The Big Idea: Charles Stross

Hey! It’s Charles Stross! One of my favorite writers! And he has a new book! Empire Games! And it’s cool! And he’s here to talk to you about it! Yeah, and that’s my intro today. Take it away, Charlie.


Take one science fiction series setting with parallel universes where history has proceeded along divergent tracks. Add people with an inheritable ability to move between time lines — precise mechanism unclear, but research hints that it’s the product of a long-forgotten and disturbingly high technology paratime civilization — and allow information leakage. What are the political, military, and economic effects of inter-time line cultural contamination?

If you think that’s a big idea — too big to tackle in a single novel — you’d be right: it’s the premise of my Merchant Princes series, originally published from 2003 to 2009, and set in multiple parallel versions of 2001-2003. And in Empire Games I’m returning for a look at how those worlds have changed by 2020 – and a creepy surveillance state espionage thriller, because First Contact between time lines ended really badly in the first series, for Doctor Strangelove values of “bad”.

(But there were enough survivors for a sequel: and so …)

One of the themes I dug deep into in the first series was the question of why some cultures fail to develop a modern economy. The usual narrative about colonialism is only part of the explanation: while it’s indisputable that nations that fall under the boot-heel of an imperial power are exploited as sources of raw materials and captive markets, some other nations with access to huge amounts of wealth — the Middle East OPEC members spring to mind — are, if anything, too rich to develop: the rulers can buy anything they want from elsewhere, including enough guys with guns to keep the lower classes in their place.

In the first series, the Clan — a group of six extended families of world-walkers originating in a technologically backwards time line (of approximately mediaeval levels of development) — became wealthy in the United States because they could shift high value freight (like cocaine) across borders without fear of interception. In their own time line they became politically powerful, as the only people with a communications network that could get messages anywhere along the settled eastern coastline of North America in hours rather than weeks. But their very wealth proved problematic, because they could import any luxuries they wanted from the United States … at least, until the DEA caught on to them. They were caught in what economists call a development trap, a culture unable to progress because development would actually reduce the Clan members’ status relative to the other nobility in their own culture. (And they ultimately weren’t able to adapt and survive in the USA because they were descendants of an hereditary aristocracy — a social structure that isn’t terribly compatible with rapidly accelerating change.)

But Empire Games is set seventeen years after Clan conservatives inadvisably assassinated President Bush in the White House using a nuke stolen from the US inactive inventory: seventeen years after the news about parallel universes got out (leading to a brief Indo-Pakistani nuclear war and various geopolitical excitement that puts our just-past 2016 in the shade), and seventeen years after the USAF was ordered to send paratime-capable B-52s to nuke the Gruinmarkt — home of the Clan — until it glowed in the dark.

I mentioned survivors and development traps, didn’t I?

In the universe of Empire Games, the survivors of the Clan, led by Miriam Beckstein, went into exile in yet another time line — one in which the 18th century Enlightenment and the age of revolutions and democracy had stalled, leading to a world dominated by two superpowers: the New British Empire (capital: New London, on Manhattan Island) and the French Empire (capital: St Petersburg, in the French Russian Territories). The New British Empire has just lost a non-nuclear world war and experienced the sort of revolution that gives rise to the curse, “may you live in interesting times”, and Miriam, who is an inveterate meddler, is in deep with the leadership of the Radical Party in the newly-coalescing New American Commonwealth. Miriam has seen the development trap that the Gruinmarkt drove into up close and personal; she also knows that the US government have world-walking tech (extracted from the pureed brains of captured Clan members) and is going to stumble across them eventually.

With the rallying call, “The United States is Coming”, she convinces the revolutionary government to put her in charge of a Ministry of Intertemporal Technological Intelligence, with a remit to conduct industrial espionage on a scale not seen since the hey-day of the Soviet Union. Because, although the Commonwealth is relatively backward (not Victorian-age backward, as Miriam thought when she first discovered them, for the future is already here, just unevenly distributed: more 1940s-backward), its leaders understand the benefits of modernization and know they need it, to survive the inevitable oncoming clash of civilizations with the Ancien Regime over the water.

