Book Review: The Last Emperox

An anonymous book reviewer reviews THE LAST EMPEROX by Tor’s Three-Million-Dollar Man, John Scalzi. While I have not read any of the three books in the trilogy myself, it would not appear that Tor made a wise investment.

I was a few chapters into The Last Emperox when Scalzi did something he’d never done before in the Interdependency trilogy.  He made me laugh.

It was not a snicker at one of his jokes.  It was not a wry chuckle at the semi-snarky dialogue that passes for humour.  It was a genuine laugh when it hit me that Kiva Lagos is Donald Trump, with breasts!  Intentionally or not, Scalzi’s foul-mouthed rapist mess of a hero has a lot in common with the leftist perception of Trump, from the manners of a bullying braggart to the habit of rolling the dice time and time again until she comes up trumps.  There is a certain irony, in fact, that the titular character is someone who has so much in common with a populist politician Scalzi detests.  I’d apologise for the spoiler, but really there’s little to spoil.

Scalzi’s fans compare him to Heinlein.  A better comparison would be Harry Harrison.  Harrison’s comic novels didn’t take themselves too seriously, making light of everything from planetary invasions to full-scale war with a coalition of alien races.  When Harrison tried to write more serious novels, they were rarely satisfactory.  Scalzi has the same problem.  Old Man’s War was funny, but Scalzi is simply incapable of turning his keyboard to more serious work.  The Collapsing Empire and its two sequels are based on a cool concept, but their author fails to do them justice.  They simply don’t live up to their promise.

Scalzi himself admits, in his afterword, that he has a habit of procrastinating for months before turning in the first draft.  This is a major problem, as he says, because the editors don’t have time to do their job.  The three books would have made a fairly decent story if they’d been written as one volume – and had a good editor, who had the time to fix the problems – but as a trilogy they simply don’t work.  There are entire sections that Scalzi skips over, or hand-waves, or relies on his audience to fill in the gaps.  The story hops from idea to post-idea without showing us the idea being put into effect, dancing through time-skips in the hope we won’t notice.  This is irritating as hell.

The real problem is that he was incapable of developing the concept into a story.  There was ample room for a space opera on the same scale as The Night’s Dawn trilogy, but he chose to skip over the details that would have made it feel real.  The interdependency feels like a very thin universe indeed, without the sense of age or depth that writers such as Hamilton, Sanderson and Jemsin work into their stories.  Instead, he focuses on a tedious political battle and struggle for power that I thought had been resolved in the second book.  The concept of saving the vast majority of the population through flow-manipulation is better than I expected, but it simply isn’t developed.  The story does not end with the salvation of humanity or the preservation of a chunk of human civilisation.  Instead, it feels more like a retread of old ground that solves nothing.  It is, indeed, difficult to summarise the book because so little actually happens (and most of the important events happen off-stage)!

This is best reflected in the endless struggle between Cardenia Wu-Patrick, Kiva Lagos and Nadashe Nohamapetan, a struggle that would have been cut short if either of the three had shown a little more intelligence or ruthlessness.  (Seriously, Nadashe showed a little more cunning than earlier, but she would have won if she’d shot Kiva).  The bickering over who will take power, if anyone can when the writing is firmly on the wall, comes across as more than a little pointless.  More interesting plots – ways to navigate the Flow, developments on End – are hand-waved away, as if Scalzi realised he was running out of words and wrapped things up quickly.  This flows from Scalzi’s limitations.  It’s fairly clear he knows little about how militaries, power brokers and monarchies work.  A comic book empress can afford to be ignorant.  A real-life empress who’s going to inherit real power (even if she’s the spare) will have been trained for the role from birth.  Kiva Lagos is a liability to any real power broker because people like her – “whirling amoral vortexes of chaos” – tend to make enemies, people who will try to knife her in the back out of sheer spite and/or a desire for revenge.  There’s no hope of building a permanent relationship with someone you treat like shit, even if they are petty small-minded gamma males.  That too is something she has in common with Trump.

Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat books featured the beautiful and deadly Angelina, whose comedic sociopathy is funny, as long as you don’t think about it too much.  Harrison gets away with it because he’s writing comic novels, where reality is twisted to accommodate humour; Scalzi does not get away with it because his books are meant to be serious fiction and Kiva’s behaviour is horrible.  Sure, running up behind someone and yanking down their pants can be funny, but it’s also sexual assault.  It’s always fun until someone loses an eye.  I’m not laughing.

The Last Emperox has its moments, but it does not live up to its promise.  It does not present a scene of humanity getting around the problem, nor does it present a desperate struggle for survival right out of a disaster movie.  It does not even end with the collapse of the Flow and the dawn of a new era.  The plan to avoid disaster and save millions of lives is workable, but we never get to see it.  Scalzi concentrates on politics and avoids actually coming to grips with his universe.  The interesting characters get shoved aside, or forced to make stupid decisions, while the boring ones carry the show.

The series overall has its issues.  The Interdependency itself doesn’t make much sense.  The idea of End being both the sole inhabitable world in known space and an isolated backwater is bizarre.  You’d think it would be the most valuable piece of real estate in the galaxy.  The Interdependency brought some of its problems on itself, but the way it did that should have prompted it to avoid the problems.  Scalzi tries to justify it, but it isn’t convincing.  He might have been better leaving the collapse of the Flow as a natural event, as unpredictable (to the average person) as a hurricane.

A good series should have a strong beginning, a firm middle and a resounding end.  The Collapsing Empire is a weak beginning, The Consuming Fire isn’t enough to save the series and The Last Emperox ends with a whimper rather than a resounding crescendo.

I stand by my earlier opinion.  As a single book, the series would have worked (with a decent editor). As a trilogy, it’s a waste of money.