2017’s The Collapsing Empire is the first volume in John Scalzi’s The Interdependency.
Thanks to the Flow, a poorly understood phenomenon that permits faster-than-light travel, the forty-seven systems of the Interdependency have enjoyed a thousand years of mutual dependence and trade. The Interdependency is completely dependent on the stability of the Flow. Therefore, the Flow is stable. To think otherwise would be … unthinkable.
Polite people do not mention or remember that there used to be forty-eight systems (Dalasýsla, like Earth1 before it, lost its connection to the Flow).
End has two characteristics of note: it is the only naturally habitable world in the Interdependency, and its home system is farthest from the crown world, Hub. Make that three characteristics of note: as a consequence of being the oubliette of choice for the Independency’s undesirables (political and otherwise), the population of End are a bother. Just ask Lady Kiva Lagos, captain of the good ship Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby.
Lady Kiva is displeased to discover that End has placed an embargo on House of Lagos cargoes, as well as “temporarily” freezing House of Lagos accounts. The official explanation is that a previous Lagos vessel, No, Sir, I Don’t Mean Maybe, brought with it a virus that is wreaking havoc on End’s cropland. The actual reason is that the current Duke of End is losing one of End’s periodic civil wars and needs funds.
There is not much that Kiva can do about the cash grab. She focuses on salvaging what she can by charging wealthy refugees from the civil war outrageous fees to flee End before the rebels win and begin decorating trees with the dangling corpses of the Baron’s former allies.
The Count of Claremont, End’s chief imperial auditor, has no intention of leaving End. He does, however, have a very compelling reason to covertly dispatch his son Marce to Hub. Kiva’s extortionist venture offers the means by which the Count may do this.
Most Imperial subjects familiar with the Count would assume that he was given his lofty position far from Hub because the Count was somehow an embarrassment to Emperox Attavio VI. No so! The Count is a scientist specializing in the Flow. Decades earlier, he discovered the Interdependency’s assumptions about the stability of the Flow were flawed. Establishing just how flawed those models are has been the work of a lifetime (specifically, Attavio’s lifetime).
The late Experox Attavio is too dead to care about the results of the Count’s research. Attavio’s heir, Cardenia Wu-Patrick, newly crowned as Emperox Grayland II, on the other hand, needs to know because her reign will be defined by it. The last millennia of stability is atypical. It is a sad fact that the Flow does and will change. A radical realignment of the Flow looms. Marce must deliver the Count’s latest research to the Emperox before it is too late.
The Count is not the only scientist to discover that the Flow is unstable. The powerful House of Nohamapetan has its own pet scientist. The Nohamapetans know momentous changes are coming. They believe Hub will soon cease to enjoy its central position in the Flow. Instead, End will become the new Hub. With this in mind, they have been orchestrating the civil war on End to put End under Nohamapetan control.
This bold plan has but one small flaw. The Nohamapetan’s model is flawed. End will not be the new Hub. It will be isolated. All of the worlds of the Interdependency will be isolated. Since the Interdependency was designed so that each world must depend on trade with the other worlds2, this will be very, very bad. Grayland II must find some way to minimize the casualties as the very basis of civilization vanishes.
Unfortunately, if the bold visionaries of the House of Nohamapetan have their way, the Emperox will be too dead to save anyone.
Unpleasant bits first: Scazli’s characters all read from the same wise-cracking script. Some of them say fuck more than others — as you know, having characters who say fuck is only one reason why Scalzi is history’s greatest monster — but if I had to go by dialogue alone, I would be hard pressed to tell one character from another. It’s a good thing his characters have names.
Many SF novels have contrived, crisis-facilitating arrangements purely because it is convenient for the author for their societies to have made clearly counter-productive decisions. This is not the case in The Collapsing Empire: the Interdependency has many undesirable features of which individual worlds’ fragility is just one, but they all have one root cause: doing things the way they are done ensures that the Houses and the Emperox can maintain control and the wealth that flows from it. It’s just too bad that one of the unintended consequences of this system is the very real possibility that billions of people will die unpleasantly once they can no longer trade with each other/ The system has worked as intended.
It seems likely that the threat of climate change in our world inspired a setting which also faces impending doom (did Scalzi admit as much somewhere?) But there are a few differences in how our world and the Interdependency are facing catastrophe. In our world, legions of scientists are doing their best to figure out what’s happening, why, and how it might be stopped. Granted, they don’t get enough funding and the politicians don’t listen to them, but they are doing their thing. In the Interdependency, few scientists appear to study the Flow and those who do are sequestered and muzzled. Too bad, because collegial discourse and peer review turn out to be essential to good science. It’s possible this collective blind spot is merely just another of many ways in which the Interdependency is kind of a shitty place. Which is a plot point, not me editorializing.
Of course, the challenge when writing an SF castle-opera about the travails of the ruling classes is how to get the reader to care. In this case, Grayland II is the former Emperox’s by-blow, someone who became Emperox only because the proper heir died. Having been privileged but not toadied growing up, Grayland isn’t your typical blinkered, self-centered aristocrat. She’s more relatable. In fact, she’s a damn nice, sensible person. I was rooting for her.
1: Another entry for the Lost Earth list. I expect, what with it being habitable and all, Earth survived losing at least some of its extrasolar colonies.
2: On the plus side from End’s point of view, even if it happens they are dependent on imports to maintain a highly developed economy — an interstellar New Zealand, if you will — Endians will still be able to breathe the air after trade collapses. Diminished lifespans are more desirable than no lifespans at all.