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Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross

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To understand this review properly, you need to rehearse a little of what you know about the history of science fiction. There have been several people deemed one of the “greats”. Perhaps the one getting the most votes would be Robert A Heinlein (alongside Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, and others). In a way this reflects a number of features about what he wrote. Most importantly, he was a “thinker”, not particularly committed to any particular point of view and prepared to express unpopular opinions about a wide variety of different social phenomena, e.g. on racism. If anything, he was a man of evolving opinions, starting off as anti-communist, pro-military and “conservative”, and ending up more committed to the notion of freedom, in the widest sense of the word including, not uncontroversially, sexual freedom. Secondly, he wrote in a very accessible style so that, whether he was actually intending his readership to be adult or juvenile, almost everyone could grok what he was talking about. Interestingly, many of his books feature strong female characters which tended to make his books more widely read across the gender divide. In short, he popularised science fiction. Moving down the pecking order of popularity, we come to Mack Reynolds who carved out a niche for himself by exploring the economics of the future. If Heinlein was thinking about who was going to be important in the future, e.g. the heroic Johnny Rico in Starship Troopers is Filipino, Reynolds was doing the grunt work in calculating out who was going to be paying for it all. He was wonderfully sceptical about the notion of utopia with many books and stories looking at what’s most likely to go wrong and what might follow the collapse of an apparently ideal society.

 

All of which brings me to Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross (Penguin/Berkley, 2013), a sequel to Saturn’s Children. At so many different levels, this book blends the interests of Heinlein and Reynolds, producing a particularly pleasing package. This is not the first time Stross has walked down this road. The Merchant Princes series examines the differences in culture emerging on parallel Earths. Obviously, the trading options depend on reconciling technological imbalances and political outlooks. He’s answering questions like what an essentially late mediaeval or Victorian world would have to trade with our contemporary world and vice versa. This book is exploring how any civilisation could finance slower than light colonisation. The answer is completely unexpected and absolutely captivating. Let’s just pause for a moment. If we assume the colony world accepts it is indebted to the “mother” planetary system, how would it pay off the debt if it takes a century to fly from one to the other? The answer comes in the development of slow money. The problem with cash is that it’s inherently volatile. Markets boom and bust, the values of currencies fluctuate. Such mediums of exchange are inadequate for debt that may have to span several centuries. Even adopting commodities like gold may not have the requisite quality of longevity because who’s to say the commodity we consider valuable today will retain that value in five hundred years time when the debt might fall due? So an upper tier of money for transactions between star systems is necessary and most elegantly explored in this book.

Charles Stross welcomes book critics

Charles Stross welcomes book critics

 

Of course economic development never occurs in a vacuum. There has to be a supportive cultural context and it must be resilient enough to withstand attacks from both within and without. Take the phenomenon of crime as an example. Where there’s money, there are people who covet it and seek to possess it. Some may resort to violence. Other may prefer more subtle means. As we scale up to relations between countries and, in due course, between sovereign planetary systems, we can get into the grey areas of piracy as opposed to a privateer operating under letters of marque issued by a sovereign body. Of course, in the scenario we have here, planetary systems might be indebted to banks and it would be such organisations who might assume the power to issue letters of marque, particularly if the planets were in default on their loans. Indeed, privateers might have to assume the role of accountants or auditors if they are to calculate the amounts of money owing and what value might replace it.

 

When you put all this together, you have one of the most appealing set-ups of the last decade. Our heroine is a forensic accountant and historian who’s taken a particular interest in old frauds. She’s on her slow way between planets, studying and researching as she goes, when she gets a message from her sister, alerting her to possible danger. Since they have been collaborating on trying to track down a particularly interesting old debt instrument, it’s likely one of the fraudulent parties involved may be out to stop them from making progress in the investigation. This forces her to change her flight plans and hop on a Church on its way to the next system. When the Church is hailed by “pirates”, it rapidly becomes clear our heroine is attracting trouble. Were she to be human, she would be alarmed and not a little paranoid. As a post-human robot (the humans keep dying out only to be resurrected by the robots), she takes a more phlegmatic view of the world, causality and the passage of time. Such beings can afford to take the longer view, particularly when their chips can be backed up and installed in new bodies.

 

Overall, this makes Neptune’s Brood a delightful way of exploring human obsessions about money and property through this everyday story of robot folk and their conquest of the stars. This is one of the best books by Stross for years.

