The Consuming Fire is the sequel to The Collapsing Empire, the first book set in an interstellar society about to suffer from extreme environmental collapse. The worlds - mostly uninhabitable except in space stations and artificial habitats - are connected by a network of extradimensional pathways called “the Flow.” By design, none of the worlds are self-sufficient, but rather “The Interdepency” depends on stable commerce among the planets. But now the Flow is collapsing. Emperox Grayland knows it. Some of the noble families know it and want to help her. Others want to use the chaos to gain more power, and still others are in denial. Whatever happens, the 1000 year relative peace of the Interdependency is coming to an end.
The first book was a bit heavy on preamble for me as Scalzi laid out his pieces on the board (and also created the board!). Now we really get the plot rolling. The Consuming Fire traces the political, and frequently sexual, machinations of an expanding cast of elite members of the empire. There’s meetings and plotting and assassinations and exploring deep space and lots and lots of sex. Most of the action, with a few notable exceptions, takes place via interpersonal dialogue rather than dueling spaceships or combat scenes, with the lively characters bantering and one-upping each other at every turn. Scalzi has a mastery of ironic snark, and he deploys it to good advantage throughout. I’ve always liked Scalzi’s “voice” in his books. He’s able to keep the flow of dialogue light before suddenly delivering a surprise emotional gutpunch. This book is no exception.
I’m also, as I wrote in a long piece for Pacific Standard, really interested in how Scalzi (and speculative fiction in general) explores connections between body and identity in his collected works. This book is less overt than both the Lock In series and the Old Man’s War series, but there is a computer system recording the memories of all the Emperox of the last millennia. They talk to Grayland and their existence begs the question - are these emperors “real?” Are we more than the sum of our memories?
I enjoyed the book. It’s a quick lively read with more depth than it first appears. It feels timely too as so many of the “bad guys” are far too willing to play for power and wealth as the environment that sustains life itself starts to disintegrate. Time to go re-read that climate report then call my Senators.