Dark State is the second book in an exciting series in the same world as Charles Stross' Merchant Princes series, following Empire Games.
In the near-future, the collision of two nuclear superpowers across timelines, one in the midst of a technological revolution and the other a hyper-police state, is imminent. In Commissioner Miriam Burgeson’s timeline, her top level agents run a high risk extraction of a major political player. Meanwhile, a sleeper cell activated in Rita's, the Commissioner's adopted daughter and newly-minted spy, timeline threatens to unravel everything.
Charles David George "Charlie" Stross is a writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. His works range from science fiction and Lovecraftian horror to fantasy.
Stross is sometimes regarded as being part of a new generation of British science fiction writers who specialise in hard science fiction and space opera. His contemporaries include Alastair Reynolds, Ken MacLeod, Liz Williams and Richard Morgan.
This second (or eighth) novel in Stross's Merchant Princes universe is continuing the new and interesting tack that began in Empire Games.
First of all, some background. There's three alternate timelines and world-walkers, jaunters, and on our timeline, there's now tech that allows us to hop timelines and possibly exploit entire green Earths, not just the three inhabited ones.
All of this gets very sticky because we have a super-paranoid State, the United States of a slightly different our world that suffered a nuclear attack on the White House in a previous book, complete with near absolute surveillance. We have another timeline where the Merchant Princes were overthrown and a different United States (called the Commonwealth) is stealing tons of tech and trying to avoid the cultural upheavals related to it, trying to catch up and protect itself from an invading and/or espionage-heavy US. And then there's a Germanic empire that never ended but is a good hundred years behind the other two.
Actually, this is pretty much a straight Spy-Fiction novel with a fantastic base and multiple settings and very detailed historical references, inferences, and alternate timelines, all of which are explored and taken to their natural conclusions in a very smart, very impressive way.
Two timelines have nuclear power and deep distrust with each other, and they share the same soil. That's pretty wicked.
This book ramps up those concerns even as we get to know all the players better. The tension only gets worse with shifting political tides in the Commonwealth and a real tangle with lies and statecraft with the old empire. It's an impressively thought-out tangle, and anyone with a thought to intrigue and alternate worlds really ought to pick up this series. :)
I always look forward to Stross's books, and I've been following his stories of world walkers since the start of the Merchant Princes sequence (in its original, six volume, form). So this is the 8th book in that series I have read, and I'm glad to be able to say that Stross is successfully keeping the books fresh, while engaging with events whose seeds were sown right back at the start.
He's done this by successively widening the scope. We began with one woman, Miriam Beckstein (now Burgeson) who originates in what looked then like "our" timeline and her discovery of her place in the relatively parochial, parallel timeline kingdom called the Gruinmarkt as part of its "world-walking" Clan. Over the original series the story broadened from fantasy-like beginnings to a technothrillery narrative which took in nuclear terrorism, drug dealing and ultimately revolution (in a third, steampunkish timeline).
Empire Games, the first part of this new trilogy, went further, into the world of superpower rivalries (both within and between timelines), revolutionary politics, and counter-espionage. Dark State develops that, while also bringing to the fore the possibility of conflict with a scarily advanced civilisation from yet another timeline - one which would make events so far look like neighbours arguing over an unruly hedge. That may come in book three, or be the focus of a future trilogy - let's wait and see.
So much for context. What is Dark State like? As with the previous volumes, it's an assured, well-written story about competent people playing for high stakes. Rita Douglas, the daughter Miriam put up for adoption and who was brought up by Franz and Emily Douglas, is proving a capable agent for Homeland Security although the clash between the personal and the political is about to hit her hard. She has an additional resource to draw on in being part, via her adoptive parents, of the Wolf Orchestra, an East German spy ring stranded after the end of the Cold War. In Empire Games Kurt put the Orchestra on standby and now it's tuning up to play a final symphony.