 

For reviews of other books by Charles Stross, see:
The Apocalypse Codex
The Fuller Memorandum
The Revolution Business
Rule 34
The Trade of Queens
Wireless

 

The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross

October 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Authors are entirely human (unless they are AIs who’ve broken through into the fiction business) and, as is only natural, tend to get caught up in their own interests and obsessions. So when we go back to the start of the Laundry Files series, Charles Stross thought it was a wicked cool idea to take a Lovecraftian theme and wrap in into a pastiche format. Ignoring the shorter contributions, this worked rather well with the fairly generic style of Len Deighton for The Atrocity Archives but was, to my mind, a dismal failure with Ian Fleming when the joke proved repetitively interminable in The Jennifer Morgue. I think the series got back on track with The Fuller Memorandum because, although Stross claimed it was a pastiche of Anthony Price, it was nothing like any of Price’s novels. More to the point, even if it had been, only geriatrics like me have read and loved Price. So few people read him now, no-one would have known whether it was a reasonable approximation of the style. In other words, despite protestations to the contrary, Stross wrote an amusing Lovecraftian book. With the fourth book now out and titled The Apocalypse Codex (Penguin/Berkley, 2012), he’s again indulging in thematic pastiche. This time, we’re in Peter O’Donnell territory. Frankly, I haven’t read a Modesty Blaise book in more than forty years and wouldn’t want to read one today. I found them terrible. What was quick and amusing as a comic strip died when it was translated into prose. So here Stross introduces a strong, but occasionally vulnerable, woman to put up alongside the doughty Laundryman.

Charles Stross pretending to be Emperor Ming

 

Who’s this woman, then? Well, as in the originals, she has a vaguely Greek background and, having wandered around Europe, ends up a British national. Of course, there’s the required trusty sidekick as well. Like Willy Gavin, he’s tough, has throwing knives, and is not at all frustrated in a strictly platonic relationship with the Mam’selle. Having given up the life of crime, they’re recruited into MI6 by Sir Gerald Tarrant as external assets which is where this novel takes up the thread.

 

The good news is the more serious tone of the novel. Although I’m not against the idea of an author introducing a general air of levity into “end of the world” scenarios — that Douglas Adam chap was moderately successful in getting a laugh out of the destruction of the Earth — there comes a point when the arrival of one or more of the Great Old Ones has to become more threatening given the likely loss of amenity around the planet. Indeed, the plot of this novel assumes the arriving being will be a little peckish and need to have a light snack to build up its strength. That’s why this cult has been planning for so long and has developed the power to ring fence several million people into an outdoor eating area otherwise called Colorado. So although there’s some of the mild satire on civil service speak and organisational culture, the primary focus is on Lovecraftian matters with the sidekick and the televangelist being Deep One hybrids.

 

In line with the slightly darker themes featuring baby production facilities and parasitical infections, there’s also more intelligence in the discussion of organisations and how best to structure them to get the best results. Although this particular version of reality is fictional, I applaud Stross for taking the time to explain the point of his satire on the civil service mentality. Too often, jobs have been mechanised so that anyone can do them with only a minimal level of intelligence and experience. This compensates for the systemic failures of the education service to spit out sufficient numbers of clever people to run government “properly”. With jobs defined by lowest common denominator ability requirements, administration can continue, with policy overseen by a small cadre of more knowledgeable individuals. The point of the institutional speak is to hide the differences in intellectual ability. With everyone speaking in the same preprogrammed way, it takes marginally longer for the general public to work out whether they are talking with a high-powered Mandarin or lowly clerk.

 

Put all this together and The Apocalypse Codex is the best of the series so far. It has a better balance between the characters with the series character, Bob Howard, sharing the point-of-view limelight with our new female heroine (and sidekick). The Lovecraftian threat is escalating nicely with portal technology allowing entry into a different dimension for on-site conflict. The evolution also extends to our view of the British Government and we see more clearly where Bob’s career path may be leading — if not into middle management. The good final piece of news is this can more obviously be read as a stand-alone. Although knowing the background from the previous novels and short stories would enhance your enjoyment, everything you need to understand this is thoughtfully included.

 

For reviews of other books by Charles Stross, see:
The Fuller Memorandum
Neptune Brood
The Revolution Business
Rule 34
The Trade of Queens
Wireless

 

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award.

