Empire Games by Charles Stross
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Apologies to the few people who follow my blog via its Goodreads syndication, as you will see this review twice…
(This will contain spoilers, not for this book, but for the Merchant Princes series).
Charles Stross is one of those authors whose work I find very variable. Some (for example Glasshouse) is among the best SF written in the last few decades, some (the Laundry Files series) is imaginative but lightweight fun pulp adventure, and some (notably Singularity Sky) I find almost impossible to get into. I read pretty much everything he puts out, though, because when he’s good he’s *very* good.
For a long time, I didn’t read the Merchant Princes series, because it was marketed as an epic fantasy series, and I simply don’t do those under any circumstances — ten million words of collecting plot tokens so that the True Heir to whatever can overcome the Evil Dark Lord (and put in place a new regime with no systemic differences from the old) is just not my kind of thing. I like my books to be about ideas, and epic fantasy is, pretty much without exception, an idea-free zone. So I marked it down mentally as something that was likely to be the not-for-me Stross, and ignored it (something made easier by the fact that half the books weren’t released in the UK).
However, about three years ago, Stross announced that the Merchant Princes books were going to be (re)issued in the UK, heavily reworked into three big books from six smaller ones, and the blog posts he wrote about that process made it very clear that the impression given by Tor US’ marketing was very, very wrong. The books had been written so that at first they would *appear* to be generic fantasy landfill (mostly in order to get round a contract loophole giving another publisher option rights on Stross’ SF work, but not work in other genres), before slowly revealing that they were idea-rich SF books that were also subverting a number of fantasy tropes.
Intrigued, I picked up the first of the reworked books, and read through all of them in about three days flat. The marketing for the series had been utterly misleading — rather than being in the vein of the Wheel of Time or some equivalent, they were instead much closer to Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon or Baroque Trilogy, or Stross’ own Neptune’s Brood. It’s fundamentally a series about economics, and in particular the economics of developing nations with no exposure to Enlightenment values coming into contact with modern Western states (the Clan in the books is clearly inspired by the gangsterish rulers of countries like Saudi Arabia), and one that uses the SF trope of the multiverse to talk about the conflicts this would cause.
Empire Games is ostensibly the start of a new series, which Stross referred to on his blog by the working title “Merchant Princes: The Next Generation”, but in reality it’s pretty much a straight continuation of the earlier series, and I’m unsure how much sense it would make to a reader who had not read the earlier series.
The book picks up seventeen years after the last series ended, in an alternate version of the Earth that’s similar to our own, except that parallel-world terrorists used a nuclear bomb on the White House in 2003 (the climax of the earlier series), and a short nuclear war between India and Pakistan followed. The world portrayed is surprisingly unchanged by this, other than the US surveillance state being turned up approximately one and a half notches and Donald Rumsfeld having been US President for two terms (now replaced by an unnamed female Democrat President (definitely not Clinton, who was killed in the bombing in this universe)). In fact, I’d argue that it’s *too* unchanged — one of the few things to draw me out of the book was that Facebook, Twitter, and Tesla all exist in Stross’ universe in something essentially identical to their current forms, even down to their names.
The action clearly parallels the start of the previous series, with Rita, the biological daughter of the previous series’ protagonist Miriam, being picked up by Homeland Security, informed of her genetic potential, and semi-willingly conscripted into spying on behalf of that timeline’s USA, investigating the timeline where Miriam now lives (one that was at Victorian levels of development, and under a hereditary dictatorship, before Miriam helped instigate a democratic revolution in the previous series, and which is now rapidly catching up to the late twentieth century).
The book is clearly setting up some very important things, including the infiltration of Homeland Security by various groups (notably both the Mormons and the Scientologists — and the Mormon element makes me wonder if Stross’ plan for the series is at all inspired by Heinlein’s If This Goes On…, which touches on a few similar ideas. I’d dismiss this possibility, except that this book is clearly and explicitly intertextual with at least one other classic work of SF, The Man In The High Castle), and there’s a lot of background involving Rita’s grandfather which I won’t spoil, but which is clearly leading to interesting places.
I want to give this book a higher rating than I have — it’s full of exceptionally interesting ideas, and it’s more timely than Stross could have imagined when he wrote it. The book was inspired by the Snowden revelations, and a general mistrust of the US surveillance state, but there is a lot in here which resonates strongly with the recent rise of the Trump/Erdogan/Putin/May/Le Pen/Farage Fascist International and the growing realisation that we are in a new Cold War in which our own governments may well not be on the same side as their populations.
But unfortunately, the book is all set-up. It’s not really a complete narrative on its own terms, and finishes with all the pieces in place for what promises to be an interesting story, but without the story really having got going. It’s the first third of what seems like it’ll be a four- or five-star book when it’s finished, but it’s not a satisfying work in and of itself. I understand the publishing industry realities which mandate this, but that doesn’t make the experience itself any less annoying.
My advice is to wait until 2019 (assuming the world lasts that long — see above re: fascists and cold wars…) and read the whole thing in one go. I’m sure it will work very well then. But as it is, I’d leave it for now.
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