28 September 2018

Dark State

A review of Dark State by Charles Stross (Tor UK, 2018)
Originally published in Interzone

I have been waiting impatiently for this volume since I read its predecessor, Empire Games, last January. And it has certainly lived up to my expectations. Dark State offers a tense, action-packed fresh instalment to the Merchant Princes saga.

The complex storyline is played out across analogues of the Americas and Europe in several parallel timelines during the month of August 2020. Timeline 1 gets only a fleeting mention having earlier been the target of a nuclear strike by the United States. Timeline 2 is very like our own, except that the encounter with the world-walkers of the Clan has turned the United States into a paranoid surveillance state. In Timeline 3, the House of Hanover retained control of North America (but not the British Isles) until the end of twentieth century. It has recently been ousted by revolutionaries who have set up a New American Commonwealth in which the remnants of the Clan led by Miriam Beckstein have carved out for themselves a power base by encouraging the rapid development of the Commonwealth’s technological base.

Dark State literally picks up where Empire Games left off with Rita Douglas in the hands of the Clan. Rita is a US government world-walker, but she is also Miriam’s biological daughter and so an ideal go-between. The Clan do the obvious thing and release her to open up a channel for dialogue with the US government.

Apart from that, Part I deals mainly with the Clan preparing a diplomatic coup in Timeline 3. They want to help Princess Elizabeth of Hanover to defect to the Commonwealth. If they succeed, they will undermine the monarchist opposition at a crucial moment in the Commonwealth’s history: the First Man (their head of state) has terminal cancer and his death is likely to provoke a constitutional crisis. Meanwhile in Timeline 2, Rita’s grandfather, Kurt, and her girlfriend, Angie, are conspiring to protect her from her government handlers.

Part II, ‘Emissary’, set mostly in Timeline 3, focuses mainly on Rita and her new role as a go-between between the Clan and the US government. She learns more about her mother, her wider family, and the history of US–Clan relations from the Clan’s perspective. It is perhaps inevitable that she finds herself drawn towards Miriam. Stross hints that forces opposed to the Clan are beginning to manoeuvre in preparation for the First Man’s death.

In Part III, the plan to extract Elizabeth is set in motion. Unfortunately, it goes awry: The Clan’s agent successfully gets Elizabeth to Timeline 2. However, he is wounded in the process and subsequently captured by US operatives, leaving Elizabeth on her own in twenty-first century Berlin. In Timeline 3, the First Man dies, provoking the constitutional crisis they had feared. This part of the action ends inconclusively with the Clan cobbling together a damage limitation exercise that involves Kurt and Rita.

Stross slips in a final twist, which may prove more significant than any constitutional crisis. From their base in Timeline 4, the United States has been experimenting with a black hole, which is all that is left of a parallel earth in yet another timeline. Unfortunately, their experiment has not gone unnoticed: Some very advanced technology guarding the black hole responds aggressively. They may have advertised their existence to an advanced and potentially hostile alien (?) race.

In short, Dark State ends on a massive cliffhanger. Everything is up in the air. Will the Clan retrieve Elizabeth from Berlin? Will they survive the constitutional crisis that is about the engulf the Commonwealth? Will either world survive the encounter with whatever the Americans have awoken in Timeline 4? I’ll have to wait another year to find out!

I find the lack of resolution very frustrating, but I’m willing to forgive Stross. Not only does he write nail-bitingly good action, but he produces believable, rounded, sympathetic characters. I particularly like the way he has developed Rita from little more than a pawn of the Department of Homeland Security into an actor in her own right. And the icing on the cake is the way he plays with alternative political systems – he is genuinely interested in exploring how they work rather than using them as mere scenery (note the dedication to Tony Benn).

Since it begins in media res and ends on a cliff edge, would-be readers of Dark State should probably begin with Empire Games. Nevertheless, Dark State is essential reading for anyone who enjoys near future hi-tech thrillers.

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