Review of Stross’s Dark State

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Dark State, Empire Games Book 8

Charles Stross

London: Tor, 2018

ISBN: 9-781447-247586

349 pp.

If there were more than one Earth, maybe many more, then would each world develop in the same way? Might some have moved out of the Goldilocks zone that permits life (i.e. neither too hot nor too cold etc) and remained barren and airless? Might some still offer dinosaurs? Might some just have got stuc in a repressive feudal society that discriminates against all kinds and categories of people who differ from the socially determined ideal? This is a premise that has been explored more than once but Stross takes the premise further: if it were possible to move from place to place but that ability to move were controlled and risky, then what kinds of power structures would evolve to maintain the society of Worldwalkers, as we have learned to call them over the now eight novels of this series? More interestingly, perhaps, is the extent to which change and technological transfer will take place when information asymmetries are removed and societies start to learn about the presence of each other.

In the first series of six novels, these themes were embedded in the progress of the USA, unfortunately burdened by the baleful influence of the Cheney faction, with its seemingly inevitable descent into militarism once it realised the existence of the Worldwalker threat – this was not such a surprising development since the people of the second Earth were using their ability suddenly to appear on the first Earth carrying small but possibly expensive cargo by developing an extensive criminal network distributing illegal narcotics. Relations between the two sides soon reached the state of open warfare and, this being America, bombs were dropped in profusion and enemy agents and anyone resembling such a person were rounded up , interned and tortured. This situation posed a serious risk to other Earths, who were stimulated to take radical actions to protect themselves and their ways of life. Also, serious incentives were created for technology transfer on as extensive and rapid basis as possible – under pain of extensive punishment, some second Earth agents manage to source antibiotics credited with saving the lives of millions of people. The stakes are high, of course.

In the first of this second series of novels taking place in this imagined universe, the Americans have decided to try soft power in addition to the hard power that threatened to lead to a nuclear escalation that would cause unimaginable destruction. An agent has been inserted and not just any old agent but a direct descendant of Miriam, now a dowager society lady, who was our introduction into this world all those books ago. Soft power needs intelligence to be applied effectively and Rita, the agent concerned, will aim to provide that becoming as involved in the other society as possible. At the beginning of this book (spoiler alert and in any case do read the earlier books first) she is one of a number of characters being obliged to renegotiate her position in a new society and having to do so from a position of weakness. One of the great pleasures of these novels is that they explore ways in which women can work themselves into positions of power or maintain their existing level of power without the benefit of long-term familial networks or the erotic capital so evident in the Game of Thrones approach to sociological investigation.

The various societies concerned have become more sophisticated and complex as forms of plurality have replaced or are replacing unitary systems, while the addition of new generations and relationships make keeping up with what is going on much more difficult than before. Although this book contains a prefatory list of principal characters, endnotes and an appendix explaining possible historical development, Stross’s penchant for relatively short section rotating among numerous protagonists can make it occasionally jarring to work out where we have suddenly arrived. However, this is a comparatively minor issue and Stross expertly escorts the reader around various locales, including one version of Earth which seems about to be menaced by a joint alien-black hole assault. It will be fascinating to see how all of the various threads will be brought together in the next episode.

Review of Charles Stross’s Empire Games

Empire Games
Charles Stross
London: Pan Macmillan, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-4472-4539-2
331 pp.

I first came across the work of Charles Stross through his Merchant Princes series, which postulated a parallel earth (and, subsequently, a number of different earths) and a small group of people who could travel between them by some sort of magic-like technology. The parallel earth is medieval in technology and society and its leaders want rapid economic development, largely so as to reinforce their own power. Consequently, they organize a large-scale organized trade in illegal drugs, which eventually brings about their downfall in a hail of nuclear bombs. All of this is revealed at the beginning of the current book so do not qualify as spoilers. It is the political and, particularly, the economic elements of the story that drew praise and support from Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman.

After the six episodes of the Merchant Princes, Stross moved on to other ideas. There were some one off space adventures, as I recall, which were OK and then the development of his Laundry series. This series combined Lovecraftian horror with British satire. Although it has been extremely popular, I never really took to it and, indeed, stopped buying the books some years ago. As a result, I hadn’t read any Stross for a number of years. So, it was a bit of a surprise to see Empire Games prominently displayed in Taipei’s Son Min bookshop and representing itself as a return to the Merchant Princes storyline and, also, a delight.