Rita's counterparts in the New American Commonwealth (across several factions) and the regime in exile of the pseudo British kings are equally effective, making this book a game of chess played between very high ranking players. Almost everything is on the board from the start (Stross does reserve a few pieces) and the way the games goes very much reflects the character of the protagonists. By that I mean that while one's first impression is that Stross is doing a lot of telling not showing, that isn't in fact the case - what these people do is who they are, so we are learning about how a well imagined and diverse set of characters see their world(s).
For example, we have Elizabeth Hanover, a doubly exiled princess brought up among emigres and dreamers in Europe, apparently a minor piece on the board but very much taking her fate in her own hands. By the end of this book we have a clear picture of her and Stross is obviously reserving a big part for her in Book 3. If Merchant Princes was in part about deconstructing the "exiled nobility" trope in fantasy, Dark State takes that to a whole new level since Elizabeth is, literally, exiled nobility - in fact royalty - but won't be defined by that. In what may be a two fingered gesture to SFF conservatives, Stross explicitly makes Elizabeth and Rita women of colour (and yes, the context of the story totally allows for that).
Given Dark State's focus on espionage, tradecraft and general chicanery, it's not surprising that a lot of space is dedicated to surveillance (and how to mitigate it). All of the protagonists are playing this game on different levels to such a degree that tiny advantages or disadvantages make a big difference in the outcomes. It's clever, engaging, well thought through and fun to read (as well as potentially useful - "every phone was, by definition, a wireless bugging device", "orient, observe, and decide before you act"). I do have a slight reservation which is that we get something close to a stalemate: it all rather cancels out and the resulting plot turns in a number of key places on essentially chance developments. But maybe that's just true to life! ("The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but time and chance happeneth to all...")
There's a wider point beyond this. Dark State is a world - a universe - a set of universes - which make political points about such matters as democracy, economic development, and the surveillance society. Stress has thought long and hard about this stuff (as readers of his blog will be aware) and offers plausible, and often troubling, conclusions. For example, the New American Commonwealth is about to lose its First Man (its equivalent of its President, although it's more of a "guardian of the revolution" role). Will a newly established democracy manage this transition or will factional rivalry turn into civil war?
The author gives us few outright heroes or villains: I would have said "no" but there is Rita's boss Col Smith who seems to have been responsible for the nuking of the Gruinmarkt in Merchant Princes. We may sympathise with the survivors of the Clan because they're Miriam's people, but they are, as one sceptical figure here notes, an aristocratic-minded sect within an egalitarian society (in the same way as they formed a state-within-a-state in the Gruinmarkt). At the beginning of the book Stross illustrates, using the Wolf Orchestra as an example, how such a sect can survive and keep itself safe within a wider society. He's essentially set up a situation where an alternate timeline (the New American Commonwealth) introduced as an apparent refuge for the world-walkers when their own was nuked by the US becomes itself an active and interesting project which the reader will want to see survive, Clan or no. Given Col Smith's record that seems an iffy proposition and if I were one of the Clan's opponents in the Commonwealth, I'd be pointing out that the hostility from the US is primarily directed at the Clan and that they might be becoming dangerous guests...
Individuals may be in shades of grey but there is however a clear denunciation of the extent to which, in this timeline, Ubiquitously Surveilled America has descended into an authoritarian state: the Fourth Amendment is a dead letter, one character here is spirited away into "night and mist" (and may face "destructive debriefing and recycling), we're told that "everything is terrorism these days: downloading, uploading, jaywalking with intent to cause fear", a sinister sounding "Defense of Marriage Act" is in force. At one point, visiting a club with Angie, Rita welcomes "the comfort of public affirmation, of having a lover whose hand she could openly hold (at least in safe spaces like this), of having someone she could get sweaty on the dance floor with and who would take her home afterwards..." It's an excellent flash of personal experience and anguish to juxtapose against the grand themes of politics and espionage, even if we suspect Angie may find herself used by the spooks as leverage to control Rita.
The US Administration here is also riddled with conspiracy theorists, adherents of fringe religions and so forth, so much so that Rita is tasked, alongside obtaining valuable intelligence about the Commonwealth, with verifying a whole range of bizarre beliefs and theories the need to pander to which hinder Col Smith's operation at times (contrary to popular belief, fascism is not "efficient", and Stross highlights this in passing).
