A review of Empire Games by Charles Stross (Tor UK, 2017)
Originally published in Interzone
Charles Stross’s new novel is the first part of a trilogy set in the same worlds as his Merchant Princes series. He premises a multiverse in which a family (the Clan) has discovered that they are able to travel between timelines, an ability they have used to accrue wealth and power by selectively importing luxuries into their own medieval world while operating a very successful smuggling operation in a world very similar to our own. Unfortunately, they come to the attention of the US authorities. In the conflict that follows, rogue members of the Clan assassinate the President and destroy the White House with a stolen tactical nuclear weapon. Having developed their own world-walking technology, the United States launches a devastating nuclear attack on the Clan’s homeland. A few Clan members take refuge in a recently discovered third timeline where one of their number has developed an alliance of sorts with the revolutionaries who have just overthrown the New British Empire and established the New American Commonwealth.
Fast forward nearly twenty years to the beginning of Empire Games. Miriam Beckstein, the central character of the Merchant Princes series, is now the Commonwealth’s Commissioner responsible intertemporal technology transfer. She has devoted the past two decades to improving the Commonwealth’s technological base so that when the United States finally comes calling they will be able to negotiate from a position of strength.
Meanwhile the United States has reacted to the attack on Washington by developing into a paranoid surveillance society. As part of its extended remit, the Department of Homeland Security has invested heavily in paratime research. They have discovered a number of timelines which they can exploit as cheap and secure sources of raw materials (particularly oil). They have also discovered traces of a very advanced race, which was wiped in a cataclysmic war across several timelines. The latter has reinforced the US government’s paranoia about world-walkers with the result that they are cautiously exploring the multiverse and preparing for an encounter with remnants of the Clan or other world-walkers.
Key to their strategy is a young woman called Rita Douglas. Put up for adoption at birth, she is the illegitimate daughter of Miriam Beckstein and so carries the gene that enables world-walking. US researchers have developed a technique for switching on the world-walking ability in carriers. By doing this with Rita, they hope to develop her as an intertemporal field agent. And in the event of them running across the Clan, they hope that she would be able to establish a back-channel for clandestine negotiations.
Empire Games is primarily the story of Rita Douglas’s recruitment by the paratime division of the DHA. It traces her rapid progress from mildly anti-authoritarian liberal twenty-something to relatively competent field agent of the DHS on her first mission to a different timeline. Working in their favour is the fact Rita’s adoptive grandfather, Kurt, has trained her in the art of keeping a low profile in a panoptical society. What they don’t know is that he is part of a multi-generational network of deep cover agents set up by East Germany before its demise.
A secondary storyline fills the reader in on Miriam’s situation. As if preparing for the inevitable encounter with the United States was not enough, the Commonwealth is locked in a cold war with the other nuclear superpower of that timeline, the French Empire. It is also gearing up for the first transfer of power since the revolution, and the government is riven with rival factions. The United States couldn’t have chosen a worse time to stumble upon the Commonwealth and the Clan refugees. But they unwittingly send Rita into this powder keg where she finally has a tense encounter with Miriam.
The story offers all that Stross fans have come to expect of his near future SF: There is plenty of action. The new major characters (particularly Rita and Kurt) are well developed, though I suspect someone who hasn’t read the earlier novels might find Miriam et al. rather sketchy. Above all, it offers a complex storyline underpinned by convincing worldbuilding and evocative descriptions. Empire Games has all the makings of a very satisfying novel . . . except that by the end of the volume nothing has been resolved! In short, the novel is immensely enjoyable but ultimately frustrating because the publishing schedule means that it will be 2019 before we discover how it all ends.