Considering the ending of the previous series and bearing in mind the author’s penchant for writing multi-novel storylines (unless it is the preference of the publisher or his agent), it is not surprising that this first novel does quite a lot to set up the series for development over the next few years. The book begins with an explanation of the world as we now know it, which means it would be possible to start the series without having read the previous one, although to do so would be a willful denial of pleasure. There are four main timelines presented. One of these is the nuked Gruinmarkt, which is unlikely to play a large part of the narrative for the foreseeable future. There is our own timeline, which of course has the history of the previous interactions with the Clan of world-walkers. The third timeline is the one discovered by Miriam, the principal protagonist of the first series but less significant so far here. That world sees confrontation between the British and French empires, which dominate the world. This is the place where the remnants of the Clan have taken refuge and from which Miriam is plotting a series of urgent technological great leaps forward to protect themselves from the inevitable discovery by the America of our world. Alas, we still have President Rumsfeld in charge and his USA contains all the dangerous poison of racism and intolerance that is evident under the real-life incumbent. A secret war between the two worlds has, in effect, been declared but the Americans are hampered by lack of world-walking ability. This is where our new principal protagonist, Rita, enters the scene. It is discovered by the Homeland Security spooks that Rita, daughter of a Miriam she has never known, can be made into their own stars and stripes world-walker. Hence, the action unfurls from these initial premises.

This is a great return to form, in my opinion. The character of Rita is engaging enough and the action scenes taut and gripping. The dialogue is as good as might be found in any fantasy or science fiction genre (the book could be placed in either of these sections in bookshops that distinguish books in this way). Above all, there is a sense of inherent doom in the fourth timeline, which is currently gripped by an ice age, where the mysterious forerunners have left behind powerful technologies, perhaps because of some terrible disaster.

Stross writes superior fiction because of his willingness to engage in the political implications of the worlds about which he writes. His revolutions are believable and his portrayal of the masses, who are given sufficient walk-on parts to make sure the reader is aware of their presence. The suspension of disbelief is so much easier to swallow as a result.

This is a very readable and enjoyable book and I look forward to reading the forthcoming episodes.

Review of Stross’s The Trade of Queens

Stross

 

My review of Charles Stross’s The Trade of Queens has been published at Bookideas:

The Trade of Queens is the sixth and concluding part of the series of alternative earth novels The Merchant Princes by Charles Stross. I had to wait a few years since reading the fifth one until I found this on a recent trip to Singapore. In the meantime, I had rather forgotten some of the many events that had occurred. It would be difficult to start reading the series with this last edition and hope to make sense of it.

Read the full review here.

 

 

Review of Charles Stross’s Rule 34

One thing we can be sure of in the future is that it will provide more opportunities for people to get what they want – through the internet and its
future growth, primarily – and that a great deal of what people want may not be exactly good for them. In a not very distant future Scotland, the internet has become a kind of monstrous presence which can link people with anything they can imagine: hook your wireless connection to a simple 3D printer and the product of your imagination, however monstrous or indeed wonderful it might be, will be brought to life. Perhaps literally, if that is how your mind works.

Read the full review here.

Review of Stross’s The Fuller Memorandum

 

Horrors from beyond space and time continue to stalk the universe, irrespective of whether anyone else really wants them to and with indeed blithe indifference to the desires of humans, cultists, civilians and Laundry operatives. Fortunately for the sanity of humanity, the way into our perception of the universe is long and tangled and requires such things as chanting, the stars being right, blood sacrifices and advanced algorithmic calculations in the field of combat epistemology. The bad news, of course, is that all of these once very onerous requirements are now easily available via a laptop computer or even a smart phone – the Necronom-Ipod, perhaps.

Read the full review here.

Review of Stross’s Wireless

There is often something malevolent in Charles Stross’s work–sometimes it comes in the form of an external, objectified monster from beyond space and time (in the Laundry series of Lovecraftian mystery) and sometimes an abstract but no less vicious notion such as class antagonism or the cunning of history. Malevolence is well-represented in this collection of the prolific author’s work–most of which are appearing in such a convenient format for the first time.

Read the full review here.

Review of The Revolution Business

Involuntarily impregnated, forced to wear uncomfortable clothes and deprived of proper tea, our heroine Miriam is feeling the strain in this fifth episode of the Merchant Princes saga–and there will be at least one more episode to come, with the possibility of many more after that. The plot in this book offers a variety of ways in which more and more action is required to satisfy all of the different strands that have been added by the author to the original conceit. Then again, the cliffhanger on which this book ends is of sufficient scope to bring the whole shebang to a conclusion fairly rapidly.

Read the full review here.