So in this new trilogy I get to ask, “given perfect foreknowledge of the next sixty years of technological development, a government on an emergency footing, and a budget, just how fast can you play catch-up?”

(Here’s a big clue: when the first US paratime reconnaisance drones arrive in Commonwealth skies, they get a series of very nasty surprises.)

If this trilogy was about nothing but economics you could be forgiven for yawning and saying “next”. But the dismal science is only part of the process. The post-paratime USA is a deeply traumatized place — imagine the psychological shock of 9/11 squared, then turn the dial up to 12 and break it off the control panel — and has gone deep into spooky surveillance state territory. The Department of Homeland Security is tasked with protecting the USA from all possible attacks from elsewhere in the multiverse, a new high water mark for agency mission creep. There are CCTV surveillance cameras on every city block, a national DNA database with random checkpoints testing swabs from anyone who can’t show biometric ID, cash is on the way out, and the act of taking your battery out of your smartphone is a suspicious act that justifies activating the bug built into the battery. On the other hand, monster trucks are in: with access to all the oil under all the uninhabited parallel universe versions of Pennsylvania and California, never mind Texas, and parallels just waiting to receive all the toxic waste and captured CO2, this isn’t a Solar City world.

It’s in this world that we meet Rita Douglas, an interracial child adopted by expat East Germans. She’s struggling to make a career as an actor, all other avenues having been inexplicably blocked (scholarships turned down, student loans unavailable): but despite her low profile, Rita is about to come to the attention of very important people. Because what they know (and she doesn’t) is that her birth mother was one Miriam Beckstein, the big government research labs have finally cracked the problem of how to activate the world-walking ability in someone who is an inactive carrier, and DHS has a perceived need for human field agents able to infiltrate hostile civilizations and report back …


Empire Games: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

28 Comments on “The Big Idea: Charles Stross”

  1. Man, as a Pakistani, it’s disturbing how often an Indo-Pak nuclear exchange gets casually tossed into the sci-fi list of ‘Oh, and this bad thing happened too’.. ;)

  2. By the way, when you and Charles Stross talk, do Puppies feel a disturbance in the Force? :)

  3. I didn’t like the Merchant Princess series anywhere near as his other stuff. After he ruined my favorite couple with “The Annihilation Score” though I’ve sworn off his work for a while ;)

  4. I have read a lot of Stross, and I really liked a lot about the Merchant Princes – until nuclear weapons were used. (At the same time a similar instance happened in a fantasy series by Modesitt – with a similar result for my reading) And since I’ve never been a fan of Chuthulu, I kind of stopped a different series of his. I will buy this book and see if I get back in.

  5. I had a tough time with the Merchant Princes books because I thought many of the characters were just too selfish and too stupid, and we didn’t get enough time with the ones who weren’t (Brill and Olga come to mind). I did want to see more of the other worlds, but we never saw much outside of the main 3.

  6. TL;DR Empire Games is AWESOME.

    The original Merchant Princes series was my intro to Stross’s longer works. Paul Krugman recommended it as an exploration of development economics married to a good story. It was a great spin on the parallel worlds trope. I liked the ideas, I liked the characters, and I liked the story (esp in the revised 3-volume version).

    Empire Games starts 17 years later. It has the same basic setting, some of the same characters, and some great new characters (Rita is great, but wait til you meet her grandfather). It answers some questions from the old series but raises many more. Stross has raised the ante on the ideas he explored in the original series. The America of more-or-less our time strikes home. The Commonwealth in this book is fascinating, as Stross explores the aftermath of revolutions. I can’t wait to see where he takes it.

    Stross changes his authorial voice between works. Empire Games is his thriller. It’s lean and polished, and jumps around a lot in both time and space. Stross fills in background without obvious exposition (no mean feat) so people who haven’t read the previous series shouldn’t hesitate to start here. You will go back and buy the previous series though.