 

Rule 34 by Charles Stross

October 6, 2011 6 comments

Many years ago, I used to play with expert systems and “artificial intelligence” applying the work done by Professor Donald Michie in Edinburgh. I was saddened by his death in 2007. His contribution to the art of simulating intelligence in machines was groundbreaking. It’s therefore appropriate we should return to Edinburgh for this latest outing by Charles Stross. Following on in the same “world” first seen in Halting State, we’re back in Scotland’s capital city with new shenanigans in the future uses and abuses of machine intelligence.

Rule 34 gives us an amusingly clever version of future reality. If we overlook the currently insoluble problem of a natural language ability in machines (ignoring Siri in the Apple iPhone 4S which remains primitive word recognition software), the plot is an extrapolation from the current Bayesian statistical approach to establishing the probability that the knowledge you hold is true or false. In your spam filter, for example, it learns whether it has correctly identified unwanted mail. As a bridge into the criminal law and policing, which is the core of this novel, Bayes’ Theorem recently received a fail grade from the English Court of Appeal in a murder case. An “expert” persuaded a jury of guilt based on the probability a pair of Nike trainers in the defendant’s possession left the shoeprint found at the murder scene. The conviction has been quashed. So much for the application of science in courts or perhaps the use of statistics isn’t scientific enough to be accepted by lawyers. Not entirely changing the subject, Turing Tests are held quite frequently and informed human observers are reasonably reliable in identifying the machines. But innocent individuals, interacting through chat rooms and IM systems, can be more easily fooled by today’s machines.

Charles Stross with a message for the world

Well, Charles Stross has us move forward a year or so in technological terms and suggests three developments of interest. The first is in market trading so that money may be moved around in different ways at short notice to maximise returns. I like the idea of corporatising small states like the current tax havens. Who needs them to be legitimate countries, anyway? The second is in the ability to fabricate a multitude of different “things”, some of them useful, others sinful, from downloaded designs. The third is in the use of stimuli to induce behavioural change. Think of it as being a way of nudging you into buying a product or forming a particular opinion. If you do begin to see a pattern in what’s going on around you, the most likely explanation is going to be coincidence.

This has Charles Stross playing the same game of Scottish accents as Iain Banks in The Bridge as we navigate carefully through the multiple layers of culture in Edinburgh society. It’s interesting to watch the vocabulary change and, tuning in your ears, hear the different accents. Frankly, I’m never really sure the process is very effective and the result on a page must represent something of a challenge for American readers. Nevertheless, there’s a pleasing jauntiness to much of this murder mystery as our only faintly motivated Detective Inspector Liz Kavanaugh contrives to solve the various cases on her radar (with a few helpful nudges and winks if you know what I mean). In this endeavour, she’s aided by her moderately loyal Rule 34 Squad, hindered by Chief Inspector Dixon, and treated as a threat by Detective Chief Inspector MacLeish. Perhaps her career would not have stalled if she’d been a worshipper of Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom, civilisation, justice and strength. Alternatively, perhaps it’s just as well she was shunted into the backwater that is the Rule 34 Squad because that means she may actually be at the cutting edge of detection — using computers rather than sharp knives, of course. But, thinking of Athena and wisdom leads us to the final element of subtext in the novel. The nature and role of ethics in our modern world is deeply frustrating. In philosophical terms, there’s never been a greater need for more people to be aware of the tool box of methods available to analyse the extent to which our behaviour is, or is not, ethical. Yet, you see the word “ethics” bandied around as if everyone understands it as a form of common sense. It’s not considered something to be studied. Rather we can somehow intuitively know whether what we’re doing is ethical. Never has a word been so abused as “ethics”. In Rule 34, Stross challenges us to consider the extent to which ethics is, or should be, a potential restraint on what we think or do. In purely objective terms, our intelligence might suggest particular behaviour will produce better outcomes. Utilitarianism in action, as it were. But we may hesitate to ignore the ethical or other rule-based systems if the behaviour will lead to disapproval or, even, personal penalties. What price are we prepared to pay to obtain the results we desire?

Like Halting State, Rule 34 is good fun. Although we do get a bit more infodumping explanations in the later stages, the overall effect is light and airy. It’s also a good puzzle to work out who everyone is and what they are up to. The murders, successful and merely attempted, are also suitably gruesome. After all, if this is a story about technology on the rampage, we’d better have machines intimately involved in the manner of each of the early deaths. Rule 34 is definitely worth picking up and you should make time to read it.

