Sunday, 14 May 2017

Spoiler-Free Empire Games review (Charles Stross)

Any author whose works have garnered a total of seven Hugo nominations for best novel has to be seen as a potential nominee every time one of his books hits the shelves.

Charles Stross' latest novel, Empire Games, which landed in early January deserves every bit of consideration it's going to get this year.

Complicated set-up, worthwhile story


It's a taut, well-handled espionage novel set in a cold-war between two dimension-hopping governments in alternate versions of America. One version of America is much like a near-future version of our own, having only been disrupted by dimension-hopping nuclear terrorists in about 2006, the other is a semi-Victorian steampunk world whose government had ties to the aforementioned terrorists.

Despite the complexity of the setting — and the author's exploration of large themes of surveillance, government overreach and securitization — the actual prose of the book is engaging, fast-paced and light.

This is a very smart, nuanced, thoughtful book that reads like popcorn literature.

Merchant Princes - Part 7


But the fact that Empire Games is tied to previous Stross novels might count against it amongst Hugo voters.

Charles Stross
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With a few notable high-profile exceptions, Hugo voters haven't tended to nominate books that are part of a long-running multi-part story. (The Uplift War got a nomination in 1995, but two previous books in that universe had won the award.)

While Empire Games is set up as the first part of a trilogy, and stands well on its own, it is set in the same continuity as Stross' Merchant Princes series (none of which were Hugo nominees). Reading it with his other novels is a richer experience, but the overall quality of the work does not depend on those books.

Choices have consequences


One of the rewarding things about reading Charles Stross' more serious novels is the level of internal consistency he adheres to. In this book (and the Merchant Princes books overall), choices have consequences, and Stross does not shy away from unpleasant repercussions. There's no deus-et-machina, and once a rule is established in the narrative, it is unbroken.

The central premise — that there are many universes with different histories, and that there are ways to travel between these — is explored unflinchingly. The consequences of this premise are treated with seriousness and insight, and this is Stross' unique talent.

Give Empire Games a Hugo nomination please


Stross is long overdue for a win in the best novel category of the Hugos, but this book probably won't score it for him. Empire Games is Stross' most satisfying novel in about six years (probably since Rule 34), and in most years would probably be a strong contender for the top prize.

2017 is already a remarkable year for new SF novels, and the competition is going to be fierce, but Empire Games is definitely worth at least a Hugo nomination on what will be a crowded ballot.

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