Some of this is genuinely funny, and as ever, Stross also makes the reader smile knowingly at some of his references: in this world, Ruritania is apparently a real country (one can travel to Strelsau but Elizabeth would rather not), there's mention of the "game of Empires" which must go one better than one of thrones, a Slaveowners' Treasonous Rebellion which was NOT THE SAME AT ALL as the US Civil War (even if it it is an excellent description...), there's a warning against curiosity because it is "felicidal" (think about it!), we have Brilliant unironically echoing Bogart when she says "Play it again... Play it Sam". More soberingly, there's a description in the historical Appendix of what happened after the French invasion of Britain which placed customs barriers on the canal system, "breaking up what had hitherto been the largest free trade zone in Europe" and causing economic disaster. (Hmmm...)
To sum up: this is an intelligent, sharp SF-espionage-thriller which nails some dark tendencies in present day politics and use of tech while building up an even more nightmarish threat in the depths of the timelines. Strongly recommended.
Stross's America from timeline #2 is the scariest distopia that I believe that I've read because it's so firmly anchored in our own reality. Just one additional big terrorist attack in 2003 (i.e. the previous Family Trade books) & the country went full-on Authoritarian Police state by 2020.
Was frustrated when the Appendix hit because I was not ready for the book to be over with the cliffhanger it had. After calming down, I found Stross's history of Timeline #3's differences to our own a FASCINATING breakdown of the role of taxation, trade, and timing in controlling the fate of nations. and of COURSE he made Scotland the crux of the change. :)
Picking right up where Empire Games left off, Rita the world-walker is back in her home America. Her handlers are slightly disturbed that she was picked up so quickly and the message that she has returned with has allsorts of ominous overtones. The politics of that country are beginning to crack as the health of the leader reaches a certain point, and Miriam Burgeson sees that there might be an opportunity to get a high-profile defector on her side and diffuse the situation.
After an intense debriefing and an all to short reunion with her lover, Rita is sent back into the other America to begin negotiations with Miriam; to be wrong-footed totally as she reveals that she is Rita's mother. Another group from Rita's world have discovered another timeline with what looks to be the remains of another civilisation. Quite an advanced civilisation too, but their presence there has been noticed by the very thing that destroyed who was there before.
To say this is fast-paced would be an understatement, I crashed through this in very little time at all, so much so that I almost went flying past the cliffhanger(s) at the end of the book. He neatly tied up some of the threads up from Empire Games but has blown the whole lot open now for the third book. The multiple plots duck and dive and intertwine making this sharp and spikey mash-up of a sci-fi and espionage thriller a great read. Stross has added a political dimension to it too with the interplay between the states in Miriam's world, and the manoeuvring that is taking place in Rita's world. The third is looking like it is going to be great.
Charles Stross remains true to form in the middle entry of the Empire Games trilogy. I'm trying to review everything I read this year, which puts me in the awkward position of reviewing a single book far into the series.
I definitely find myself preferring Empire Games to the Merchant Princes series, mostly because, while well written and still enjoyable, the medieval court intrigue just wasn't quite as much my cup of tea, though it might benefit from a re-reading now that I know what twists to expect, I might get more out of it.
I also enjoy it more because it feels like the characters have more agency and less simply stumbling from one situation to another with inadequate information.
Stross's world building remains top notch, the characters are competent and coherent, and it never feels like it drags.
If you like Stross's stuff, you'll like this. My only complaints are typical of his work, despite the book being a good length it always feels short, in the sense of leaving you really wanting more, and I really wish there was more time spent dwelling in the weirdly-approaching-utopic socialist steampunk (or...diesel punk? Atompunk? I don't know) timeline, just because I find it quite pleasant, literally dwelling in the day to day life there, but that would both defeat the pacing of the book and basically just be padding, even if I'd enjoy it.
Don't bother reading this one if you haven't read Empire Games. If you DID read Empire Games, and enjoyed it, then you definitely want this one. It's maybe a little technical-stuff heavy, there is one self-evidently lolarious coincidence that I saw coming, and it ends on a cliffhanger, but I think this is basically a solid middle book in this series. I want to know what happens next!
