Sunday, April 06, 2014

Charles Stross: Merchant Princes

     I'm currently working on the fourth of six books in Charles Stross's six-episode "Merchant Princes" series.*  Or halfway through the middle book of the trilogy, if you purchased the most recent recombining; it seems the original set only ended up as six books when some bean-sorter decided they'd be dauntingly fat as a trilogy. (You know how us readers just hate finding a good long book to keep up the entertainment.)

     Whatever.  Six or three, they're great fun.  I'd put off looking into them because at a glance, they sounded like fantasy and I find most fantasy unreadable, even by writers whose other work I enjoy.  (Heinlein and Pratchett are exceptions and the whole Unknown magazine-shading-to-Lovecraft axis usually works for me.)  I was wrong, wrong on all counts: it's not exactly fantasy, no more than Piper's "Paratime" or Laumer's "Imperium," and Stross's worlds and storyline are a fresh look at what had seemed an old notion.

     The essential "one different thing" is that some people, a very few, can shift themselves and as much as they can carry to an alternate world and back again -- one world.  Ours.  Theirs is...different.  A civilization stuck at a late-medieval level, perhaps as far along as double-entry bookkeeping and three-field crop rotation, with feudal power structures and a whole lot of peasants tilling the fields and doing the grunt work.  The world-walkers, originally a single family of tinkers, have clawed their way into the aristocracy over the course of a century and a half years, thanks to their access to rapid communications, medicine, advanced weapons and so on.  They're also making a fortune in our world by smuggling: it's impossible for Customs or cops to intercept goods carried, albeit by slow wagon, in a different Earth.  Into this setup, Stross throws a lost noblewoman, orphaned and marooned on the Earth we know for 30-some years, who suddenly discovers her heritage.

     Because he is who he is, so far the narrative has run from investigative journalism to court intrigue to action adventure, with side trips into Dynasty reruns playing on a flatscreen TV in a drafty castle dining hall, steampunk, the drawbacks of garderobes, revolutionaries under severe threat and what moving from one world to another does to one's blood pressure.  Plus Dealing With Bureaucracy, something that comes as naturally to him as Stupid Diplomat Tricks did to Keith Laumer.  (I think the Dynasty thing is a bit of a "hanging a lantern on it," since the series can sometimes resemble a nighttime soap opera -- one with battle scenes, misplaced nukes and steam cars, mind you.)

     My only real quibble is that the our-Earth action takes place in the U.S. and while Stross does a good American accent in dialog, some Briticisms do creep in, usually in the form of turns of phrase that pass unnoticed in his home country.  There's also rather a lot of firearm use, generally competently described despite a couple of minor slip-ups in the fine details (or at least terminology) of the purchase and licensing of same and their bearers. Since one of the primary POV characters is a Bostonian, such glitches are darned-near inevitable -- I don't think I understand the gun laws of Massachusetts well enough to avoid bobbles, and I have the advantage of being a firearms-hobbyist and living in the U.S.  (A big problem for writers in our very-connected world is getting trivia right without veering into pedantry. Stross does this well.) 

     I won't synopsize farther. I don't want to spoil the fun -- and these books are fun, a complex adventure that just keeps recomplicating, cliffhangers and all.  Read 'em. They're new stuff as good as the best of the old stuff.
* And for those of you concerned about excessive sibilance, an incipient lisp or a whistling upper plate, "Charles Stross's six-episode Merchant Princes series" is about as good a test phrase as you could get, even at gunpoint (which would be a damfool way to ask).


Joe Allen said...

"* And for those of you concerned about excessive sibilance, an incipient lisp or a whistling upper plate, "Charles Stross's six-episode Merchant Princes series" "

Ironically, so is "excessive sibilance, an incipient lisp or whistling"

Roberta X said...

Yes. Yes it is. :)

Anonymous said...

What fantasy did RH write? Only one I know of is the one about the carnival that was made into a movie years ago, and whose title I can't remember at the moment.

Oh, and what about Tim Powers and Barry Hughart?


SJ said...

I think I first read a different book by Charles Stross, or these.

However, these were his first works of his that I liked.

Guy can tell a story.

Roberta X said...

Stross's "Laundry Files" were the first of his I read and still my favorites from his work. The guy's good.

Kish, are you -- surely you're not? -- referring to The Circus of Dr. Lao? Not RAH. However, Magic, Inc. and Glory Road (the latter tries to pass itself off as SF) are excellent examples of "Unknown" style SF. Magic, Inc. anticipates Larry Correia's "MHI" stories, a bit.

Tim Powers is simply brilliant, and his fantasy absolutely does not cheat; he builds internally-consistent worlds and lets them run, with the story happening over that. I would go so far as to suggest his work is the opposite of the failings of most fantasy. K. W. Jeeter has laid down a few fantasies that work equally as well and for much the same reason.

IMO, the biggest problem with most fantasy is the ease with which plot complications, solutions and mcguffins can be pulled out of thin air; and the second-biggest is the huge reliance on romanticized, pseudo-medieval social structure, usually focused only on the upper classes in the big house: everyone is Lady So-and-so, Lord Whatever or Sir This-and-that except for wizards, witches and, occasionally, Our Plucky Hero or Heroine. It's all very trite, Tolkien without any of the research, world-building or, really, imagination. The "You were really Princess Ozma all along, Tip," trick can only be pulled once -- and we should note that L. Frank Baum was writing for children, not adults.

markm said...

Heinlein often explored the boundaries of what Arthur C. Clarke eventually formulated as his third law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." This was clearest in Glory Road, a sword and sorcery story with science fiction explanations for all the fantasy elements. In Stranger in a Strange Land, Michael Valentine Smith could do miracles because he understood the world more deeply.

"Waldo" and "Magic Inc" were two separate stories related only by inverting Clarke's Law: magic was technology. "Magic Inc" came closer to fantasy with the trip to the demon world.

But fantasy is just a subset of Heinlein's "World as Myth" theme. That was explored most fully with his last five books (starting with The Number of the Beast), which also had a technology equivalent to magic. But it was an element of many of his earlier works. Maybe the earliest version of it was his 1942 story "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag", a horror-fantasy story more frightening than HP Lovecraft's works: our world is just a student art project, and they're still erasing and repainting.