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John Scalzi’s The Consuming Fire is a space opera about climate change denialism

John Scalzi’s The Consuming Fire is a space opera about climate change denialism


The sequel to last year’s The Collapsing Empire hits stores on October 16th

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Graphics by Michele Doying / The Verge

Over the years, author John Scalzi has made a name for himself with his military science fiction Old Man’s War series, but when he kicked off a decade-long, multimillion-dollar contract with his publisher, he decided to start with a space opera novel set in a brand-new world.

In The Collapsing Empire, humanity has spread across the galaxy, connected by an extra-dimensional phenomenon called the Flow. Ships can enter at various points and jet to another planet. A vast empire called the Interdependency has grown, ruling over the network of human colonies.

But the Flow is beginning to shift, and The Collapsing Empire follows three characters dealing with the impending collapse and upheaval that will follow. In the next installment of the series, The Consuming Fire, the Interdependency’s leader, Emperox Grayland II, is forced to prepare for the impending collapse of her empire, but she must fight against factions in her government who believe the collapse is a myth or see the coming chaos as a way to gain power for themselves.

We have the cover of the novel to show off, and I had the chance to chat with Scalzi about what to expect when the book hits stores on October 16th.

Image: Sparth / Tor Books

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Where you left off in The Collapsing Empire, the Flow has begun to collapse, leaving some worlds stranded. So where does The Consuming Empire pick up?

It’s going to take place not too far in future from where things end with The Collapsing Empire, and part of that is due to the fact that there are some things that we need to cover that have been suggested, like the collapse of particular flow streams, and we want to see some immediate aftereffects of that. I also left The Collapsing Empire on a bit of a cliffhanger, and if I don’t resolve that particular cliffhanger fairly quickly, I believe I will be stabbed to death by former fans.

Emprox Grayland II is presiding over this large empire as this collapse is happening. How is this going to challenge her as she tries to hold things together? Or is she going to try and rebuild in a new way?

She is convinced by the information that she’s gotten from Marce Claremont, that in fact we’ve come to a point where the Flow streams are going to collapse and systems are going to be isolated. Her question now is: how does she use her political, religious, and cultural power to prepare people? She’s already convinced that the collapse is in process. So she’s already come to a point where she knows that the current setup is coming to the end. How does she use her power to mitigate what would otherwise be a hard crash? Because that’s the nature of being human, to just deny, deny, deny, deny, deny until they absolutely don’t have a choice in the matter anymore, and she feels that. I think she feels that it’s her mission to get through the denial phase so that they can do something before it’s too late for everybody.

I remember part of the analogy you used was as if the world’s ocean currents just vanished during a time when we were dependent upon them for trade, but it’s impossible to not think about the arguments on the validity of climate change.

I don’t know that it’s so much that I’m taking it one for one with the “debate” on climate change — and let’s be clear that there really is no debate. There is science and then there are a bunch of idiots denying it. But I think what we’re seeing with climate change is the same dynamic we see every time there’s a major issue that impinges on economics in the our of life: deny, deny, deny as long as humanly possible because nobody wants change or disruption.

The thing about climate change or the “debate” about it is the same dynamic as it could be about tobacco usage. The fact of the matter is that there really is no debate: there is the overwhelming scientific evidence and then there are people who are desperately trying to deny the facts so that they can get as much as they can out of the system before the change has to happen. What we’re seeing with climate change is just another example of really kind of a well-known rhetorical and political trope. In that respect, and certainly with what’s going on with the “climate debate,” it informs what I’m doing in terms of writing the book, but at the same time, that debate is not new.

How does The Consuming Fire advance some of these arguments?

I don’t know that they necessarily will advance them. Without getting into any particular spoilers, as the book continues, it’s going to be obvious that some of the things that Marce and the Emprox have been talking about are going to start happening: you’re going to see some of the Flow streams collapse — we saw that at the end of the last book — and they will happen reasonably close to what’s been predicted. What will be interesting is not whether the events will conform to the predictions that are based on scientific observation, but how people respond to that. If you get back to the idea of climate change, the issue is not whether or not people accept that there is climate change, right? Because the flooding, the weird weather, the huge differentiations in temperature: they’re all there. The argument is shifting from “no, climate change isn’t happening” to “climate change is obviously happening, but we don’t know if humans are responsible.”

It’s a slow retreat by trying to avoid culpability, and by avoiding culpability, avoiding actual action. But the thing is: when Houston is flooding, if you’re standing there going “well, this is just because of natural processes,” it doesn’t change the fact that billions of dollars of damage is occurring.

So I think what we’re going to see is a series of things that people recognize that in fact a collapse of Flow streams is happening, but the denial will be that this isn’t as bad as it seems, or maybe there’s an opportunity. We will see people go through the stages of denial, bargaining, anger, with respect to the fact that their way of life is ending and people will still have concerns like, “Oh sure, this isn’t going to happen in 10 years, but in a two-year time frame, I really need to scoop up all this money,” without thinking about the long-term when the collapse finally happens.

Is there anything that’s surprising you about this book as you’re writing it?

From a practical point of view, it’s not been surprising. I just write a whole bunch. I think about it, write some more the next day. But I will say that, without revealing any spoilers, the book goes places — physical places — within the universe that when I initially started thinking about the book, I really had no plans to go to. But through the development of thinking about the book and listening to what other people who read The Collapsing Empire thought about it, it gave me some ideas for some interesting plot developments that I wouldn’t have considered before. But again, the magic of not necessarily doing a whole lot of outlining to begin with: you get a lot of pleasant surprises. When it doesn’t go well, you have 3,000 words you can’t use, and then you panic. But fortunately, I’m not there yet.

You told us last year that this was a duology, but that there was the possibility of a third book. How did you come to expand it to another installment?

What happened was the book and its sequel were part of the overall Tor deal for 13 books over 10 years. When I did that, each of the books I presented had a synopsis and where I expected it to go. Just as they say that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, no 13-book synopsis can survive first contact with actually having to write them. In this particular instance, while writing The Collapsing Empire, I realize that the story I was telling was not designed to be compact enough to fit into a 100,000-word novel. I wasn’t too worried about that because I had two books, even though the second book was originally planned to be radically different. Then, what the second book would eventually become, I was thinking that I could still tell the story over the course of two books, but as the world-building progressed, it became clear that three books would be the magic number.

Now the thing is that one has to be very careful about over-expanding and just going into fiddly details, and two books becomes three books, becomes eight books. The first book is called The Collapsing Empire, and the empire is in fact going to collapse; it’s not just a clever title. We have a natural narrative limit for this particular universe. I’m not worried about it going on indefinitely. But at the same time, the first book did very well; people really like what’s going on, and as a writer, I’ve found that there are narrative threads that I want to pursue that I’m not going to get to in the space of one particular novel. To give readers the satisfying reading experience they want, you want to make it feel like a complete narrative.

Is there anything that you’re really excited for readers to get to, like scenes or characters that you’re having fun with?

Yes! Happy smiley face emoji, so on and so forth. I’m obviously not going to talk about much now. I will say the first chapter of The Collapsing Empire was bit of a setup to explain the concept of the Flow, and involved a ship and a captain that we didn’t necessarily spend a lot of time with in the rest of the book. The first chapter of The Consuming Fire is somewhat similar to that.