There’s terrific jacket artwork for the US edition from Alberto Seveso.

For the other reviews of books by Charles Stross, see:
The Apocalypse Codex
The Fuller Memorandum
Neptune’s Brood
The Revolution Business
Rule 34
The Trade of Queens
Wireless.

For the record, Rule 34 was shortlisted for the 2012 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.

The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross

November 12, 2010 Leave a comment

In approaching this book, I’m reminded of decades of musical interventions where jazz and other musicians have taken pieces of classical music or well-known tunes, and variously mangled them, depending on your point of view. Indeed, the Classical Jazz Quartet is currently mining the same field ploughed by the Swingle Singers forty-something years ago, while people like Yngwie Malmsteen write their own orchestral concertos for electric guitar. Similarly, the idea of riffing on old literary favourites is captured in the increasingly contentious practice where “mashup” meets plagiarism. This year, you only have to think Helene Hegemann (as, of course, you all do) or Kaavya Viswanathan, who has just begun work with Sullivan & Cromwell, a top firm of attorneys — kinda ironic, huh!?! — to see the problem emerge into the full glare of the light. With the internet now making it possible to lay your hands on a wealth of content, it’s very difficult not to give into the temptation of an odd phrase here and there.

Now this is not to say there’s even the slightest hint of plagiarism about The Fuller Memorandum (apart from mentioning the phrase “here be dragons” twice which is the title of one of Anthony Price’s books). Indeed, for all its advertised homage to Anthony Price, I’m able to report there’s almost nothing even remotely like a David Audley book on display.

At this point, I admit to a prejudice. I used to be a collector and was the proud possessor of a complete set of Price first editions. He was a quite remarkable author. One who does not deserve to have been lost in the mists of time. The beauty of the books is the blend of history and two puzzles to be solved. There’s always a historical mystery, beautifully researched, and the solution of that mystery leads to the resolution of the contemporary mystery and the unmasking of the criminal, spy or terrorist. As a historian, the “hero” Audley thinks his way through both puzzles and, with the help of more active helpers, catches the bad guys. For anyone who wants an intellectual but exciting adventure story, you can’t do better than Price, particularly the early books. As he got older, there was a slightly wooden quality to the writing. But there are some great books to savour.

So Charles Stross, having been inspired by Len Deighton and Ian Fleming in the first two Laundry books, now claims Price. You need not worry. This is the same as Hollywood asserting a film is based on a true story, i.e. the filmmakers dramatise reality and so turn it into something different. This is the usual Stross first-person narrative where the now familiar Bob Howard struggles his way through the morass of problems until he emerges battered but victorious (and, according to Stross in June, he’s pitching another outing). First, the good news. This is way better than the second in the series, The Jennifer Morgue, which kept the Bond theme going far too long. The Fuller Memorandum succeeds in no small part because, although there are the texts of some historical documents included, Stross is not interested in copying the style or tropes of his inspirational source. Whereas even the living dead have either read a Bond book or seen one of the films, I’m probably one of a dying breed who could give you chapter and verse on Audley. Without Price fans to appease by including this favourite element or that, Stross could be unconstrained and just write a good Lovecraftian romp.

It has been interesting to watch Bob Howard’s development from The Atrocity Archives onwards. He’s losing his naive geekiness and becoming increasingly competent. In this outing, from the moment he misjudges the extent of the problem in RAF Cosford and inadvertently kills someone who proved to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, to the end where there are rather too many dead around for it to matter any more, we can see a man growing more comfortable in his ability to take on the dark forces and win.

And all is told with considerable wit. I can hear Stross cackling as, like one of these slightly manic entertainers who bend balloons into funny shapes, he takes ordinary sentences and wraps them round each other to make the entrails of something diabolically amusing — or which might represent a human sacrifice and so admit a power from beyond. Although there are moments where there’s an odd repetitiveness about the writing, it’s high pulp and not ashamed of it. This is not a book you sit down to read as brain food. It’s not intended to be anything other than great fun. In this it succeeds admirably and represents the best book Stross has published since Halting State. That our first-person hero can assert what others are doing at the same time in different parts of London just adds to the madcap feel of the whole thing. So once we have done our stretching exercises, it ambles along happily for the first half and then runs frantically to get to the end. There are no real mysteries in the Price style to solve except to wonder how Stross manages to stay so amusing so long.

