The Last Emperox

by John Scalzi

Cover image

Series: Interdependency #3
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: April 2020
ISBN: 0-7653-8917-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 318

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This is the conclusion of the Interdependency trilogy, which is a single story told in three books. Start with The Collapsing Empire. You don't want to read this series out of order.

All the pieces and players are in place, the causes and timeline of the collapse of the empire she is accidentally ruling are now clear, and Cardenia Wu-Patrick knows who her friends and enemies are. What she doesn't know is what she can do about it. Her enemies, unfettered Cardenia's ethics or desire to save the general population, have the advantage of clearer and more achievable goals. If they survive and, almost as important, remain in power, who cares what happens to everyone else?

As with The Consuming Fire, the politics may feel a bit too on-the-nose for current events, this time for the way that some powerful people are handling (or not handling) the current pandemic. Also as with The Consuming Fire, Scalzi's fast-moving story, likable characters, banter, and occasional humorous descriptions prevent those similarities from feeling heavy or didactic. This is political wish fulfillment to be sure, but it doesn't try to justify itself or linger too much on its improbabilities. It's a good story about entertaining people trying (mostly) to save the world with a combination of science and political maneuvering.

I picked up The Last Emperox as a palate cleanser after reading Gideon the Ninth, and it provided exactly what I was looking for. That gave me an opportunity to think about what Scalzi does in his writing, why his latest novel was one of my first thoughts for a palate cleanser, and why I react to his writing the way that I do.

Scalzi isn't a writer about whom I have strong opinions. In my review of The Collapsing Empire, I compared his writing to the famous description of Asimov as the "default voice" of science fiction, but that's not quite right. He has a distinct and easily-recognizable style, heavy on banter and light-hearted description. But for me his novels are pleasant, reliable entertainment that I forget shortly after reading them. They don't linger or stand out, even though I enjoy them while I'm reading them.

That's my reaction. Others clearly do not have that reaction, fully engage with his books, and remember them vividly. That indicates to me that there's something his writing is doing that leaves substantial room for difference of personal taste and personal reaction to the story, and the sharp contrast between The Last Emperox and Gideon the Ninth helped me put my finger on part of it. I don't feel like Scalzi's books try to tell me how to feel about the story.

There's a moment in The Last Emperox where Cardenia breaks down crying over an incredibly difficult decision that she's made, one that the readers don't find out about until later. In another book, there would be considerably more emotional build-up to that moment, or at least some deep analysis of it later once the decision is revealed. In this book, it's only a handful of paragraphs and then a few pages of processing later, primarily in dialogue, and less focused on the emotions of the characters than on the forward-looking decisions they've made to deal with those emotions. The emotion itself is subtext. Many other authors would try to pull the reader into those moments and make them feel what the characters are feeling. Scalzi just relates them, and leaves the reader free to feel what they choose to feel.

I don't think this is a flaw (or a merit) in Scalzi's writing; it's just a difference, and exactly the difference that made me reach for this book as an emotional break after a book that got its emotions all over the place. Calling Scalzi's writing emotionally relaxing isn't quite right, but it gives me space to choose to be emotionally relaxed if I want to be. I can pick the level of my engagement. If I want to care about these characters and agonize over their decisions, there's enough information here to mull over and use to recreate their emotional states. If I just want to read a story about some interesting people and not care too much about their hopes and dreams, I can choose to do that instead, and the book won't fight me. That approach lets me sidle up on the things that I care about and think about them at my leisure, or leave them be.

This approach makes Scalzi's books less intense than other novels for me. This is where personal preference comes in. I read books in large part to engage emotionally with the characters, and I therefore appreciate books that do a lot of that work for me. Scalzi makes me do the work myself, and the result is not as effective for me, or as memorable.

I think this may be part of what I and others are picking up on when we say that Scalzi's writing is reminiscent of classic SF from decades earlier. It used to be common for SF to not show any emotional vulnerability in the main characters, and to instead focus on the action plot and the heroics and martial virtues. This is not what Scalzi is doing, to be clear; he has a much better grasp of character and dialogue than most classic SF, adds considerable light-hearted humor, and leaves clear clues and hooks for a wide range of human emotions in the story. But one can read Scalzi in that tone if one wants to, since the emotional hooks do not grab hard at the reader and dig in. By comparison, you cannot read Gideon the Ninth without grappling with the emotions of the characters. The book will not let you.

I think this is part of why Scalzi is so consistent for me. If you do not care deeply about Gideon Nav, you will not get along with Gideon the Ninth, and not everyone will. But several main characters in The Last Emperox (Mance and to some extent Cardenia) did little or nothing for me emotionally, and it didn't matter. I liked Kiva and enjoyed watching her strategically smash her way through social conventions, but it was easy to watch her from a distance and not get too engrossed in her life or her thoughts. The plot trundled along satisfyingly, regardless. That lack of emotional involvement precludes, for me, a book becoming the sort of work that I will rave about and try to press into other people's hands, but it also makes it comfortable and gentle and relaxing in a way that a more emotionally fraught book could not be.

This is a long-winded way to say that this was a satisfying conclusion to a space opera trilogy that I enjoyed reading, will recommend mildly to others, and am already forgetting the details of. If you liked the first two books, this is an appropriate and fun conclusion with a few new twists and a satisfying amount of swearing (mostly, although not entirely, from Kiva). There are a few neat (albeit not horribly original) bits of world-building, a nice nod to and subversion of Asimov, a fair bit of political competency wish fulfillment (which I didn't find particularly believable but also didn't mind being unbelievable), and one enjoyable "oh no she didn't" moment. If you like the thing that Scalzi is doing, you will enjoy this book.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-05-24

Last modified and spun 2020-05-25