A few notes on Charles Stross’s fictions

Charles Stross. Singularity Sky (2003).
Charles Stross. The Atrocity Archives (2004).
Charles Stross. The Jennifer Morgue (2006).
Charles Stross. Missile Gap (2006).
Charles Stross. Glasshouse (2006).
Charles Stross. Halting State (2007).
Charles Stross. The Merchant Princes Books One to Six: The Family Trade (2004), The Hidden Family (2005), The Clan Corporate (2006), The Merchants’ War (2007), The Revolution Business (2009), The Trade of Queens (2010).
Charles Stross. Wireless (2009).

Singularity Sky is Charles Stross’s first novel, but I came to it after reading some of the ‘Bob Howard – Laundry’ books, with their contemporary satiric edge, & the slyly savage Saturn’s Children, with its not-quite-end-of-humanity speculative comedy, so I both knew what to expect & found it a bit less than what has followed.. A truly wide-screen space opera, with far future tech ideas exploding throughout the narrative. Which involves a kind of Luddite empire some centuries after the Singularity caused humans to transform to post-human & stellar. Two Earth-born humans become involved with an attempt to send a starship battalion to fight what the empire defines as an ‘enemy attack’ upon one of its worlds, but which is ‘the Festival,’ a gatherer & distributor of information, the one thing that a repressive polity cannot deal with. Stross does a good job of actually rendering those who serve an ancient hierarchical polity, as well as the ‘Revolutionaries’ on the world who just don’t quite understand how far behind the times elsewhere their intellectual awareness, has fallen & the two humans who just hate the repressive behavior of the people they are, in their way, trying to help. Of course, there are both intellectual & space battle fireworks. Darkly funny, full of actually hopeful concepts.

Halting State is also lots of fun, as Stross delivers fine mystery adventure, with tart satire on government bureaucracy. Set in the independent Republic of Scotland in 2018, where someone pulls off a robbery in a shared on-line game & the police, various spy agencies, & especially an Edinburgh police woman, a smart games maker, & a forensic auditor (all represented in the 2nd person) work to solve the crime. To say more would undermine Stross’s careful unwinding of the complicated plot.

Another dark comic apocalypse from Stross, Missile Gap is a novella of an alternate 1970s Cold War, except it may be hundreds of thousands of years in the future, & it is on a ‘flat’ ‘earth’ so wide it can contain 50,000 earth-size planets on its surface. Narrated from the POVs of an USSR cosmonaut now captain of an exploration ship, the CIA in Washington (except the focal figure turns out to be an alien investigator), & settlers on a new, to earth, continent that is much more than it seems. Are humans meant to survive in our universe or some other form of intelligence? This narrative offers a rather bleak answer. But it’s a very witty, often funny, read.

And this is as good a place as any to mention the ‘Bob Howard – Laundry’ novels, The Atrocity Archives & The Jennifer Morgue, collected under the title, On Her Majesty’s Occult Service (there’s a third one I haven’t read yet but intend to). Howard is a geek, a bit of a mathematical genius & a hacker who has solved a particularly complex function that just happens to be a means of summoning an Elder God. When he tries to publish it online, something strange happens: it doesn’t appear anywhere & a top secret government agency pays him an unannounced visit. They make him an offer he cant refuse, & he becomes another desk operative in the hidden war against Lovecraftian monsters from other dimensions. That’s the set-up. The novels & stories are a delightfully twisted satiric mix of horror & spy fiction. Yes, Bob battles horrors from elsewhere & the terrible people who sometimes try to call them, & this aspect of the narratives work as slightly subversive versions of the genre that nevertheless work as thrillers. But he also must fight internecine turf wars within the agency, & Stross seems to know all about those from dire experience. That he sets up a mathematical & logical explanation for those Lovecraftian horrors, presents well-plotted tales of underground spy work, & also provides hilarious satire on government bureaucracy gone mad testifies to his intelligence & talent.

