John Scalzi’s Collapsing Empire and the Intragalactic First Mover Advantage

John Scalzi’s Collapsing Empire is a fun, quick read that fits comfortably alongside some of his other sci-fi novels like Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades. The novel, like most other Scalzi novels, balances multiple witty and humorous characters with serious galaxy-spanning plots. I have read basically all of Scalzi’s work and would recommend it to everyone with the one caveat that if you don’t find one character funny, then you probably won’t find any of them funny as most of the humor is written in relatively the same way. But anyways, this is not a book review as rather I plan to discuss how the political system (and main plot point) Scalzi details in Collapsing Empire is just a textbook example of the first mover (economic principle) in action at an intragalactic level.

In economics, the first mover is simply the idea that the first agent/firm to market with a new product/service has a competitive advantage over its competitors. Meanwhile in Collapsing Empire, powerful noble family trading houses control much of human space due to their exclusive government-sanctioned monopolies on various goods. And they trade their products to the various outposts of humanity via the Flow, a faster-than-light travel mechanism of sorts that has specific, determined entrances and exits at all of these locations. These noble houses also control the access to and from these planets and earn revenue from others ships entering and exiting. And the imperial ruling house owns the space around the planet (called Hub) that is the equivalent of the Atlanta airport in that every path of the Flow goes through it, thus making it an extremely profitable planet to control. The main discovery of the novel for the characters is when they learn that this system exists solely for profiteering reasons rather than the part religious, part human spirit explanation that they and all the other humans in the galaxy had previously believed. The revelation is that the system is in fact a scam that benefits the noble families at the expense of basically everyone else. And this scam was all possible due to a first mover advantage. It is revealed that the imperial family simply was the first to establish themselves as “armed toll collectors” around the most important and profitable planet (Hub). Then through a combination of military strength and shrewd politics they “legitimized” their claim. They avoided the competition problem modern first movers have by simply outlawing any other entrants into their own market. And gifts of exclusive monopolies were then used by the ruling family in order to satiate the greed of the other noble houses. This whole process is the basis of an entire civilization, and so it was definitely interesting to see this very successful, but highly unethical example of the principle in action in some form of literature. It is not often that a boring economics textbook term becomes a major plot driver in an exciting science-fiction novel. Hopefully in book 2 of the series, Scalzi will discuss price discrimination!

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