(Mostly because I love Rita and Angie. RITAAAAAAAAA.)
Another cliffhanger ending with an info dump at the very last to fool you into thinking there might be hope of at least an intermediate resolution of some of the many threads. Wait for the last book before reading this series, Stross tosses a bucket of balls in the air and expects you to track them all over a two year publishing cycle.
This was the second or the eight book in two different series although I didn't know that going into it. But the story hooked me right away anywho. I kept forgetting to finish the audiobook but whenever I did I had a hard time putting it down. Apparently I got the memory of a goldfish that made me taking so long to finish
This is the second book in the Empire Games trilogy, which is itself a loose continuation of the earlier "Merchant Princes" series. Stross is applying his fearsome imagination to a scenario of alternate timelines where a limited number of people are able to switch between worlds. Being Stross, this isn't a facile "but what if Hitler won?" scenario but a deep exploration of how small differences in technology and politics could have had spectacular effects. Also, being Stross, having come up with this scenario he's doing his best to let his characters push the boundaries and see where it all breaks down.... In Dark State, an alternate version of the US, justifiably paranoid due to being nuked by worldwalkers from another world, are in a cold parawar with both their attackers - the Merchant Princes of the first series - and then the more-backward but rapidly industrialising world that some of them fled to. In that timeline the worldwalkers are applying their knowledge to encouraging rapid industrialisation and political change, in the knowledge that the US will find them, and indeed now that the US know about worldwalkers they are using their tech advantage to science the shoot(!) out of the situation and take an advantage. Where this series really shines is in examining how society, tech and politics interact to create our own world by showing us shadows of what could have been, all wrapped up in a technothriller package.
Stross, Charles. Dark State. Empire Games No. 2. Tor, 2018. Historical fiction is usually based on a “what if” premise. In 1814, Sir Walter Scott asked in Waverly what if we could see the Jacobite Rebellion through the eyes of a romantic young man. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court Mark Twain asked what if Yankee ingenuity and materialism were introduced into Medieval culture. Twain’s time traveler, though, does not affect the flow of history. In Alternate histories, science fiction writers ask how world history would be different if, for example, the South won the American Civil War. Harry Turtledove has made a career writing such books. In the Empire Games series, Charles Stross complicates the alternate history premise by positing a multiverse of slightly different timelines that interact with and change one another. But in the end, Stross Is not much interested in what happens to history when elements of it are changed. In fact, in Dark State he relegates most of the historical exposition to a long Appendix. What interests him more than the historical differences between the timelines in his multiverse sandbox are the similarities among them. Bureaucracy, he says, is always with us, and it always screws up, whatever the timeline. Whether it is monarchical game of thrones or deep-state American spies, or East German cold war spies, or the remnants of his ruthless merchant clan, the game is the same. History, he suggests, may be bunk, but it is always dangerous bunk.
Obviously, there’s a lot more action to come in this series. I very much enjoyed the first of these books last year and this follow-up didn’t disappoint. It’s a very cleverly-plotted series without a doubt.
A bit confused. Too many story-lines and not enough progress on any of them nor enough depth. And in the end nothing was resolved. But lots of potential. I wish we got to know the pov characters more. The next book looks pretty set up though so might be quite a bit better. 3.5 of 5.
I really wanted to score this higher than three stars. I've enjoyed pretty much everything that Stross has written and this is still excellent quality.... but every single plot thread was left on a cliff hanger ending. I am normally happy when authors that I enjoy write multi-book series. But they generally give us some sense of closure at the end of each book. Please close off a sub-plot or two while leaving the overall arc open. Otherwise readers like me will not buy books until the whole series is finished.
Interesting twist. I think that this will, in time, be recognized as one of the better works of sci fi ever made (as a series, if and when he completes it). It takes a premise, one that's even been done before, and runs with it in a way that never has. Most importantly, the sequel didn't suck, which seems to be some sort of litmus test for how good an idea really is (IME). I'll be waiting on baited breath for a full year for the next one.
