Alright, I am finally ready to tackle a “review” on The Interdependency trilogy by John Scalzi. As much as I’ve wanted to review these books on their own, I feel the best approach to talking about these novels is at a series level. When I tried writing about them individually, I wanted to focus on a bunch of small things that felt off about the metaphor/allegory. I wanted to talk about how the books weren’t as funny as I expected, and how Scalzi wrote them wrong. The thing is, everytime I did it, I knew I was also lying to myself and anyone who would read the review. As a whole, the series is still a fun read, with easily digestible themes that make sense. I didn’t love the books, but I didn’t hate them. I really enjoyed The Collapsing Empire but liked the successive books less. I don’t really want the rest of the piece to be an attack. After all, I really like Scalzi as an author. He has this ability to make big, grand, sweeping ideas about the human condition and culture into accessible narratives about regular people in extraordinary situations. He never feels as if he’s talking down to the reader, and always feels like he’s having fun along with you. He always felt like he’s on the couch cracking jokes with you, instead of there trying to be the witty, funny man in the center of the room. That magic is still there in The Interdependency, but I feel as if sometimes I didn’t get to see the forest for the trees.
What is The Interdependency?
This trilogy (comprising The Collapsing Empire, The Consuming Fire, and The Last Emperox) is John Scalzi’s take on climate change in the form of a political space opera. It follows a future humanity that lives in semi self-sustaining habitats among the stars. These habitats are spread out across dozens if not hundreds of different star systems, all connected by the Flow. The Flow is a bit confusing, but a simple representation would be to think of it as rivers in space. Some rivers lead from one system to another, facilitating trade between the different space stations. In the middle of all these streams sits the Hub, the seat of the empire through which all trade is channeled. At the end of the streams lies the planet End, a backwater where mostly criminals are sent and no real effort to build civilization has been attempted. End has many Flow streams in and only one Flow stream out, and it leads directly to the Hub.
To make full use of the Flow, The Interdependency was formed: a complex series of agreements that allows certain houses and families to monopolize one specific commodity and trade it throughout the systems. It creates a system in which everyone is dependent on each other to survive, given the vast physical distances between the systems that can only be reasonably traveled via the Flow. Faster than light travel does not exist, and ships are only stocked with what they need to get from point A to point B. However, this system is threatened when the Flow is disrupted, and streams start disappearing. Entire systems are about to be left stranded, and the empire known as The Interdependency is about to collapse.
John Scalzi has built one of the more interesting, complex, and yet easily recognizable analogues to our climate crisis. There are a few places where there is not exactly a direct correlation, but it doesn’t really cause issues. He does a really good job of presenting it, though in some cases it’s a bit… easy? I’m looking at you Marce, giving the school kids a lesson as they’re on a field trip. But also that’s the point, it’s supposed to be easy; Scalzi wields a sledgehammer like a chisel and I love it. The first book feels expressly written to set up the Interdependency as an idea and show you the grander working theory without diving into too many details most people might get turned off by. He accomplishes this by building off of science fiction touchstones, adding his own flavor to it and making them more relatable to modern tastes. Specifically the house system within the Interdependency feels very much like Dune, but also very much like multinational Corporations in the real world, while also being its own distinct entity. There are rivalries and attempts to merge families for greater trade power, all in the name of supporting and propagating the system, keeping humanity going, while exclusively seeking profit. Scalzi does not do subtle, and in all honesty, this heavy-handed approach absolutely fucks. The best part is the first book ends with a question, what if the Interdependency is a lie? I mean he just sets this whole thing up and then straight up tells you, “yeah, it’s bullshit.” Part of me wants to be like “duh,” but he makes it meaningful. And even now, thinking about it I still get some chills because of how incredibly clear he is about what the Interdependency really represents. I don’t think he’ll win any awards for the mechanics of how his information is delivered, but man, he is not screwing around with his actual world. Some of this is unfortunately lost in the later books, but when Scalzi shows up, he shows up.
The plot is fairly straightforward and follows three key figures: the newly anointed Emperox Cardenia, a shy, young, dorky Flow physicist named Marce, and the ruthless merchant named Kiva Lagos. Marce is trying to find his way from End to the Hub so he can alert Cardenia of the coming troubles. However, he is being stalked and hunted by the Nohamapetans, a house rival to that of Kiva Lagos. Lagos seems to be his only chance at getting to the hub intact with his data about the future of the Flow. The Collapsing Empire offers a rollicking good start as the story is centered around this data about the Flow, and the feeling that if it’s lost, bad things are going to happen.
However, beyond the first book, the plot starts to meander in a way I found frustrating. Cardenia spends most of the book internally questioning the legitimacy of the Interdependency while Marce is set off on a fact finding mission. Kiva spends her time maneuvering through trade politics, but without really revealing much about her or the Interdependency. The fact that Empire mostly felt like a build up to The Consuming Fire, and then Fire just feels like people sitting around waiting for Marce to get back from his adventure, did not quell my annoyance. It truly felt like a disappointment especially since there were a few trails that were left open by Scalzi.
