Flow stream connecting them. Earth is legend. Within Interdependency memory, however, another system, Dalasysla, suffered the same fate. The possibility of such collapses is known, but other than those two it has never happened. The Interdependency has continued on as if it never would.
The story opens with exactly that happening. The Flow stream to End is starting to collapse.
At about the same time, the Emperox Atavio VI has died and a new emperox is being elevated, Cardenia, Atavio’s daughter by a former lover. She should never have become emperox. Atavio’s son, Rennered, was supposed to ascend to the throne, but he died in a racing accident.
Cardenia is an academic, raised away from the Court. No one knows much about her in terms of what kind of ruler she might make. But the forms are followed. Not that it matters. Rennered was supposed to marry Nadashe Nohamapetan, of the House of Nohamapetan, a house almost the equal of the House of Wu, thus joining the two most powerful houses together. The next heir would then be of both houses. It is decided that Cardenia will simply marry Nadashe’s brother, Amit.
Cardenia has other ideas. But regardless what was supposed to happen, everything is derailed when on her coronation day a bomb goes off, nearly killing her, but successfully killing her best friend, who was to be her closest adviser.
She then learns two things that alter the course of her rule. One, she is introduced to the Memory Room, a chamber accessible only by the emperox where the personas of all past emperoxes are stored and where she can literally sit down and have a conversation with them. There she learns the other thing—that her father, Atavio VI, knew the Flow was collapsing. His chief Flow physicist told him. Atavio VI then sent him off to End to continue his research, to verify and make absolutely certain about his findings in a place well away from the chaos of the Court. Which he does. And now the Flow stream to End is beginning to collapse, so he has to get the finished data back to Hub and the Court at Xi’an and the emperox, so some kind of planning might proceed to meet the inevitable isolation about to shut down the entire Interdependency. As another rebellion is happening on End, this one involving the Nohamapetans, he smuggles his son out with the data, sending him to the imperial court on Xi’an.
The stage now set, Scalzi takes us on a thoroughly engrossing ride through conspiracy, technological revelation, palace intrigue, and the discovery of history within a thoroughly imagined and well-constructed world(s).
The parallels to current-world issues could not be more obvious. Factions form over the question of the collapse. Some believe it won’t happen, others believe it won’t happen anytime soon, still others believe it won’t be a collapse so much as a realignment (and this latter group intend to take full advantage of that). The work to convince enough of the right people that change is coming and the need to act is pressing envelopes Cardenia’s young reign.
Cardenia for her part proves herself up to the task of being emperox, surprising almost everyone. She is not a habitué of the Court, no one knows her, expectations are low. That gives her an edge, which she uses. It’s a pleasure watching her grow into the role. She takes the name of a predecessor who faced similar difficulties, Grayland I, and forms some unexpected alliances that—
The pleasure is in the reading.
What is interesting here is the use of an old form cast in a new arrangement. It’s a valid question, though—why an empire? Why, therefore, an emperor? Or in this case an emperox.
Empire evokes two broad images, one technical, the other romantic.
The technical side is one of practicality. Empires are, by and large, not practical. The extent of the territory, the problems of ruling a multiplicity of cultures and nationalities, and then the inevitable problems of security make them lumbering, inefficient, doomed-to-collapse bureaucratic fossils. On the relatively modest surface of a planet, it has proven to be untenable over any length of time (unless it is in name only and managed with a high degree of local autonomy, but even then…), the problems explode exponentially over interstellar distances. The idea that a political unit can be managed from a central location over many light years is, well, fantastic.
Which is why empires appear more in fantasy than science fiction.
But there is a long history of empires in science fiction and it is obvious that their creators were more than a little aware of the problems. In one of the most famous examples, Asimov’s Empire, it’s fairly obvious that “the emperor” is an isolated figurehead with no real command of the galactic polity of which he is the titular head. The bureaucracy functions as if he were utterly irrelevant. Likewise in Poul Anderson’s Terran Empire, wherein the emperor is barely (if at all) mentioned. The whole is not a homogeneous unit and the idea of empire is problematic.
Indeed, it is the British model that applies, if at all. But even then, the cracks inherent in the structure virtually guarantee eventual dissolution. So why “empire?”
That brings us to the romantic model, by which I do not mean anything more than a fabulation of the past superimposed upon a construct for the sake of nostalgia. The idea that somehow the past was more adventurous, perhaps simpler, and the issues more clear-cut. That heroics could be recognized and performed with less ambiguity. That the politics of the day were less tangled and knotty difficulties could be solved by the hack of a sharp blade. And that monarchies were somehow “easier” than the squabbly morass of democracy. Escapism, certainly, but you see the model used in fantasy all the time and for good reason. And EMPIRE has such a ring to it!
And it allows for a kind of homogeneity across vast stretches of territory (and ethnicity) that enables a certain kind of narrative.
But if the point is to react against that system, it can also be…limiting.
Scalzi avoids that by redefining—or, at least, renegotiating the basic nature of empire. Here, more than anything else, it’s a business arrangement, with a large dollop of enlightened self-interest, and a mission statement which is considerably more practical than the usual. For one thing, there seems to be no expansion in this empire. The borders (boundaries) are set, presumably by the nature of the Flow, and there is no hint of conquest. Trade is controlled through monopolies and mutual support is guaranteed by the interdependent nature of the system.
This is more empire as corporation than anything mythic, with the emperox as CEO. (Which permits, in the end, a privileged viewpoint, from a single vantage.)
And the nature of that corporation? Stasis. Keep things running smoothly. The added wrinkle here is that all the disparate nations/systems are bound to the system because none of them are self-sufficient. Being cut off is a death sentence.
With the revelation that the Flow streams are collapsing, Cardenia/Grayland II is now in a struggle to find a way to save as many people as possible while fending off attempts by the Nohamapetans to displace her and move the capitol to End. Which, while End actually is a place where humans can survive on the surface of a planet, is by no means a reasonable solution for the billions of Interdependency citizens. End will not support them all or even a significant fraction of them without suffering degradation and eventual environmental collapse.
Of course, the Nohamapetans could not care less. They’re looking out for themselves, their clients, their privilege.
Scalzi has constructed a very neat allegory. And then set it at arm’s length, because this is a far future space adventure after all, and the Flow isn’t really the Climate…
As if that were not enough, he then adds in the history behind the Interdependency, which has surprises of its own and contributes to the search for solutions in unexpected but perfectly logical ways. (It may be no surprise to learn that the problem of the collapsing streams is not, after all, a “natural” phenomenon, but one humans inflicted on themselves, for reasons which are also not surprising.)
There are moments when it feels at the point of being too big a story for three rather efficiently-packed novels. That Scalzi pulls it off so well is a compliment to his skill. That he manages it so entertainingly is, well, admirable. He has taken what is a model almost as old as the genre, turned it around, twisted it, and produced what is, essentially, a critique of that model. We know these things don’t work the way they should, yet we also know that humans (silly humans!) will try them anyway, and that they inevitably collapse.
If there is another interstellar empire to which this bears meaningful comparison, it would be the one in Frank Herbert’s Dune, which is also an ecological tale. The empire there is a multi-faceted monstrosity based on trade, with a byzantine religion underpinning imperial fiat. Herbert showed us the flaws in empire by taking it apart and revealing to us the fragile assumptions behind it.
One additional observation before closing. We read this trilogy together, aloud. It lends itself to that very well, and perhaps benefits from it by allowing some of these characters vocal expression that adds to the overall substance on display.
Time permitting, I will have to go back and see what I’ve missed between Old Man’s War and this.