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The fierce intelligence of John Scalzi’s ‘The Consuming Fire’

The fierce intelligence of John Scalzi’s ‘The Consuming Fire’
'The Consuming Fire' by John Scalzi (Tor)

John Scalzi burst onto the science fiction scene early in the new millennium with his seminal book “Old Man’s War” — a military novel about humanity and identity that depicts a 75-year-old enlisting in exchange for a youthful body. Since then Scalzi, one of The Times’ critics at large, has become one of the most important voices in science fiction and has won a number of awards for his work. Three years ago he signed a deal with Tor to write 13 books over a 10-year period.

“The Consuming Fire” is one of those books. The second in Scalzi’s “Interdependecy” series, which began with “The Collapsing Empire,” it’s a “space opera”: a subgenre of science fiction that is often grand in vision and features adventure, romance and interplanetary battles (“Dune” and “Avatar” are good examples).

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“The Consuming Fire” is set in a distant future where humanity has escaped the confines of Earth. For millennia there has been a glorious and vast interstellar empire of planets known as the Interdependency. These planets and colonies rely on each other for trade and protection against war. The success of this empire is founded on the ability to travel and trade using an extra-dimensional phenomenon known as the Flow.

The Flow links the galaxy and allows ships to travel between stars — a trip that would otherwise take centuries at the least — in a matter of weeks. It’s something that isn’t entirely understood and just taken for granted that it will always be there.

But the Flow is shifting away from established routes with the potential that this vast, interconnected society will break down. “The Consuming Fire” sees the leader of the Interdependency — Emperox Grayland II — preparing for this inevitable breakup. Her task is made all the more difficult by factions of the government insisting that the change of the Flow is just a myth. There is a growing fear among those who believe while others see it as a distraction, an opportunity to gain power for themselves.

Author John Scalzi
Author John Scalzi (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

It’s important to note that you don’t have to read the first book to enjoy this one; Scalzi does an impressive job of bringing the story up to speed in the first 20 or so pages. “In the beginning was the lie,” Chapter 1 begins. “The lie was that the prophet Rachela, the founder of the Holy Empire of Interdependent States and Mercantile Guilds, had mystical visions … There was no mystical element involved in the so-called prophecies of Rachela at all. The Wu family ginned them up.”

At stake is this vast empire controlled by the religious organization, a fascinating concept when religion appears to be falling out of favor in the Western world.

It’s an interesting choice by Scalzi to explore how a religious organization could run a mammoth society — of course there is a great deal of corruption, backstabbing and other political games at play and really it’s the families who are in control. At times it reminded me of one of the great science fiction space operas, “Dune.” There is a similar sense of scale, not to mention the murky politics and family rivalries. The world-building is breathtaking, it’s almost impossible not to get drawn into this system of the far future.

Scalzi avoids the trap that many science fiction writers fall into — that of techno-babble — and makes accessible this far future on a distant planet. A large part of that is due to the way he writes — a fierce intelligence combining a sharp, at times acerbic, wit. With a fluid style and an incredible imagination, his work often becomes compelling reading.

The story itself is as grand as they come — the future of the empire and potentially the whole human race is at stake. As you can imagine, people start to really freak out, make grabs for power and otherwise lose control. There is of course a warning here about globalization, how nations rely on each other for trade and getting into “trade wars” and risk such easy access to goods doesn’t help anyone.

The big message though is that of belief, and its correlate, denial. Even with clear evidence that the Flow is disintegrating and the route to other planets is becoming impossible, some still deny the existence of this visible change and preach to others that all is well.

The “denial” Scalzi is talking about is a close parallel with climate change, a timely and relevant subject. Despite our planet seeing consistently record-breaking weather over the last few years there are still those out there who refuse to accept what is widely regarded as the facts, what some would see as overwhelming evidence.

This is one of the things that makes Scalzi such an important figure in literature, he doesn’t go the easy route of just writing a story — instead he fills it with important messages. In all this vast space of countless planets, the fact that only one might be capable of supporting humanity really brings the crisis into focus.

Jones is a writer and editor of the website sfbook.com.

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'The Consuming Fire' by John Scalzi
'The Consuming Fire' by John Scalzi (Tor)
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John Scalzi

Tor Books: 320 pp., $26.99

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