Map of Blue Book Balloon

26 January 2017

Review - Empire Games

Image from
Empire Games (Empire Games, No 1)
Charles Stross
Tor UK, 26 January

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy via NetGalley.

One of my most anticipated books for 2017, Empire Games picks up the story of the world-walking Clan seventeen years on.

In Stross's multi-timeline Merchant Princes sequence (originally published as 6 books, collected as The Bloodline FeudThe Traders' War and The Revolution Trade) we saw the collision between the Clan and modern US society. It's 2020 in the four alternate timelines we saw in the earlier books. Not much is happening in Timeline 4 - subject to 2000 years of nuclear winter - or Timeline 1 - the Gruinmarkt, nuked by the US in 2003.

But lots is going on in a world close to ours, where the Department for Homeland Security is putting together a plan to pursue the Clan. And in that of the New American Commonwealth, where the Clan took refuge - and where Miriam has risen to a high position in the revolutionary government.

The players are ready. The board is laid out. The Empire Games begin.

It's very enjoyable and very readable. The main protagonist, Rita, has a heritage that, as we soon learn, makes her something of an outsider in a fiercely inward looking and distrustful society. Part of that's visible - her skin colour - part of it's less obvious. If you want a glimpse of the atmosphere in this book, look at the cover image above. Security cameras. Cars moving along, with little ID tags. A crosswire... the alternate US has become a panopticon state, everything and everybody surveilled in an effort to spot worldwalker activity. If you apparently don't fit in, you'd better work hard to keep your nose clean and your profile harmless.

Strangely, it's an atmosphere that makes Kurt feel very much at home. But then he's a defector from the former GDR, East Germany, and familiar with the ways of the Stasi. A comparison Stross makes very pointedly: but also one that enables a survivor with a good grasp of old-fashioned tradecraft and a developed geocaching hobby to achieve quite a bit under the radar. What part will Kurt play in this evolving story? We don't know yet, but I think he'll be important... not least because he's Rita's adoptive grandfather.

I quickly warmed to Kurt and Rita: they're both competent, serious players of the Empire Games. Indeed, I found this book as a whole pretty compelling from the start. In mode it closely resembles a technothriller, with a lot of patient exposition of methods, technologies and goals as Rita comes to the attention of the DHS who soon have plans for her. Beneath that, though, there's the portal fantasy setup of the Merchant Princes and behind that legend, something that begins to look very like hard(ish) SF. It's a credit to the writer that he manages to keep these balls - and more - in the air at once, while still spinning a very readable story, even though the first half of this is largely setup. Is that too much? For some authors/ stories perhaps, but not here. It's all fascinating and, as I said, very readable (and this is the first in a trilogy, so not disproportionate).

Above all, I think Stross has captured something about the atmosphere of the times. No, we haven't been attacked by extra-dimensional drug smugglers with a stolen nuke: but the drivers are there, the impetus towards surveillance ("if it only saves one life..." "if you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear..."), the converging technologies, the rising distrust of the strange, the stranger, the out-of-place ("if you see something, say something"). We're on a knife edge, and the shows one side on which we could fall.

There's also beautiful, inventive clever and, in places knowing writing, whether references to people vanishing into "night and mist", to the "white heat of a technological revolution", to a "Ministry of Intertemporal Technological Intelligence" (or MITI) directing tech progress in the parallel timeline or a sardonic reference to the American "Heimatschutzministerium" (doesn't that sound chilling?) We get blended Churchill and Picard ("Action This Day" combined with "make it so") and to end with, "And so Kurt Douglas... raised his baton to summon the Wolf Orchestra back to life, to play the cold war blues one last time."

It's a fast, compulsive and intelligent story, at once familiar and alien. Cracking good SF/ Fantasy/ thriller (take your pick) and I'd strongly recommend.

Do you need to have read Merchant Princes (in either  incarnation)? It would be helpful but is not not necessary - the essentials are given here (though those are very enjoyable books... so why wouldn't you want to read them?)

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