Dark State, Empire Games Book 8
London: Tor, 2018
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.