    I haven’t completely figured out if I like the lean Stross. I like the richness of his usual world-building. But the leanness gives this book a lot of punch. What a wild ride!

  7. I was so-so about the initial Merchant Princes books, but the re-issued (and repaired) trilogy was a big improvement – so I put this one on my XMas list. A good choice, ’cause it’s a much better book than the others. Recommended.

  8. ‘…Paratime-capable B-52s…’ What better plane for time travel than one that has been flying for 60 years!

  9. In my review, I said this was serious science fiction by a master of his craft. And so it is.

  10. This is one of the first times I’ve actually read other books by someone featured in The Big Idea. It probably says more about me than the provenance of The Big Idea.

  11. an hereditary aristocracy — a social structure that isn’t terribly compatible with rapidly accelerating change
    Not always – think of Industrial Revolution England 1720 – 1851, where the aristocracy leapt into the process, because they could make lots of money at it.

    ( GT )

  12. Charlie Stross on Scalzi’s blog! Wow – isn’t crossing the streams supposed to be dangerous?

  13. I think the rejoined trilogy’s length spoiled me – I finished Empire Games in a weekend and now I’m left wanting more. I think my only complaint is there were a few threads that felt like they got started up and abruptly stopped – I assume they’ll be picked up again in the sequels. And there were some sections where it kept rapidly bouncing between timelines and I found it hard to keep track of the timeline I was exiting. But otherwise I think Charlie did a solid job of making it stand alone with minimal infodumping. Perhaps the Clan side of things got the short shrift in that exchange, but they’re not exactly the focus of the story this time around.

    So yah, well done on the self-promotion, Charlie; you managed to get me to read a book near release instead of when I finally got bored enough to cruise Amazon for newish releases.

  14. The other day I bit the bullet and ordered the newly revised Merchant Princes, after Charlie promised they were re-written, not just combined into 3 larger volumes from the original 6 smaller volumes. I’m half-way through the second volume, and he was truthful. The rewrite is very well done.

    He is a serious writer, and he spent time making the books tighter, excised much of the cruft, made the personalities more defined, etc. I like the 4 or 5 books I read of the original series well enough, the revised/combined 3 volume Merchant Princes series is great. I also have this 4th book, first of a new trilogy, on the bottom of the stack.

    I have decided to submerge into fiction to escape the grim reality of present day America. It seems to be helping.

  15. I like the Laundry Files books a lot too, I got the newer one of those in the same box…

    read it first!

  16. I liked it. I thought the original Merchant Princes were great for book 1 and 2, then they started to bog down. Maybe I need to read the re-write. Empire Games is more similar to the first two books. The underlying question of both societies is do they really have democracy? What exactly does that mean/ Who is really running the countries?

    Those parts seems particularly relevant this week. Shame we have to wait a year for the sequel :-(

  17. I’m a relative latecomer, I started with “Halting State” (what a great opening chapter) and then went back through the Eschaton books. I’ve been coming back around ever since; this past year I discovered the Laundry Files and they just might be my favorite yet. Starting the Merchant Princes from scratch now.

  18. I hope this is not too spoilerish, but there’s at least a fourth alternate time line that was visited in the Merchant Princes, that appeared to be a time line that had some permanent open portals between time lines. I’m hoping that it gets revisited at some point in the new series.

  19. Thanks a lot for this. I’m a huge fan of Charlie, but The Family Trade was the one book of his I’ve read that I didn’t like. Now I see that the universe is MUCH more interesting than I thought, and I’ll have to start over. As if I didn’t already have enough to read from both of you,

  20. I just wonder if the ‘Timeline 3 was not as Victorian as it looked. ‘ was intended from the beginning or a retcon. I like Mr Stross’ stuff greatly, but I’m leaning toward ‘retcon’, but on the third hand, as he’s built-up a large credit-balance with me I’m not too irritated by it if so.

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