Definitely recommended for those who like Lovecraftian fiction with a subversive attitude.

For more reviews of Charles Stross, see:
The Apocalypse Codex
Neptune Brood
Wireless
The Revolution Business
Rule 34
The Trade of Queens.

This is a finalist in the 2011 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.

 

The Trade of Queens by Charles Stross

September 10, 2010 Leave a comment

Recently, I was privileged to see a juggler keep an uncountable number of balls in the air for a short period of time. It was one of the more remarkable feats of physical ability I have seen. For an achingly beautiful minute or so, the balls seemed to transcend gravity and float in the air. Then, as is the case with all acts of magic, it had to end. He smiled in response to the audience’s sigh and caught the balls. With an apology he left the stage because our time was up.

So it is that we reach the end of the sixth in the Merchant Princes series. It’s The Trade of Queens by Charles Stross (an apparent reference to the opium trade) and he manages to catch most of the balls he thought were important while moving to a resolution of sorts. Perhaps I really should have browsed through The Revolution Business before starting out on this concluding volume.

Frankly, leaving this much time between episodes is completely nuts. At my age, memory grows fallible and, worse, interest declines. As you read any series, you play a game with the author, trying to second guess where he might take the plot, how he might resolve narrative arcs. More than a year has passed since reading Volume Five and I couldn’t remember who many of these people were. Worse, all the little info dumps slowed things down at the beginning without completely fulfilling their purpose of enlightenment. When you are talking about the accumulated wisdom of five books, the sixth had better be good, or die because high expectations are not met. Publishers please note. As a reader I could not care less about your commissioning cycle or the commercial decisions as to when a hardback should be released as a mass market paperback. If we are in the middle of a potentially interesting series, we should just get on with it.

Well, the best you can say about this ending is that it ends. When this all started out with The Family Trade in 2004, we had a richly embroidered story about Miriam Beckstein. It ends as thin gruel with Miriam a modest character, no longer really the mover or shaker she promised to be. Perhaps that’s how life works. The people who emerge from the crowd as potential leaders can just as quickly be submerged back into the faceless tide again. Salience is transitory. But when an author invests so much effort in building up a character and then sustains her as a major player for the first three or so books, it says a great deal about an author losing focus or direction to effectively throw her away. The story becomes more important than the characters (than any of the characters). In the end, everyone is moved around the gaming board like pawns so they can finish where they are supposed to finish. There’s no interest or attempt to involve us emotionally in any of the outcomes. It just ends.

At this point, I cannot avoid mentioning an alarming note in the Acknowledgements. “My agent, Caitlin Blaisdell, nudged me to make a radical change of direction. . . David Hartwell and Tom Doherty encouraged me further. . .” So there was a conspiracy to persuade a fine author to throw away everything that was good about his previous books, and to subordinate everything to the plot. Well, in future Mr. Stross, I suggest you ignore what others tell you and stay true to who you are as a writer. You had fine instincts when you started off. To let it peter out like this is a creative disaster. Except, I place the blame more squarely on your agent. When you were deciding how to develop the plot going out of Volume Two into Volume Three, it should have been obvious to everyone on the inside that you were being very ambitious. At that point, your agent should have renegotiated your contract. You have clout. The publisher would have accepted a proposal to split the six book series into a trilogy and then sequences of books set in the different worlds in parallel. This would have let you do justice to the characters and the scale of your imagination (or perhaps that was just too boring a prospect for you). As it is, you opened the floodgates on your imagination and watched the flow spread out across the countryside going into Volume Four and then realised you were constrained by the six-book limit. This forced you to put the brakes on in Volume Five and then end it like this. Worse, you have also been persuaded to borrow stylistically from your other work. If I had wanted to reread your stories with CAPITALS about bombs going off thanks to nameless agencies, I would have picked other books off my shelves.

You are a writer who could become dominant, but you will throw away major goodwill if you allow the publication of books like this. Frankly, it is an insult to loyal fans.

For the other reviews of books by Charles Stross, see:
The Apocalypse Codex
The Fuller Memorandum
Neptune’s Brood
The Revolution Business
Rule 34
The Trade of Queens
Wireless.