Great follow up to the first book in the series. Dark State takes what was outlined in Empire Games and piles on the layers of political intrigue and cross-world high stakes drama as we get more of Elizabeth Hanover's story as a princess in exile and a continuation of Rita Douglas's growing involvement as a world walker working under duress for a secret agency operating out of the Department of Homeland Security in a timeline that has diverged from our own.
Charles Stross does a great job of combining both parallel worlds and alternate history in this series. While I didn't read the earlier Merchant Family series that preceded this more modern one that also involves world walking, I did read the first book of this series Empire Games prior to this. Dark State included a primer at the beginning catching the reader up on the background of Empire Games and outlining the main players. The book also includes a substantial historical analysis as a coda to explain the divergent points in the other primary timeline involved in the story. While an interesting deep dive into the history of the formation of the UK and its impact on the evolution of British North America, it sadly ignored the British involvement (and what would have been different) in what would eventually become Canada.
Would definitely recommend. Looking forward to the third book in the series.
This is a bridge novel; Stross's book series usually go through a three-volume format: book one introduces the main characters, book two gets them into place, and book three is where everything hits the fan. Most of this volume is all about getting the pieces into their places. There's not a whole lot of action, just a lot of conversation and politics (especially in regards to Rita). All of that is interesting but not particularly motivating. But then the last 50 pages of this book... everything starts paying off, and we get several major set piece action moments, one of which was almost completely unexpected (but still earned). Stross has put a lot of thought into the ways his worlds diverge (there's a 20-page afterword that breaks down the divergent events between World 2 and World 3 into perhaps too much detail), and it's fascinating how compelling he has made all of these worlds, that just existing in them can keep readers invested, even before the big action sequences take off. It's going to be a tough wait for the next volume.
Oh, I like where this is going, sliding from the boring old portal fantasy it began as ages ago, through econ-fi, post-cyberpunk and spy-fi to straight up . Now I just have to cross my fingers, wait for the end of the month and hope this new trilogy doesn’t crap its pants in the end like the first set of books did.
Still really enjoying this series. I like (for values of like including "enjoy reading about" but definitely not including "hope to see some day") the elements of parallel-America-as-a-high-tech-police-state. And the elements of old-school coldwar-era spycraft. And the whole convoluted parallel-history Europe. And the stories of Rita and her birth-mother and her grandfather and them all meeting and being a bit screwed up but eventually coping, etc.
(You knew there was a "but" in here somewhere, didn't you?)
I had some serious credulity problems with this book. I had to consciously will some of this suspension of disbelief, in order to get back to the stories that I was enjoying. A major plotline in this book is the defection of Princess Elizabeth, via world-walking agents. And, as near as I can tell, that entire plotline should have gone more or less like this:
Elizabeth wakes in the middle of the night, in her private room at the well-guarded boarding house where she lives. Did she hear a noise? Wait, what's this? A note on the bedspread? "If you truly mean to leave, come to the bathroom without saying a word, stand on the box and hold my hand. You will have the opportunity to discuss terms and return if they are not acceptable." ... Elizabeth gasped to find herself standing on a scaffold in the midst of a forest. The shrouded figure who had somehow transported her here from her own bath-chamber spoke: "Here are the terms of our offer for asylum and citizenship; if you have specific requests I have limited ability to alter them, but know that our First Man has been briefed and agreed to these terms in advance. Please make your decision quickly; I can have you back in your room again without anyone knowing if you decide not to come, but the longer we take the more likely it becomes that your guards will notice." ... "Yes," Elizabeth said, and the man smiled. "I hoped you'd say that," he said, and waved to a man at the base of the scaffold, who promptly disappeared. Before she could even comment on this, she was distracted by suddenly finding herself in shadow; looking up, she saw an enormous dirigible had appeared over her head. "Here's our ride," said the man...
