A few thousand years in the future, one branch of humanity, comprised of billions of people, lives on a set of planets called the Interdependency. Their star systems are many hundreds of light years apart but tied together by the Flow, a sort of hyperspace river that connects these planets. The problem is that the Flow is gradually collapsing, one stream at a time, and all of the Interdependency worlds except one (called End) are completely incapable of sustaining human life without the constant importing of food and goods from other worlds — hence the term “Interdependency.” In fact, this economic system was deliberately set up a thousand years earlier in order to enrich just a few elite families, each of which have a monopoly on certain key goods and have become immensely wealthy and powerful as a result.
As The Last Emperox (2020), the concluding novel in John Scalzi’s INTERDEPENDENCY trilogy, begins, the nobles in the Interdependency are finally beginning to accept the fact that all of the Flow streams that tie their worlds together are disappearing. (It’s hard to deny given the mathematical proofs … especially after several streams have collapsed as the physicists predicted.) The Interdependency’s ruler, Emperox Grayland II, called Cardenia by those who know her personally, has been pushing for the government and ruling families to acknowledge the flow collapse and start working together to try to save the people of the Interdependency.
It sounds logical enough, but instead the ruling families are mostly preoccupied with two things: First, saving themselves and their families and hangers-on, by preparing to emigrate to the world of End. After all, End can’t possibly assimilate all of humanity, and the wealthy and powerful are determined that they’ll be the ones to actually wind up there, along with as much of their wealth and power as can possibly make the transfer to End with them. The common people that they ruled on their worlds are out of luck, too bad.
Second, they’re (still) trying to oust Cardenia from power. She’s already survived two assassination attempts, and Nadashe Nohamapetan is determined that a third attempt will succeed. Nadashe is a fugitive but an extremely well-connected and ruthless one, who’s been a constant thorn in Cardenia’s side since Cardenia declined a political marriage with either Nadashe’s brother or Nadashe herself.
The Last Emperox follows the ongoing struggle between Nadashe and the allies she gathers around her, and Cardenia and her supporters, particularly her lover and leading Flow physicist Marce, and her friend Kiva Lagos, a foul-mouthed schemer with enough of a conscience to realize that, with civilization as she knows it quickly coming to an end, some amount of altruism needs to be injected into to a set of rulers used to acting solely in their own self-interest. Kiva is one of the bright lights in the INTERDEPENDENCY series, as long as you don’t mind her over-the-top case of potty mouth.
The basic plotline and the main characters are already familiar to those who’ve read the first two books, The Collapsing Empire and The Consuming Fire (in fact, it’s vital to read those books first, but this trilogy is definitely worth the investment in time). These characters — well, at least the sympathetic ones — are well-rounded and complex. Cardenia has learned to act as a ruler needs to, but sometimes that’s at odds with her role as a normal person and her developing relationship with Marce. Cardenia and Marce have just the right amount of nerdiness, awkwardness and sincerity that you really root for their relationship. Nadashe, on the other hand, is a little over the top as a one-dimensional villain, although Scalzi still manages to have some fun with her conniving character.
There’s a shocking development toward the end of The Last Emperox. To say much about it would get us into spoiler territory, but I wondered (through my tears) whether this event and the decisions that led to it were as necessary as the book posits. I wasn’t convinced, although a subsequent reread of this book did lead me to conclude that it was, if not essential, at least justifiable. (I’m still pouting about it on a personal level, though.)
The Last Emperox is almost prescient in its critical take on a society in crisis, where people act in short-sighted ways, denying and delaying taking action against a looming problem until it hits crisis point, and too many of those in charge are selfishly focused on their own interests rather than on their responsibilities to those they govern. Scalzi has a serious message to share, but it goes down easily, with a fast pace, lots of action, and frequent doses of snarky humor. This is one of the most compulsively readable, intelligent and enjoyable science fiction series I’ve come across, and it gets my highest recommendation.