I read Books One to Four of The Merchant Princes together. The Family Trade, The Hidden Family, The Clan Corporate, & The Merchants’ War are great fun, full of some interesting, & luckily clashing, ideas about culture & society, including what an industrial revolution can cause to change in cultures & societies. They are also a kind of homage to Zelazny’s Amber books, but more scientifically bound to recent speculations in physics on multiple universes. They also have a really interesting protagonist in Miriam Beckstein, a feisty USAmerican investigative journalist who truly believes in all forms of equality, & who has the curiosity of a feckless cat; & who is also, it turns out, a member of a family, & clan, who have the ability to ‘worldwalk.’ The Clan has become a power in the country of Gruinmarkt in its home world, with its very different late-medieval culture, & believes there’s just one other world, Miriam’s (as well, her mother is a high ranking member of the Clan, though she doesn’t know this at first). It has done so by using its ability to walk between the worlds to bring 21st century armaments into its world while making obscene amounts of money by carrying drugs etc. ‘underground’ (so to speak) for powerful gangsters in our world. But there’s at least one other world, a kingdom in North America at about our late 19th – early 20th century point of progress (king & commons, but also airships & steam cars, electricity), & once she is caught by family & Clan, ‘Princess’ Miriam escapes to it with the aid of a few loyal people seconded to her. She soon recognizes that carrying ideas between the worlds would make for a far better ‘business’ than couriering drugs for cartels in our world (& messages across the country for their own, delivered ‘witchily’ fast). But the hereditary nobles & crown in the Clan’s world don’t like them or their power (sees them as ‘witches’), there’s a lost branch of the Clan that found the 3rd world, where Miriam is trying to get a start-up going, & the friend she found there, Erasmus Burgeson, is a member of a revolutionary underground. Moreover, being the kind of reporter she is, she sticks her nose in a few places that could get her killed. At which point US Homeland Security (under the VP – not named but clearly Cheney) finds out about the world walkers. Things can & do go very awry. Plots within plots, various forms of internecine warfare, potential revolution in the 3rd world, interesting characters in all 3 worlds, some of whom are for, some against, both Miriam & what she stands for, spies, & a heroine often on the run: it’s a series you just keep reading greedily, with more to come. Great light reading.

Book 5 of The Merchant Princes, The Revolution Business carries a blurb from Paul Krugman, of all people: ‘Charles Stross’s Merchant Princes novels are economic science fiction worth reading.’ And the Nobel Prize winning economist is right; that’s another aspect of these highly imaginative multiple narratives, which take on political change in 3 different time lines. At this point, Miriam is pregnant & could be queen-regent in the Gruinmarkt but the Clan’s conservative faction is trying to kill her. Meanwhile, US scientists have worked overtime to discover a technology that matches the genetic powers of the Clan, & the military has sent spies into the Gruinmarkt; once the VP, who has been surreptitiously involved with the Clan, realizes that they are there, he sends an atom bomb between the worlds, determined to wipe it out. In the 3rd world, her friend Erasmus is deeply involved in a ‘democratic’ revolution going wrong in all the usual ways. Stross has such a wide-ranging imagination, juggling all 3 narratives, each one of which has plots & counterplots, & which also do deploy economic/political philosophies at odds, buttressing the adventure with real thinking. The Revolution Business ends on another crisis, with atom bombs about to go off in Washington, & Miriam & her associates once again under attack from within (there’s also the traitor within the Clan, whom we don’t yet know for sure). Clearly Stross has laid the groundwork for even more sturm und drang. These are addictive, as are most of his fictions.

Stross turned to another pure science fiction in Glasshouse. A huge wow factor on this one. It’s set in a far future, long after ‘the Acceleration,’ & after ‘the censorship wars’ destroyed the huge polity, ‘The Empire of Is’ (via ‘Curious Yellow,’ a software infection that wiped specific memories of every human [or post-human] net-linked in their very [replaceable] bodies). And that’s just the beginning. That vast polity is now a collection of separate smaller ones, all very worried about more infections, & some of which have gone into dictatorship modes. Robin, the protagonist, a historian & soldier, fought against the Curious Yellow factions during the war, having lost his large & polymorphous family to it, & is part of a continuing underground afraid that some Curious Yellow undergrounds are still around trying to create another hack on the newly liberated polities. Where they may be doing this is in the ‘Glasshouse,’ a recovery facility for truly dangerous warriors from the war. To get inside & find out what’s going on, he needs to submit to an almost total mindwipe, so they wont know he’s a secret agent. Before he does so he falls in [love] with an altered woman, who says she will go in too. In this place, the experimenters are reconstructing a pre-Acceleration society (more or less first world 1950-2050), & Robin is a woman, Kay now a conflicted man, though they end up as a married couple. This allows Stross full rein to play a satiric riff on all the problems, biological-social-gender/sexual, etc, of our time as viewed through the ostranenie looking glass of wholly Accelerated humanity. But there’s also the thriller, & the psychological changes that living in a singular, & mortal, body can bring. The war criminals running the experiment seek to create a fascist socialization, through peer pressure, church, etc, & are doing fairly well at it, as some horrific social violence demonstrates (which our narrator sees as built in to the way humans lived in such primitive technological conditions). In that far future, individuals can be & become almost anything they want, & even subjectivity is open (but identity is not, & identity-theft is literal, someone else hacking into your mind & replacing it with him or her – the very worst crime). So, thought-provoking, as Stross can be, while also a thriller narrative, & full of very sharp, sometimes even violent, wit & comedy. Stross is really quite amazing in the way he brings all his ideas to life.