Look, there is absolutely no reason given in the book (that I caught, anyways) why Our Hero chooses to:
a) not consult his head of state before undertaking this highly-political mission. His documented approval would have defused the entire internal politics issue in advance. b) not take any backup with him, which would have removed the issue with him being the single point-of-failure and then getting injured. c) chose to do the extraction through the highly-populated, highly-technological, highly-observed, and highly-hostile earth of the USA, for no readily apparent reason and against all sense, instead of... d) doing the extraction through the deserted wilderness that is the world _that he has to go through in the middle anyways_, the extra jump adding great personal danger. And using for transportation... e) the bloody great world-travelling dirigible that the series goes to great length to point out that he has available at his beck-and-call.
Seriously? He's extracting a willing defector from 50's-era technology using 2020's-era cutting-edge national security level technology _and_ the ability to undetectably teleport to parallel universes, and he _still_ manages to get caught? This guy is the lamest spy _ever_. It is constantly repeated to us both how much extra effort this takes to world-walk twice, to get from Elizabeth's world to that of the USA, _and_ how dangerous it is to be in that world. So why go? Am I supposed to just not notice that? I really tried! But the book kept ramming it down my throat til I nearly choked!
Still, for all my ranting and raving, it _is_ an enjoyable read if you can get past the fact that the world-walkers don't appear to have spent 5 minutes (in the last couple of centuries of their history) thinking about how world-walking works.
Better than its predecessor, "Empire Games" (Merchant Princes #7) this book at least moves the plot along a bit. We are left hanging at the end and various sub-plots appear to have nothing to do with the mainline plot of this or previous novels. The third in this sub-series (due January 2019, we're told) will be masterful if it's to tie off the various sub-plots. For it to explain away the plot and factual inconsistencies to date would be a ridiculous expectation.
Like its predecessor this novel is unedited and struggles with plot and in-story consistency. It suffers again from Stross's politics, which were absent from the first "fantasy" novels in the series, to those novels' great benefit.
Again, only read if you have a strong ability to suspend disbelief, can tolerate the many inconsistencies, don't throw books (or e-readers) at the wall and can tolerate Stross's politics, which aren't toned down a lot here but are more limited in impact than in the previous novel and certainly don't descend to the political allegory of #6, "The Trade of Queens" where my hardback copy did hit the wall.
A book to borrow from your library, not to buy. It will not withstand re-reading as the inconsistencies will bite.
(Why did I read this book? I'd been unable to resist a chance to read its predecessor, which lifted the series back to mediocrity from the abysmal #6, "The Trade of Queens".)
A very promising series which jumped the shark, but which author and publisher must have figured had good enough sales figures for a go-through-the-motions low-cost effort to continue. I guess everyone needs to pay the rent one way or another so can't really blame them, but wish this novel were up to Stross's old standard. (I could live with the distasteful politics, even, if the novel were of professional standard.)
My Rating Scale: 1 Star - Horrible book, It was so bad I stopped reading it. I have not read the whole book and wont 2 Star - Bad book, I forced myself to finish it and do NOT recommend. I can't believe I read it once 3 Star - Average book, Was entertaining but nothing special. No plans to ever re-read 4 Star - Good Book, Was a really good book and I would recommend. I am Likely to re-read this book 5 Star - GREAT book, A great story and well written. I can't wait for the next book. I Will Re-Read this one or more times.
Number of times read: 1
This might be good, but I don't have the mental energy to try and follow it.
Characters - They might be good, but the amount of mental energy it takes to follow this is way more than I am willing to invest.
Story - It might be good, but the amount of energy it would take to follow this book is more than I am willing to commit too.
Overall - This is not my type of book. I want a good story that entertains me. I am not looking for something that requires me to stay 110% focused the entire read.
