Friday, 1 October 2021

The Best Laid Plans Of Paratime Mice

Over the course of six volumes and almost a million words, Charles Stross’s Merchant Princes series has careened rapidly from one genre to the next. The series has at times been a portal fantasy, a crime drama, a nuclear thriller, a steampunk subterfuge, and finally an alien invasion tale. The series has been many things, but predictable is not one of them.

Wrapping up the Empire Games
trilogy,  Charles Stross has delivered
his most satisfying novel in about
eight years. 
(Image via Goodreads)
The series wrapped up this month — possibly for good — with the release of Invisible Sun, a much-delayed but ultimately satisfactory conclusion. This is a book that many longtime fans will welcome, and serves as a good argument for why new readers should give the series a go.

Invisible Sun kicks off with a simmering feud between alternate versions of America, connected by paratime travel (between timelines). In one America, a steam-punk democratic revolution is struggling with a succession crisis, while in the other America (one more similar to our own), the post-9/11 War on Terror has metastasized into a relentless surveillance state. While part of the story involves a covert extradition mission from the surveillance state world, another part of the story involves back-channel diplomacy to avoid nuclear war. Simultaneously, both worlds have to confront a threat posed by a far-advanced and ancient evil race from a third timeline.

It’s a lot to juggle, and our main criticism of the book would be that at times, some of these plotlines receive short shrift. That being said, we appreciate a narrative structure that is stronger than many of the previous Merchant Princes books. Specifically, Invisible Sun doesn’t derail its readers.

Because often, these books do go off the rails with unforeseen problems cropping up for the protagonists. One could even describe the series as an exercise in subverting expectations. It seems as if two or three times per book, the point-of-view protagonist (Miriam Beckstein in books 1-3, and Rita Douglas in books 4-6) concocts seemingly well-thought-out plans … only for things to go sidewise.

As a reader, having your expectations subverted is often a lot of fun, and Stross is an expert at doing so in a way that feels natural and believable. At its best, this series offers surprises that once revealed seem like the natural consequences of the setting and of choices made by the protagonists.

And this lack of predictability has been both the strength, and the pitfall of these books. Unlike the
Laundry Files — Stross’ other long-running and Hugo-shortlisted series — The Merchant Princes never gets overly familiar or in a rut.

It's difficult to think of another
series that could start somewhere
like Nine Princes in Amber, and 
end in The Sum Of All Fears.
(Image via Goodreads)
But after five books, the trick of subverting expectations can grow wearying. There’s only so many rugs that can be pulled out from under the reader before the trick becomes stale. The directness of Invisible Sun, the more streamlined nature of the denouement, and the lack of shocking revelations and surprises is … actually quite welcome.

We would note that the final 20 pages of the final book does feel somewhat rushed. All the denouement, all the resolution, are jammed into as few words as possible. It feels almost as if after writing a million words in the series, the author just wanted to be over and done with it. And maybe so do we.

The entire book club read the first book in the series, with somewhat mixed reactions, but as of yet, only two of us have read the complete series. Those who made it past the first book were enthusiastic about the unpredictability of Stross’ imagination. Re-reading the entire series back-to-back, it becomes clear just how much Stross has evolved as a wordsmith and as a crafter of narrative structures.

The Merchant Princes is a series that accomplishes a lot in six books; offering a reassessment of classic portal fantasies, delving into development economics, examining the tension between safety and privacy, and exploring ideas about how democracies come into existence and wither over time. At its best, there was no better contemporary long-running science fiction series. And by offering it a definitive conclusion, Stross has provided an opportunity to assess it in fullness.

We hope to see it on the Hugo Award ballot for best series, and if it does will likely rank it highly.

1 comment:

  1. "Chick lit" is another category for at least the first few books (I dropped out). Did I actually witness the conversation unfold on Usenet where Stross was stunned and then accepted that the label fit, or are my mangled memories substituting that for merely someone reporting there (rec.arts.sf.written?) first-hand that they'd seen it? -- ConFigures