Charles Stross has been enriching our lives with his (predominantly) SFnal tales for over 15 years now, and is thankfully showing no intention to slow down. His articles on antipope.org are as thought-provoking as his fiction output is entertaining, never mind his scintillating presence when put in front of a microphone, or a few pints (or both…).
Empire Games is the first book in a new series of apparently the same name, set in his Merchant Princes universe. Now, I have so far avoided these books (6 novels or 3 omnibus editions, respectively) for reasons of time and inclination due to the original topic, so am coming at this with a ‘clean’ background. So, although Charlie considers this be a viable jumping-on point - any misunderstandings below concerning the setting are obviously mine, and most likely due to this; but feel free to point them out to me!
The other books in the series are expected in January 2018 (Dark State), and January 2019 (Invisible Sun) - I shall be looking out for them!
The setting, for those who are like me not familiar with the universe this plays in: There is more than one world - there actually are, most likely, an infinitive number thereof. It’s explained to Rita Douglas, our main protagonist, as follows: “Let’s just say we live in a multiverse - a bundle of parallel universes branching off each other. The vast majority are identical but for some quantum uncertainty, and they keep merging and re-emerging. But there are sheaves of parallels where the differences add up to something we can tell apart. A huge number of such sheaves exist, and we call them time lines.”
There are ways to move from one such time line into another - some humans can do it (we learn that this is an engineered ability, and not natural), and the USA have machines that can do this, too, rumoured to use ‘donated’ brain cells from captured world walkers.
The book plays across (only) four of these time lines, helpfully labeled Time Line One-Four. Time Line One is the Merchant Princes one, I understand, with the Gruinmarkt as the home to the Clan of world walkers. This was nuked into oblivion by the US in retribution for a world walker blowing up the White House with a nuke.
Time Line Two is a derivative of what we live in, except that it branches out in 2003 with the discovery of the world walkers, and an escalating cycle of retribution leading to the abovementioned events. Any parallels with subsets of foreigners going bonkers, spoiling it for everyone, and causing completely over-reaching knee-jerk reactions are, of course, entirely coincidental. Also - the US in the story is a massive surveillance society, taking large strides toward the full Panopticon set. And people are accepting the escalating trade of any kind of privacy for ‘security’. Again, no obvious parallels with the world we live in…
Time Line Three is an earlier branch off ours, and less developed. Some fugitives from the Gruinmarkt inferno have settled here, and are working hard at accelerating the societal and technological development with the aim of being ready when the US arrives in pursuit. Which is about now… but the time line has its own politics and empire-building going on.
Time Line Four is in not inhabited, and in the grip of an ice age. But it also contains the ruins of an earlier, and far more advanced civilisation, which was wiped off the face all the time lines they inhabited by a foe. Disquieting, to put it mildly…
The story kicks off with Rita Douglas being recruited by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for a highly specific and initially very unspecified role. The way this is done is classic Secret Squirrel stuff, with all the shell games this entails, leaving Rita without any idea of whom to trust or believe. The reader knows more, or at least is given more information, as we are provided with the history and the behind-the-scenes tour, so we indeed know much more. Unless we also have games played with us, of course… there is some classic misdirection of the reader evident - caveat, or you’ll re-read as you are made to make assumptions and are being led down the garden path occasionally.
I’m also glad to see that Charlie has not gone off the heavy foreshadowing. Besides the usual ominous statements outlining what consequences will be we also have background information like transcripts of the conference calls between Rita’s handlers and her/their betters.
Whilst I felt that some of it actually spoilt my enjoyment of the story being told (as all I did was wait for the other shoe to drop) I also noticed that it raised the tension for the action sequences, though. A bit like the background/mood music in films, then!
I found the setup interesting, inasmuch as that the main protagonist is American, and has just been recruited to their forces to help protect the country from the crimes of the world walkers. But. The US of A are so not being presented as the Good Guys, here. Never mind the use they put the world walking technology to - import fossil fuels from other time lines, and export the emissions...
Then again, most people seem to be playing games and have hidden agendas. For example, the world walkers hiding in Time Line three are, behind the scenes, doing ‘Family Business’, even in exile, even whilst accelerating the Commonwealth's technological and societal development. And they are not the only ones, either - most people seem to be playing Empire Games, indeed!
It’s also great to see that, besides the rather acerbic treatment of the US (and most other players in the various threads), Charlie still has his trademark humour and wit, which occasionally shines through, eg: “...the Internet of Things that Leak Personal Information…” was a howler.
What else can I tell you about this SF Spy Thriller? The book provides a lot of background information to make it easier to pick up without having read the previous 6 books (thanks!) - we get a run through the Main Time Lines, Main Character Profiles, the actual story, an Afterword (nominally an extract from a future Bruce Schneier book), the Principal Cast List, and a Glossary of Terms (this helps a lot with the DHS alphabet soup). Also, to help the reader not to get overly lost, every chapter is titled with the time line it plays in, the date (as these sometimes jump), and the location.
Less geeky than the Laundry series, but highly enjoyable, so much recommended; for Stross fans as well as for aficionados of Spy Thrillers.
More Charles Stross
Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.
Title: Empire Games
Series: Empire Games
Series Number: 1/3
Author: Charles Stross
Reviewer URL: http://thierstein.net
Publisher URL: http://www.panmacmillan.com
Publication Date: 26 Jan 2017
Review Date: 170309
Topic: Parallel Worlds
Topic: Spy Thriller