Wireless by Charles Stross

January 27, 2010 Leave a comment

There are many reasons why publishers release books into the market but, being profit-motivated, the thought uppermost in everyone’s mind is usually the generation of more moolah. In this endeavour, it helps if the author already has an established fan base that, when given warning of the impending launch of another masterpiece, will rush all slavering to the nearest bookshop to purchase said tome. For those of a less fannish disposition, it helps if the book is actually worth reading. Although, when you look at the success of authors like James Patterson (and his team writers), the ability to write coherent English in an intelligent narrative pursuit is not a prerequisite of success.

In this case, we have what, for some authors, is the collection no-one wants to talk about. The modern trend is for people to establish themselves as novelists and, if they do work at the shorter end of the spectrum, they keep quiet about it. This reverses the publishing model which started with the majority of authors building reputations in magazines and only later moving on to novels (which were, by modern standards, little more than novella length). So, the majority of publishers mute the fanfare when a collection emerges. This is a distraction from novels (particularly those in a series) which represent the main milk-cows. Well, this starts exceptionally well. “Missile Gap” is a wonderful reworking of the cold-war mentality story set in a gonzo science context. The idea of human civilisation being transplanted to a disk where, in the literal sense, it sinks or swims, is quite simply delightful. This is Stross on top of his game with an ingenious twist on Carl Stephenson’s “Leiningen Versus the Ants” thrown in for good measure. Similarly, “Rogue Farm” is another delightful idea and, not wanting to strain the suspension of disbelief too far, comes in far shorter with self-discipline in full control.

We then come to the first of the Lovecraftian stories. Now let’s start off with the required statement of prejudice. I’m a big fan of Lovecraft done well. I first came across the source author back in the 1960s and have studiously followed most of the professional work in the “universe” he and the other writers have conspired to create. “A Colder War” reruns the theme of “Missile Gap” but, by introducing an alternate history, gives us Oliver North running covert ops involving elder technology. Again, it’s a good idea and, with touches of humour, just about manages to hold up. But it’s a little diffuse, as if Stross could not quite decide whether this was to be a little guy caught up in a big machine story (as in the Laundry style) or full-blown Lovecraftian epic. “Maxos”, originally published in Nature, is an elegant joke which serves as a punctuation mark before Bob Howard makes his appearance in “Down on the Farm”. This is again Stross at his best with Bob struggling with Laundry bureaucracy and incidentally overcoming a power-crazed entity. Bob is a wonderfully modest and self-effacing protagonist who, despite being occasionally trapped in stories too long for his own good, always seems to emerge from cosmic confrontation with nothing more serious than an interminable set of report forms to complete.

Collaborations are often an embarrassment as the author with the idea fights with the collaborator on how to write it down. Egos can be brittle and fragile. Results can be patchy and indifferent. All of which heralds a genuine success in “Unwirer”. Here Stross teams up with Cory Doctorow to produce a lean and muscular story about the infrastructure to support the internet. This has everything from investigative journalism, the natural paranoia of subversives to the agents provocateurs of a repressive regime. The whole is neatly wrapped in an action-packed format and served in cohesive style.

If the collection had ended here, it would have been declared a triumph. Unfortunately, publishers tend to think in bigger scale these days. It’s no longer considered acceptable to offer the 192-page format so beloved of typesetters when I was no more than a sprog at my mother’s knee. The mythology is that buyers today will only shell out for bigger books. This forces the inclusion of padding. The first is a “long spoon” story in which the Devil is out-eviled by a drunken Scot. It has the virtue of being mercifully short — something that cannot be said about the last two entries. As I have commented in another review on this site, I am not averse to pastiche. If you know and love the original, it can be interesting to see someone having fun with the style. Occasionally, it works brilliantly at length. I grew up with the books by Dornford Yates so Tom Sharpe’s Indecent Exposure, sequel to the magnificent Riotous Assembly, is a double delight. What more could anyone ask than for a writer of rare talent to take themes and style from a revered source and then elevate them to new levels of absurdity. This is not to say that P.G. Wodehouse cannot be lifted to new heights. Lurking in the midst of the period dross, there are some good story ideas. But trying to reboot Jeeves into interplanetary hobnobbing is never going to be a success for me. As Stross himself comments in an afterword, “Humor is hard.” I might have stayed patient at two- to three-thousand words. This length is disastrously tedious for a one-trick pony. Which, sadly, brings us to “Palimpsest” which should either have stayed in his bottom drawer or been subjected to serious editing to reduce it to a bearable length. As it is, this is a very clever idea, but the execution is just endlessly boring.*

So there you have it. Good in parts, excellent in others, and then it runs out of steam and dies. Worth looking at if you are already a Stross fan. Otherwise, the price of the hardback outweighs the quality.

