I thoroughly enjoyed the first John Scalzi book I read, Redshirts. I thought it was delightful and definitely my kind of book. I also very much enjoyed the second Scalzi book I read, The Android’s Dream. Because of that, I’ve been looking forward to reading his trilogy, The Interdependency.
This past week, courtesy of online library books, I finally did, and I do regret to report that I found the series rather underwhelming. I ended up skimming through the last half of the last book just to find out how it all turned out.
I think the biggest issue for me was lack of action. There was a ton of narration, explanation, internal monologue, and talking, but there wasn’t much action.
The trilogy consists of The Collapsing Empire (2017), The Consuming Fire (2018), and The Last Emperox (2020). It’s space opera (with some actual space pirates and smugglers), but it’s not particularly a spacefaring story.
I recently learned the term castle opera, which strikes me as the perfect term. In the past I’ve used court drama or court intrigue, but castle opera hits the nail squarely. (For one thing, court drama could refer to court room drama, so it’s ambiguous.)
In castle opera, as one might imagine, the storytelling generally takes place at the level of royalty — kings and queens; princes and princesses; lords and ladies. All that goes with monarchy. A frequent part of such stories is the dirty double-dealing pretty much everyone is involved in.
The intersection between speculative fantasy and castle opera is large. Such fantasies often have a Medieval setting, so of course also castles and royalty. Game of Thrones is a modern example.
It’s a bit less common in standard science fiction stories perhaps because kings seem a little old-fashioned compared to spaceships and aliens.
There are exceptions, of course. Dune (the novel), is one notable example. There is also the Foreigner series, by C.J. Cherryh (I’ve enjoyed the first nine of what is now a 21-book series). Both are spacefaring castle opera (complete with plenty of dirty double-dealing).
[One might think Star Wars, but that series is far more Medieval fantasy than space opera. I see it as a child’s fairytale.]
Thing is, I’ve never been a fan of castle opera. Dune is a classic for good reason — it’s an outstanding story. (I re-read it about once a decade.) C.J. Cherryh is known for the quality of her writing, the depth of her characters, and her very interesting aliens, all of which elevate the Foreigner series (and her work in general).
There is also that Cherryh’s central character in Foreigner, Bren Cameron, isn’t himself royalty, but a working Everyman we come to like and care about. His day job happens to be dealing with alien royalty, including their king. (I rank that series among my favorites.)
A problem with castle opera is that it’s hard to relate to royalty, so the reader needs that hook into caring. We need a Bren Cameron.
Scalzi offers Count Marce Claremont, far more mathematician than Count, and not someone I found hugely engaging. Or really even there. He could have been replaced by any number of other narrative options. He’s also half of the tepid and boring yet central love sub-story.
(I suspect it’s hard for someone who isn’t a scientist to write a good scientist character. The best scientist characters come from authors who know their science. A tip to authors: Don’t try to write above yourself. It shows.)
The other characters are all royalty, a key one being the Emperox of known human space, Grayland II, formerly lowly Cardenia Wu. (Emperox is a genderless alternative to Emperor. Credit Scalzi for being strong on gender equality.)
Another key character is Lady Kiva — she’s a young, very horny, and even more foul-mouthed than Avarasala from the The Expanse. Marce starts off with Lady Kiva but the relationship with Cardenia is the other side of the love story I mentioned.
That said, there is a certain sameness to Scalzi’s characters. The narration and dialog all have the same sardonic oh-so-clever tone. I found, after a while, that it got grating. Really grating.
The premise is that known human space in the far future consists of 48 star systems connected by the Flow — an “otherspace” that allows travel between star systems in reasonable time.
The concept isn’t new (Babylon 5 used it, for example). Nor is the idea that otherspace only connects certain points. The 48 systems are united because they’re connected by the Flow.
What Scalzi has done (by his own admission) is make it a climate change metaphor. The Flow — which has been assumed an eternal natural resource — is about to collapse and isolate all 48 worlds. (There is no FTL in this reality.)
Adding to the they should have known better factor, the ancient history of the Interdependence includes the loss of the Flow path to Earth as well as to a more recent system. The possibility of the Flow changing was always known. (Included with the metaphor, commercial and government interests not wanting to disrupt business.)
The problem is they depend on the Flow, not just for their economy but for their very existence. The Independence was deliberately engineered to make all 48 systems, as the name says, interdependent. The threat to civilization comes from the notion that no system can support itself.
Which I’m not sure I buy. If one has technology, energy, and an entire star system, what more is needed?
According to the story, the Merchant houses each hold exclusive rights to important commodities. One house does grapes and wine, another all types of citrus, yet another does grain. The idea is that licensing rights are sold and seedstock provided, but the genetics are engineered so the crops fail after a certain number of generations. This insures licensees uphold quality… and payments.
Another wrinkle to the picture is that 47 of the star systems have no habitable planets. (Or apparently anywhere near habitable.) All of humanity (with one exception) lives in habitats, either underground or in space.
Part of the Interdependence is the need to keep the habitats running, especially those in orbit. (Although being stuck underground on a tidally locked planet with searing heat on one side and existential cold on the other is just as bad.)
The exception is the livable planet End, so named because it’s the furthest and most isolated in the Flow. An assumption of the story is that anyone who doesn’t get to End before the Flow collapses is toast.
The thing is, there’s a fix here that immediately suggests itself, and it’s a fix that does ultimately get used. (Share the manufacturing secrets and genetic code and end the monopolies because they’re ending anyway.)
Because of its remoteness, End is the dumping ground for some of the Empire’s undesirables. One is Lord Claremont who, by all appearances, must have offended someone, because he’s banished to End as the Imperial Tax Collector.
In reality he’s a Flow physicist the previous Emperox stashed on End to keep him out of the way while Lord Claremont gathered data and studied the flow. His son, Count Claremont, has followed in his shoes, and become his dad’s partner.
They have determined the Flow is about to collapse (for the foreseeable future), and the first system to go will be End. Lord Claremont sends his son to Hub to inform the Emperox. The ship the Count takes is one of the last before the path to Hub collapses. The path back to Hub will remain open for quite some time, yet, so there is hope he — along with the rest of humanity — can return.
To make things exciting, one of the Merchant families has schemed to take over End so they can rule, and they’ve blockaded the path back to End.
Sounds like an exciting setup to a rollicking space yarn. Yet somehow it’s all a lot of talk and internal monologue and pages of narration and explanation. At one point I skimmed through 12 pages of internal monologue. It ended up being sand in the story gears.
At one point, there was some excitement, and I thought the story was going to get into gear, but the next chapter featured narration and internal monologue, and the story bogged down again.
I was completely disengaged the last half of the last book, which should be the part where it all comes together and gets extra exciting. Instead I just wanted it to be over.
And I can’t say the ending much impressed me. So much for the great love affair.
Everyone is very nice and clever (except when the story needs them to miss a beat), the villains are quite lurid and villainous. It all works out nicely in the end, and everyone is happy except the villains.
I think the bottom line is the book just didn’t work for me.
In the afterward, Scalzi confesses he was distracted by world events while trying to write the book. I think we can all relate, but it does seem to have affected the storytelling.
Or maybe Scalzi’s quippy style just didn’t fit the topic (for me anyway, your mileage may vary). That style pulled me out of the narration repeatedly. It got grating and annoying.
There is the idea of transparent writing, where the writer tries hard to not be noticed. Scalzi has a definite noticeable style that worked very well in the other two books I read, but made this story seem trite and childish.
Stay flowing, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.