There’s a reason so much fiction is about rich people: Rich characters are the ones who get to do things! They travel. They chat. They have time to reflect, and when they do, it isn’t always about super depressing stuff. While wealthy protagonists are the default in so-called literary fiction, genre writing frequently revolves around them, too: How many times has George R.R. Martin cut away from one of his interesting characters so a Lannister can worry about whether they’ll continue to have as much gold as they’ve become accustomed to?
Now that I think about it, “Game of Thrones in space” isn’t the worst way to introduce The Collapsing Empire, the latest from John Scalzi. It’s not the best, either—that description sells The Collapsing Empire short—but both stories are centered on powerful dynasties butting heads. The Collapsing Empire takes place in a future so distant that Earth is all but forgotten, where dynastic mercantile families rule their interstellar civilization, the Interdependency. Alas, the Interdependency is built on the Flow—“a multidimensional brane-like metacosmological structure” that enables travel between otherwise remote star systems—and the Flow is collapsing. “Over a long enough timescale everything shifts,” one character warns Cardenia, the newly crowned Emperox of the Interdependency. “We’re about to enter a period of shifts.”
From its opening line (“The mutineers would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for the collapse of the Flow”) to casual asides (“Ready to do some space lawyering?”), The Collapsing Empire offers plenty of Scalzi’s usual wit—reading about a doomed society is rarely this much fun. Rarely, too, is it this timely: From the book’s title (which Scalzi, in the acknowledgments, promises “was not intended as a commentary on the current state of the United States, the UK, or of Western Civilization in general”) to one of the Interdependency’s particularly power-obsessed families, it’s hard not to hear echoes of current events. “The intentional nature of the Interdependency is that each system is reliant on the others for essentials,” notes one helpful hologram, before mentioning the likely outcomes of the Flow’s collapse. “Basically: civil war, murder, violence, sabotage of life-support systems and food production, the rise of cults of personality.”
Blending Scalzi’s sturdy world-building with jolts of action, fast-paced politics, and a bit of Austen-flavored romance, The Collapsing Empire is the first in a series, and readers who get in now will find much to look forward to. Most intriguing are hints that future installments might venture beyond this book’s gilded, baroque settings, even introducing a few characters who aren’t ultra-rich. There’s the unloved planet End, for example, home to humanity’s undesirables and in a state of constant revolt; there are glimpses of low-caste “franchisees” who enable the dynasties; there’s a quick line that lets us know that, even in a sprawling interstellar empire, everyone’s entitled to a basic income (or, y’know, an “Interdependency minimum benefit”). Scalzi has, subtly and inventively, dealt with class, gender, and social structure before—here’s hoping that as this story continues, it also broadens. Perhaps even to those who have no say in ruling the Interdependency, but who have the most to lose when it collapses.