Empire Games by Charles Stross
Publisher: Tor on 17th January 2017
Page count: 324
Reviewer: Steve Cotterill
The first book in a new trilogy of the Merchant Princes novels, Empire Games is set seventeen years after the original books. It is very much a Charles Stross novel, ticking all the boxes that you would expect him to cover, and doing it extremely well. The series centres on the concept of world walking and is based in a (small) multiverse where the reader knows about four different time lines. These range from a divergent, and authoritarian United States, the Commonwealth a rebellious ‘steampunk’ style world which is rapidly modernising, and two timelines that are destroyed. One of these was nuked by the USA at the end of the first trilogy and we are told it ‘still glows’. The other is an object of curiousity which in this book Stross links to a group called the ‘forerunners’, a group of frighteningly powerful individuals who may be linked to the source of the world walking gene.
Empire Games introduces us to Rita Douglas, a latent world walker who is recruited by the Department of Homeland Security to be trained as a deep cover agent. The story follows her recruitment, via a mixture of skulduggery and ‘friendliness’, and training as an agent. As a result, while the world walkers from the first series do feature, their story is largely to do with the politics of their adopted homeland, the Commonwealth, as it approaches as crucial stage in its development. Stross carefully sets the stage for a coup by a proto Stalin. While the coup has not happened by the end of the first book, he is clearly laying tracks for the rest of the trilogy. These chapters allow us to catch up with what’s happened with some of the characters from the first trilogy, as Miriam and her relations attempt to ready the Commonwealth for a war with a terrifyingly powerful enemy and to deal with the United States. Miriam’s oft repeated mantra is ‘The Americans are coming’, and I would argue that this is the beat the novel marches to. The American are, after all, coming.
There’s a lot of tradecraft, training and internal politics within Rita’s plot line, too but they’re largely the internal machinations of the Department of Homeland Security. When she is activated as a spy, it’s because the USA has discovered the Commonwealth timeline, and a number of their drones have been shot down by nuclear weapons. As a result, she is sent in to look around and report back on what she finds. Stross handles this well, deftly giving the reader a sense of how strange it would be to step into a world many decades behind the one we know. His experience of writing weird espionage fiction shows through here.
Rita is a curious character, highly introverted and self contained, she is constantly assessing the situation, and while she is shown to be highly resourceful, it is clear that until the end of the novel she does not fully sign up to the ideals of the government she has been persuaded to work for. As a result it does take a little time to warm up to her, because its never clear how much you actually know her, and how much she is holding back. I found myself wondering if in some respects she had not actually told Stross as much as he would have liked, the same way that Shadow in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods was firm in keeping the author out.
One wrinkle Stross throws in is her Grandfather, Kurt Douglas, a defector from East Germany (back when there was an East Germany), who is pretty obviously a Stasi sleeper and has raised his family to know about basically spy stuff. He’s a curious character who acts as the wise, cynical, mentor. His influence over Rita is clear, to the extent that her geocaching hobby is clearly just a way to practice old fashioned spying, dead letter drops and dealing with discreet packages. Again, we are kept in the dark about Kurt’s true origins but he will doubtless form a significant part of the rest of the trilogy.
As a reader of Charlie’s blog it’s been interesting to watch the formulation of this book, and hard not to smile, and agree, when he has complained that events in the real world have screwed up his ‘grim, meathook future’. As a result the novel is darker than it was initially intended to be, the state in the USA is much more controlling and he makes it plain that there is a panopticon of surveillance in addition to increased levels of knowledge denial and racism (weirdly LGBTQ issues do not seem to be a huge deal and when Rita gets a girlfriend nothing is said). The novel is very much of the now, it addresses the trajectory our society seems to be heading down, and as such it is what I would label ‘good science fiction’. If you enjoy multiple timelines, espionage and real politic this comes highly recommended, and as it is not really necessary to read the first trilogy to understand what’s going on (though I would recommend you read them anyway), it is a good jumping on point for new fans.