Review of ‘The Consuming Fire’ by John Scalzi

The Consuming Fire is the second and middle installment of the Interdependency trilogy, by American writer John Scalzi. In it, we continue watching the catastrophic impending collapse of life as humanity knows it, and the warring factions trying to save as much of humanity as possible versus saving just the parts that consider themselves important. All of the things that made book one good continue unabated here.

The Interdependency―humanity’s interstellar empire―is on the verge of collapse. The extra-dimensional conduit that makes travel between the stars possible is disappearing, leaving entire systems and human civilizations stranded.

Emperox Grayland II of the Interdependency is ready to take desperate measures to help ensure the survival of billions. But arrayed before her are those who believe the collapse of the Flow is a myth―or at the very least an opportunity to an ascension to power.

While Grayland prepares for disaster, others are preparing for a civil war. A war that will take place in the halls of power, the markets of business and the altars of worship as much as it will between spaceships and battlefields.

The Emperox and her allies are smart and resourceful, as are her enemies. Nothing about this will be easy… and all of humanity will be caught in its consuming fire.

Reviewing later books in a series is always at least a little awkward, not the least because at the time of writing, I’ve also already finished the third book The Last Emperox and trying to figure out what to say here versus save for the third review is a task on its own. All of the elements of the first review here regarding characterization, plot, pacing, and so on continue basically unchanged here. No elements particularly got worse or better. If you enjoyed book 1, you’ll enjoy book 2. If you didn’t, you won’t.

So I suppose what’s left is to discuss the themes of the book and how they read in the times in which we find ourselves now. This book came out in 2018 and also needed to be written, edited, published etc, so it’s not as though it were possible for the story to be referring to our present circumstances, and indeed, with book 3 coming out shortly, even it needed too much lead time to be related to COVID-19, but there are some extremely obvious parallels that bear discussing.

We have one or two particular characters that are the antagonists in the sense that they work in opposition to the protagonists, but really, everybody is struggling in different ways against the -actual- antagonist: The collapse of the Flow network and the impending isolation of each human colony from the others. There’s a disaster coming, there’s no stopping it, there’s only choosing how to react to it.

Grayland and co are set upon the course of trying to save the maximal number of people: a combination of trying to move as many people as possible to the one human colony that actually has a planet capable of supporting life, and also to equip the people who will become isolated with as many tools as possible to survive after that happens. Meanwhile, the other side, embodied in Nadashe Nohamapetan, has taken the stance that there’s no way to save everybody, and their destination couldn’t support everybody anyway, so their course is to try and save the “right” people, namely the nobility and guilds, leaving the common people to twist.

It’s an interesting examination of the underlying conflict occurring in the world today, between trying to save as many people as possible, and minimize the death toll, versus protecting economic profits of corporations even at the expense of huge numbers of people. And the fact that we’re in an imaginary science-fiction world where the more ruthless people are willing to be more overt about it than on Earth lets us see what would really be happening if the people in power really thought they could get away with it: Blatant assassination and coup attempts, suborning the military, kidnapping major political figures, you name it, it’s on the table here.

Which is all a roundabout way to say that there has never been a better time than now to be reading these books. Sci-fi has always done a great job of highlighting real issues in the real world, through the lens of the fantastic, letting us strip things down to their essence. But in general, this approach is typically either much broader (Dealing with the general concepts of things like colonialism, industrialization, racism, and so on) or only appears timely to a specific set of events in retrospect, as something imagined by a writer in the past becomes relevant to the present day only much later.

Without (one hopes) any foreknowledge of how things were going to turn out, Scalzi has basically generated a series of books about how the interdependence that comes from globalization can end badly when an unexpected and unavoidable catastrophe occurs that operates on a long enough time span that everybody has the chance to see it, panic, get over it, and then decide what to actually do about it. And then managed to have the climax of that story published literally in the middle of the catastrophe that it thematically mirrors. Heck of a trick if you can pull it off, but in the end what it means is this: If any element of this story sounds appealing, there has never been a better time to go out and read them.

Dan received an Advance Review Copy of this novel from Tor via Netgalley

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Author: Dan Ruffolo

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