While it was starting to feel thin in Fire, The Last Emperox really stretched out what was left of the plot to a herculean degree. There was a distinct lack of forward momentum going into the third book, and while the opening chapter was funny, it was a harbinger of things to come. It opened with a retelling of the second book, from two other characters not involved in the plot. And while it exhibited Scalzi’s panache for witty and charming dialogue, it just told me what I already knew. The rest of the book was not much different either as it just felt like three or four characters all going through the same events, but each telling their side of a political kidnapping. And it just didn’t do anything for me. There were no stakes. It just felt like I was watching a rehash of the second book but with Benny Hill music blasting in the background, and then someone comes in and tells you the ending in a monologue. It’s unfortunate. After some beautiful twirls, fancy flips and occasionally daring acrobatics, Scalzi failed to stick the landing.
Okay, so I had trouble with the plot, but what about the characters? Well, in typical Scalzi fashion, his characters are charming as hell. Marce is probably my least favorite as he just doesn’t really have much to do beyond be dorky, and know things. It’s not necessarily a bad thing as he’s more sidelined by Cardenia and Kiva, but I wish there was a little more to him than “science boy” and “romantic interest to Cardenia.” It’s cute, and it’s a fun way to sideline a guy for the more powerful women, but considering he’s a major contributor to the plot, he was stuck in the middle and it made him awkward.
Kiva and Cardenia are an absolute blast, though, and they work well as cooperative foils. Cardenia is reluctant and unsure of herself, even as the most powerful person in the human realm. Kiva, however, is a titan of self assurance, even to her own detriment. She uses the word “fuck” like the word “the,” and while it can be annoying at times, there are a lot of shining moments from it that make her memorable. My biggest complaint is there isn’t any real tangible growth to either of them. They never feel like they could be wrong, nor are they ever wrong about anything. They’re not exactly one step ahead of their antagonists, they just end up doing better than them by trying harder and holding their cards ever closer to their chests – it doesn’t feel earned. It built a real dissonance in my brain as these likeable people just turned inwards from the reader as they tried to accomplish their goals. They’re not deep, but they’re fun in the ways they should be, and Cardenia is incredibly relatable. I just wish they had a little more to do.
Honestly, this was the biggest hook for me after, “Scalzi has another space opera.” It’s probably also why I felt mostly disappointed with the series as a whole, even though it was fun to read. Scalzi very pointedly makes it clear that these books are about climate change, and our inability to act since the system itself is outright causing the issue, and needs to be destroyed in order to prevent disaster. If he stuck the landing on anything, it’s setting this up so transparently in a digestible, interesting, and entertaining way, and it makes my little heart sing. However, where I take issue is that the follow through feels messy. My biggest problem with it stems from his inability to take the allegory beyond “it’s weird how everything is set up this way, huh?” In hindsight, it all makes sense, trying to parse through the metaphor, and seeing that there is no silver bullet to a problem of this scale. It’s not just getting the data and showing the world there’s a problem, if the system is expressly set up to be able to ignore it until it implodes and people die. But when I was reading it, I didn’t feel it. I didn’t get kicked in the teeth by the middle or ending of the trilogy, the way I did by the beginning. It didn’t point to the helplessness of individuals, especially those outside the machinations of power, nor did it really make fun of the Benny Hill style politics of people trying to take advantage of the situation. Instead, it felt like kicking the can down the road and installing a deus ex machina to shepherd humanity into a new age. It was just a different, longer silver bullet, and that made me sad and angry.
I’m not trying to tear down Scalzi. He was very easily one of the top reasons I really got into reading for fun. He has a special knack for making the BIG IDEAS of science fiction accessible, entertaining, and relatable in ways I only dream of. And he does it in a way that is not condescending. However, I think sometimes he gets lost in making people think, he forgets what they should be thinking about, or how they should be thinking about it. I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing, I wish more writers had that knack for questioning our world, within their own worlds. But I also wish he questioned his own world a little more deeply and maybe found a better solution beyond deus ex machina. Because we’re running out of time in the real world too, and there really is no silver bullet.
Rating: The Interdependency 6.5/10
2 thoughts on “The Interdependency – Interdependent Habitats, Planetary Dependent”
So what would be your unreserved Scalzi recommendation?
For me Scalzi seems a bit overrated. When I see how many awards he won and how celebrated he is I’m somehow expecting more. He is a competent author and the books I read so far (the first one of this and Old Man’s War) were fun. Literally. There is a lot of comedy. And it’s often good. But there is also not that much depth. Especially with the characters. And some of the story elements could be explored in more detail. The short length of his books doesn’t help with that. Everything seems very rushed.
As said, that doesn’t mean they are bad. They are plenty of worse sci-fi books, but I don’t understand why he is considered this genre god.