The Trade of Queens is ‘the sixth book in an ongoing series – and the final one in this story line.’ Well, that sets us up for a thriller plot, & more to come but in some different directions, all of which is fine with me. There is much about the history of the Clan that Stross still hasn’t fully filled in, &, given what happens in this story, many directions their more limited (now) lives could take. Whoever these traders are, they had arrived in the alternate world of the Gruinmarkt some hundreds of years earlier & slowly gained power, but much of that came from their criminal activities in ‘our’ world. When Miriam, a princess of the Clan, returned to Gruinmarkt, she found that a civil war among the clans within the Clan was not as finished as they hoped, & her determination to bring the Clan forward resisted by the conservatives, led by her grandmother. The smaller clans making up the Clan can operate cleanly but when they joined together they became large enough to have factions that disagreed at a violent level, & this has caused a lot of trouble already. Now, as the conservative faction attempts to wrest power from the liberals, they decide to send a message to the US government that now knows of their existence, & of parallel universes, by sending two small atom bombs to the US capitol. The boy president (GWB) dies & WARBUCKS (Cheney) becomes President claiming even more powers than ever Bush did, & his vice-president is Rumsfeld (the novel is set in 2003-4). He dies of a heart attack, & Rumsfeld, with the new tech to cross into Gruinmarkt, decides to send a message. Meanwhile, Miriam & her cohort realize they must escape to the 3rd world, where the Revolutionary Government is struggling, & the Chinese branch of the Family/Clan has been for a century. Confusion follows as they attempt to deal with one dangerous member of the ruling junta, the Minister of Security, while Miriam reaches out to her friend, the new State Propaganda Minister Burgeson. By the end, the US has atom bombed Gruinmarkt to dust, & what’s left of the Clan are refugees in New Britain. Much has happened, & we have learned with Miriam to distrust many of the Clan’s moral stands. It will be interesting to see where Stross takes this tale in a new series moving on from this (apparent) conclusion.

Wireless is Stross’s first collection of short fiction, & a good one. It includes the novella, ‘Missile Gap’ (see above) but it is complex & stands up to a second reading. Stross has a wicked sense of humour, & it slyly shows through in many stories, the truly weird ‘Rogue Farm,’ ‘Maxos,’ a faux letter to the editor of Nature, ‘Snowball’s Chance,’ a devil’s bargain story with a twist, & ‘Trunk and Disorderly,’ a homage to Wodehouse that led eventually to Saturn’s Children (which is not). There are also ‘Unwirer’ (w/ Cory Doctorow) about a US that has closed down the web & the nerdy revolutionaries trying to keep it open, ‘A Colder War,’ a dark apocalyptic tale of deep Intelligence Service secrets, ‘gates,’ & Lovecrafttian monsters, & very unintended consequences, another Laundry tale (they actually grew out of ‘A Colder War’), & the short novel, ‘Palimpsest,’ which works at that length, & shows he can (contra his comment on ‘Missile Gap’) do the huge galaxy-spanning, really far future space opera, this one involving time travel & ‘the Stasis,’ which works from the future to keep re-seeding humanity on a preserved Earth each time it self-destructs, etc. Even in short form, Stross produces ideas like rabbits produce offspring.

As readers can tell, I thoroughly enjoy Stross’s fiction. He writes well & clearly, doesn’t waste words (as so many writers to day do), & never insults the intelligence of his readers. Rather he engages it, & constantly puts as many ideas in play in one story as some writers might manage in a lifetime. Because of the way he & his characters think, everything he writes, whatever its outward generic form, is really SF (we can call it ‘speculative fiction’ in this case, but a scientific attitude underlies all the speculation in even the most far out fantastical tales). I will happily read anything he publishes.

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