For the other reviews of books by Charles Stross, see:
The Apocalypse Codex,
The Fuller Memorandum
Neptune Brood
The Revolution Business
Rule 34
The Trade of Queens,
Wireless.

*With some degree of amusement, I note that “Palimpsest” won the Best Novelette Award at this year’s Hugo ceremony held 2-6 September at Aussiecon 4. Obviously, my chaffing from wheat needs more practice on the threshing.

The Revolution Business by Charles Stross

In theory, writing should be the easiest activity in the world. It is, after all, nothing more than speech captured on paper. Since everyone seems able to speak at nineteen to the dozen, dashing off the odd short story before lunch and a novel or so on your summer hols should be no problem. Except that, if you ask the few who can string more than two sentences together to make a coherent paragraph, there’s a lot of craft to learn before the paper version is worth reading. One of the key problems to resolve is the issue of narrative structure. Starting on page one, the author has to offer a coherent exposition of events, sufficiently interesting and credible to lead the readers through to a satisfactory ending.

One approach is like building a tower or digging a tunnel. Once the author sets off up the tower or down the tunnel, we are all obliged to follow, limited in what we can see because of the structure through which we pass. If you’re like Ted Chiang, you write something like the Tower of Babylon which, incidentally, won the Nebula in 1990. This should be the ultimate linear story of a man who climbs up the titular Tower, except the only discovery is that, like Ouroboros, what goes up, must come down. In non-linear stories, the events as described are not necessarily chronological or immediately related to each other. They exist like pieces in an unmade jigsaw until the author assembles them in some hopefully pleasing manner. The most common example is a multiple point-of-view structure that introduces a cast of characters that may not meet until the end or may not meet at all but influence each other indirectly. In the vast majority of all plots, we get to see an increasing convergence between all the narrative strands as the plot develops and more characters do meet.

Under normal circumstances, the author is modest and limits the cast of characters. This keeps the storytelling manageable. All of which brings me to The Revolution Business by Charles Stross. This is the fifth volume in what has been projected as a cycle of six although, unless everyone with nukes uses them in a MAD way, there could be a new series involving expansion into, or interaction with, different worlds as they are discovered. Stross has been attempting something only rarely seen. He has been building an upside-down pyramid, i.e. he placed the apex stone on the ground and then began to fan upwards and outwards without the structure falling over. It has four faces, one for each world and, as new characters are introduced and situations develop, the volume above the apex stone has been expanding. Frankly, I thought the whole thing too ambitious. It would have been an easy ride to take if the lead character, Miriam, had been the sole point-of-view. But Stross has been running multiple characters in each of the worlds (albeit the fourth world has merely been visited so far and appears enigmatically empty).

I thought the monumental effort was threatening to fall over in the fourth book, The Merchants’ War, but Stross seems to have more discipline in this latest episode and I feel more confident that the sum of the parts will prove an interesting whole when we can all look back and see how we ended up. The plotting here is more taut and, it must be said, all the better for being less ambitious. Much of the activity surrounding a subset of the lead characters is kept in outline. We see only as much as we need to see to get us where we need to go. It’s all building up towards an interesting high-stakes game in the final episode.

As one final thought, I was amused to see Paul Krugman’s endorsement on the front of the jacket. I find Krugman’s twice weekly columns in the NYT a fascinating read. My estimation of the man has been enhanced by his willingness to publicly endorse science fiction. Too few big-name intellectuals are prepared to admit opening the boards of an explictly SF book. As a world-renowned economist, I wonder what he makes of Mack Reynolds and Spondulix by Paul Di Filippo. Reynolds was a one-man army when it came to speculation about economics and, although it’s all a little wooden by modern-day standards, the ideas remain interesting. Spondulix is just good fun and should be read by all — it’s probably slightly better in the short version rather than the full novel. Di Filippo is one of the very best short story writers around.

For a review of a collection by Charles Stross, see Wireless. The concluding volume of this series is The Trade of Queens. Also see The Apocalypse Codex, Neptune Brood, Rule 34 and The Fuller Memorandum.

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