Recently published in March 2017, this book had been on my radar ever since news of its completion dropped late last year. Irreverently fun and thought-provoking, John Scalzi is an author I’m always looking to read more from, and the beginning of a new series gave me an excellent opportunity to do so.
Several hundred years in the future, humanity has spread out across the stars with the aide of the Flow, a naturally occurring phenomena that allows for rapid transit between fixed points in space. Politically organized as the Holy Empire of the Interdependent States and Mercantile Guilds, these settlements rely upon a complex system of trade to ensure their mutual survival since the Flow-accessible worlds, with one notable exception, are not particularly friendly to human life. As the story opens we meet the dying leader of this Empire as he is offering final advice to a young woman named Cardenia Wu, his illegitimate daughter and unsuspecting heir to the throne. Included in this briefing is the revelation that the Empire, and humanity as a whole, is threatened by one rather inconvenient truth; namely that the Flow is on the verge of collapse, an event which will mean the end of viable interplanetary travel and a slow death for the soon to be isolated settlements. Planning for this catastrophe proves difficult, however, as most of the government is content to ignore the issue and at least one influential trade guild is scheming of ways to profit from the situation and use the resulting upheaval as a chance to usurp power.
This book was a lot of fun and went by very, very quickly. A real pleasure to read, it featured plenty of the sarcasm, wit, and joyful cynicism I have come to expect from Scalzi’s novels. The three main characters were great and each had their own particular charm to go along with their personal foibles. Cardenia’s nonchalance and resigned acceptance of her new position brought a cool head to some otherwise extreme situations. Marce was a relatable everyperson whose dedication to (peer-reviewed) science made him both easy to root for and a needed voice of reason. In contrast, Kiva Lagos, the final main character, was an entertaining force of nature who could make a (space) pirate blush with her expansive vocabulary and unapologetic lifestyle. Being someone who is predisposed to the general outlooks of these characters, I found it just plain felt good when Scalzi’s heroes would come out ahead. On the other side of that, it was also a lot of fun disliking the scheming Nohamapetan clan. The author’s less desirable characters so often align with the people I dislike in real life that it is equally rewarding to see them struggle.
As for the story itself, for all the absurd situations and convoluted schemes, it featured a pointed, yet amusing, satiric look at various social and political issues. It is hard to miss the deterioration of the Flow as a symbol for climate change, and Scalzi has little patience or fondness for deniers and advocates of bunk science. He comes at them in this story not so much from a place of anger, but of incredulity. How the fuck (that word comes up a lot, see Lagos, Kiva) can people choose to be so willfully ignorant? He answers that question in part through Cardenia, who learns that knowledge of the impending collapse is, in fact, old news, vehemently brushed aside and dutifully ignored for generations because it’s extraordinarily bad for business and also, well, kind of downer. Not particularly surprising these days, the author’s unabashed support of views like this, in combination with other novel concepts such as supporting gay relationships, religious cynicism, and competent women in positions of power has made him something of a lightning rod for a vocal, thin-skinned minority of reactionary trolls within the sci-fi/fantasy community. To his credit he takes this in stride, content to consider such folk being against him a sign of doing something right.
I am definitely on board with this series whenever the next book comes out. The story was left very much wide open as to what will happen next, so I am curious to see where things go from here. This also left me the mood for more from Scalzi, so don’t be surprised if another one of his books pops up here in the near future.