Tazke rozhodovanie medzi 4 a 5* :) Tato kniha mi pride ako to (naj?)lepsie od Strossa. Paralelne vesmiry s rozlicnymi urovnami pokroku, steampunkova amerika snaziaca sa predbehnut tu nasu (z ktorej je NAOZAJ policajny stat), neznama hrozba, ktora z jednej Zeme urobila malicku ciernu dieru... Tato posledna trilogia vyvolava miestami ozveny serie "Dlha zem" (cital som prve tri diely) od Pratchetta a Baxtera. Dokonca by som si trufol povedat, ze je mozne, ze povodne knizky Vladcov obchodu ciastocne inspirovali Dlhu zem a nasledne tato inspirovala niektore aspekty Empire games... Iritujuci je cliffhanger (aj preto, ze datumovo "nalinkovane" diely laundry serie mali citelne nizsiu kvalitu). Uz len pockat na paperback tretieho dielu a...uvidime (edit: pozeram na toto a asi netradicne vezmem hardback). Do tohto bodu trilogiu jednoznacne odporucam, aj ked vzhladom na previazanost sa skor jedna o jednu knihu rozdelenu na tri casti.
Amazing. I started reading the Merchant Princes series a decade ago and it is getting better and better. The first book, The Family Trade, was good but not spectacularly so. If was only after the first six books got republished as a trilogy that I got hooked. This series is spectacular in its complexity: different timelines (parallel universes), science fiction, espionage, (nuclear) war, political thriller, a bit of romance, factions within factions, aliens, ... The only downside is that I probably will have to reread this book before starting on the next one in the series (to be published in 2019).
Reread it in 2022 which was a very good idea because the publication of the third volume was delayed from 2019 to 2021. You cannot expect me to remember all the intrigues and characters from a novel this complex.
Fascinated by Mr. Stross' worlds and very much afraid that the US is definitely headed in this direction. Sometimes it's difficult to tell whether Stross is exaggerating, making things up, or just reporting on the way things are. It sounds as if everyone is trying to make sure proper talks take place but things keep moving as if there is an inevitability to things. The book ends with nothing resolved, dangerous events about ready to blow up, the princess in danger, and nothing resolved. Boo, hiss! It's a long time till November.
Charles Stross is a writer producing very readable and enjoyable books and this continuation of the Traders Clan is no exception. Unfortunately, the book terminates partway through the stories of its protagonists and now, annoyingly, I have to wait till the next instalment arrives. That explains the rating.
Two books into the series and despite loving the world, I can’t continue reading it. Two whole books and nothing has happened. It seems like there’s unlimited buildup without any payoff. I’m fascinated with the premise but the lack of movement in the plot prevents me from enjoying it.
Let's begin with Varley's Slow Apocalypse: it's present-time or near-future science fiction. As fiction -- as a novel/story -- it's nothing too special. (You might say it's...ahem...nothing to write home about.) But the "science" part is brilliant: it made me think about the world around me, about our civilization's dependence on fossil fuels, and how technology and science influence and are influenced by our society. That part of the book has really stayed with me.
Stross' Merchant Princes books are just as good on the "science" part as Varley's book and much better with the "fiction" part. I would characterize the "fiction" part as a typical spy thriller, brilliantly executed.
For the science part, Stross has set up a world in which you can start from the 9/11 terrorist attacks and subsequent erosion of civil liberties (or: preservation of our freedom and safety, depending on your point of view) and push it even further. More pervasive and effective surveillance technology; more power for the government. (As The Onion put it: more freedoms curtailed in defense of liberty.) As Slow Apocalypse makes you think about climate change, the Merchant Princes series makes you think about civil liberties, geopolitics, and democracy.
A couple thoughts on the particulars:
Stross started this series in the wake of 9/11 during the George W. Bush administration, and reading those books in 2019 and 2020, I was struck by how quaint and nostalgic those times seem now. Yikes! Remember the protests against going to war with Iraq? Remember the "worst president ever" googlebomb for George W. Bush? Remember how shocked we were about the Patriot Act? I look back at those times and they now seem quaint and nostalgic -- and am shocked to find myself thinking of them as quaint and nostalgic. How far we've come.
It's also interesting to contrast the real 2020 with the 2020 of Dark State. In Stross' world, it's governments that are surveilling and tracking people; in our 2020, it's corporations -- Facebook, Google, Tencent, and the like. But: what's the difference? Think of the Russian government sponsoring groups that make fake Facebook ads trying to control the outcome of US elections. Think of China, where the distinction between companies like Huawei, the government, and the Communist party is very fuzzy.