- The Consuming Fire, by John Scalzi (Interdependency Book 2)
I just finished a quick trip to Morro Bay, and on the last evening there, I decided to start John Scalzi’s latest book, Consuming Fire. Sometime after that, I decided to finish it, which meant getting to sleep later than expected by a few hours.
It was worth it. I thought the first book in the series was good-not-great, and really more about setting up the entire series than as a standalone book, despite a lot of things going on including an assassination attempt where someone aims a space shuttle at a couple of the key players.
Consuming Fire builds off of the world created in book 2 and gives us a fun adventure that’s very much a Scalzi book, meaning the characters have a wry-to-snide sense of humor. His books are driven as much by character and dialog as they are the plot, and in Consuming Fire this really shines through. It should be noted — in the interdependency series Scalzi has chosen to help define some of his characters through their sexuality, both in preferences and enthusiasm. There is nothing explicit in the book, but it’s not exactly in the background, and many of the characters are enthusiastic in their creative use of language some might not appreciate.
I loved it. Some of it got a bit comic: there’s one scene where a character takes an important phone call while not bothering to stop having sex, but overall it works and the characters feel complex and real to me.
The general plot: The Interdependency is a series of planets all connected by what’s called the Flow, a way to allow for faster than light travel between planets. A significant challenge in book 1 was that scientists studying the flow came to believe that the long stability of these connections was going to end and some of the flow tunnels were going to start collapsing, and at the end of book 1, the first one did.
A key challenge is that none of the planets are sustainable indefinitely without resources from the other planets, except one — which was the planet cut off at the end of book 1. So there is a bit of a time bomb ticking, in that humanity’s future is threatened if they can’t figure out how to deal with the collapse of the flow. Not everyone is on board with this or believes it’s going to happen, of course, and some of the ruling elite only see this as a chance to profit.
Much of the book is a build up to the big conflict of who’s in control and what policies will be followed, with some of major families (think: various mafia bosses) planning a coup to take over control. In some ways, this primary plot line makes me think of Scalzi watching the Star Wars Prequels — the ones with endless trade commissions and senate sessions — and thinking “let’s do that again, but make it fun this time”, and he does.
A second plot line pops in during the book: a Flow tunnel appears connecting to the “lost planet”, a former part of the interdependency who’s connection to the rest of the interdependency failed centuries ago, leaving them to slowly die as their systems failed. A decision is made to send a ship to investigate and see what they can learn about what happened and what they might learn to help them avoid the same fate as the flow tunnels between the planets fail as predicted.
What’s found in that system — changes things massively — and that is clearly Scalzi’s hook into book 3 of the series, is when the tunnels start collapsing and things start to get very real.
I’d define book one of this series (The Collapsing Empire) as a pretty good book, but Consuming Fire as a much better book that makes the occasional slogs through book 1 more than worth it, and has me on board looking forward to the next one. I would definitely start with Collapsing Empire and not book 2, since there’s a complex universe and set of characters to get to know.
Highly recommended if you like complex action drama with a wry sense of humor (hey: it’s a Scalzi book) and don’t mind the adult themes.
That said, to make it clear, here there be adultish content. I know some folks were upset with the adult nature of some of the characters (where Scalzi used their sexual preferences and enthusiasm to help define character); in this book, he goes even stronger into those themes. There’s nothing explicit, but there’s a lot more (LOT more) adult language and situations in this book. I happen to really like how it defines complexity into the characters without being pandering about the content. I can guarantee not everyone will agree. YMWV. Not a book if you’re uncomfortable with the F word in language or deed in your fiction.
Amusingly enough, as I was working on this review, someone sent a Twitter tweet to Scalzi about the language, asking him “did you really need to use the F— word so much in the book?”
Scalzi, bless him, wrote back and said “Yes. Yes, I did”.
He’s right, for this story and for these characters. And that should give you a good idea whether the language and situations in this book are going to entertain or annoy you, and make your reading choices appropriately.