The Last Emperox by John Scalzi

From a certain perspective, John Scalzi’s Interdependency series is a little too on the nose as an allegorical tale about climate collapse and how people and institutions deal with it. From another, however, it’s a far lighter and easier read than that description makes it sound, and it is in fact a fun Game of Thrones in space romp through political machinations, power grabs, and ruthless assassinations.

The metaphor for the climate here is The Flow, the spacey wacey timey wimey substance that allows faster-than-light travel in this far flung intersetellar human empire, cut off from Earth lo these many years. But the flow is collapsing, as we learned in the first two volumes of this trilogy (The Collapsing Empire and The Consuming Fire) and unless Something Is Done, billions of humans will die.

That’s the set-up, and what we learned in the first two books is that this empire is run by family monopolies, who have carved up the economy between themselves, including genetically modified food crops, manufacturing, and even governance and religion. Into this monopoly capitalism welfare-for-the-rich set-up steps the young and inexperienced new Emperox (why not Emperor? Who knows), Grayland II, who is determined that as many lives as possible will be saved.

But she’s up against it, because the monopoly capitalists have immediately pivoted to disaster capitalism (except, wasn’t it disaster capitalism all along?) and fully intend to save themselves and make a profit while screwing over the rest of humanity, Ayn Rand-style. In this allegory, End, which will be last human-friendly habitat left standing, substitutes for New Zealand, where the billionaire disaster capitalists of our era are buying up property so as to escape the apocalypse.

One problem for me in the midst of all this, which is otherwise enjoyable to read, is that almost every single character is nobility, with the presumably billions of ordinary people we’re supposed to be caring about absent from the stage. And those we do meet, in the shape of the crew of a smuggling vessel, are portrayed as unhygienic, corrupt, and easily manipulated.

Again, this may be a little too on the nose, when one considers the 40% or so of the US electorate who were still willing to vote for trump after four years of his incompetent bullshit. But the unseen millions haunt me, and you just don’t get much of a sense of the size of this population or of how much is really at stake.

Another problem is that the huge number of assassinations going on in this polity would seem to prevent anybody from ever getting anything done. Jesus Christ, you’ll think, how could people let this happen? Again, maybe a little too on the nose, when one considers the lack of action on climate, though in our case its less to do with assassinations and more to do with pesky elections and the incessant campaigning and pandering that surrounds them. Again, a difficulty when the alternative to a rules-based society is so terrifying and so close to home. And I think we’ve gone past the stage where you could look at the portrayal of a moustache-twirling villain in a story like this and find it hard to believe that anybody could be so venal or evil.

As Fredric Jameson said, the problem with utopias is that they always throw us back into our own less than perfect world and we can never suspend disbelief. And the problem with the political wish-fulfilment of a novel like this is that it constantly reminds you just how much worse our reality is. Furthermore, just because a novel ends in a satisfying way is no reason to suspect that the terrible behaviour of the ruling classes wouldn’t continue. Why would the assassinations stop just because we’ve reached the last page? I’ve no idea, but I do know that the disaster capitalists can always find another tame politician to parrot their lies. And just because the public is being given facts doesn’t mean they’re going to believe them.

So what am I saying here? Scalzi is an excellent stylist, making the whole writing thing seem so easy when it is in fact incredibly hard to write like this. And he’s an entertaining writer who can use language to its full power and develop plots that will surprise you and even move you emotionally. Don’t read this without reading the first two books, obviously, but definitely read this for its satisfying conclusion. On the other hand, you will be constantly reminded of the orange crook in the White House and his enablers and cheerleaders. And you will keep thinking, Jesus Christ, how could people let this happen?

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