I don't seem to have a heck of a lot of luck starting in the right places when it comes to the novels of Charles Stross, though it's mostly working out so far. The first book I read by him was 'The Nightmare Stacks', which was the seventh book in his 'Laundry Files' series. Now, because it's been on the shelf for a while and had been sent over for review, I'm diving into 'Empire Games', which is also a seventh book, but in his 'Merchant Princes' series. I haven't read the first six, but this one appears to also be the beginning of a new trilogy, featuring new characters, so I was able to follow along easily enough.
If I'm understanding correctly, this series revolves around divergent timelines, worldwalking and the development trap. The divergent timelines angle merely means that universes are spun off from our own at certain points in time. If you watched 'Loki', this ought to be simple to follow. Worldwalking is merely the inherited ability of some people to move between those timelines at will, which opens up all sorts of possibilities that were explored during the half dozen earlier books. Apparently, Stross's influences here were the 'Chronicles of Amber' series by Roger Zelazny and the 'Paratime' stories by H. Beam Piper, but he brought his own original spin to the ideas.
The development trap is the concept that may be new to many readers and that's complications that come with trying to escalate the development of a civilisation to catch them up with another one, an idea that can work wonderfully or fail miserably. Compare the success of Japan or South Korea in our own world with the failure of much of Africa. It's easy to suggest that a civilisation has to be ready to undergo an accelerated development but nobody seems to know what ready actually means. This is a concept that appears to be at the heart of this trilogy, as we watch it happen in Time Line 3, but I bet it'll be more important in the second volume.
I'm guessing that regular readers of the 'Merchant Princes' series will dive into this without trouble, but it took me a little while to get the basics straight that I needed to grasp this book. To be fair, most of that had to do with one character having two different names, one in the story and one in the intro cheat sheet. I quickly assumed that they had to be the same person but it took a long while for that to be confirmed, so I had doubts and those doubts shaped my enjoyment early on.
Let's say there are four important timelines, whether that's because that's all there are or whether they're the only ones explored in this series.
Time Line Two diverged from us pretty recently, in 2003 when members of a group called the Clan (no, not the Klan) worldwalked over from Time Line One and detonated a nuclear bomb inside the White House. In other words, Time Line Two is very recognisable as our world but with obvious differences that an event of that magnitude would generate. You can imagine the sort of differences and this is pretty easy to process.
However, Time Line One diverged long ago, maybe a few centuries BC, so it's very different. There is no Judaism, Christianity or Islam, for a start, and communities on North America's east coast are led by merchant princes who did really well through worldwalking. Smuggling drugs is pretty easy when you can just blink into existence on a planet, do your business and then blink back away again. I ought to highlight that few pages are spent in Time Line One, not least because it's radioactive after the US retaliated, but that conflict is still the root of pretty much everything in this book.
Time Line Three is starting to develop, with the UK invaded by the French and North America home to the British Empire. While we spend most of the first half of the book in Time Line Two, we spend more and more time in Time Line Three in the second half. It's fair to say that Stross spent a lot of effort in structuring this book so that we learn as the characters learn. With four timelines in different stages of development and different stages of relevance to the core story, simply unfolding chronologically wouldn't have worked at all.
That leaves Time Line Four, which is unpopulated, mostly because it's going through an ice age after a nuclear winter generated a couple of thousand years earlier, but is not somewhere that's never been populated. The US has an important base there that's situated on top of someone else's prior base, one built long, long ago. This has little importance early but surely has much importance to the wider story. We learn some of that here but I have no doubt that it'll be more important as the series runs on.
And, against all this backdrop, we're focused in on a particular family. Miriam Beckstein is from Time Line One and the Americans in Time Line Two see her as a terrorist, someone who was involved in the White House atrocity. She's in Time Line Three now, which she discovered, and she's trying to help the revolutionaries there, who recently overthrew the British Empire and have constructed an American Commonwealth, to industrialise and modernise before the Americans from Time Line Two notice that they exist. They haven't as we begin, but it's inevitable that they do during this book.
Rita Douglas, a student and part time trade show booth babe, is Miriam's daughter, not that either of them know that because Rita was given up for adoption as a baby in Time Line Two. As she has the gene that allows her to worldwalk, something she's never heard of, never done and has no idea how to do, the Americans in Time Line Two decide to train her to do so and become a worldwalking spy for them. Take a wild stab in the dark as to where they end up sending her on her first mission...
I liked this book and I coped with it as a starting point in a wider series, though I'm sure it would have been an easier read had I worked through the six prior 'Merchant Princes' novels. While there are a few fascinating concepts here that Stross explores in an original way, the heart of it is family and I'm sure that will really come into its own in the second book. This one wraps roughly where I expected it to but I still have little idea where the next book will take us. Possibilities abound and I like that.
Stross does attempt to explain everything in scientific fashion, so grounding this as science fiction not technological fantasy. I didn't follow all the technobabble, of which there is plenty, but it seems to me to be entirely believable and not remotely contrived. Some of it is neatly simplified, like the implant the Americans give Rita to enable her to use the gift she didn't know she had, and the way she moves to other locations by picturing trigger engrams of knotwork, rather like the coordinates dialed on a stargate.
I also appreciated that this is as much a spy novel as it is science fiction, fantasy or any other genre. I liked how well suited Rita is to her new life as a spy, without ever realising it. Things she did as a child, from self-defence to geocaching, have relevance in a post-Cold War era environment where the next generation has to relearn some of the old spycraft skills. And, again, that firmly grounds this book in human beings, even if it's set against a grand science fiction concept.
I'm very interested to see where the series takes us. Sure, I can guess, but I can guess about three or four completely different directions that are mutually exclusive. I have to admire the talent that has us start a new story in an existing world, mostly successfully for new readers, that turns out to not be what we think it is and ends in a fashion that has us reevaluate everything afresh, without ever losing its coherence as a story. Next month: 'Dark State', the already published second volume. Book three, 'Invisible Sun', is still awaiting publication but is due this year. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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