Charles Stross

The Annihilation Score (The Laundry Files 6), Charles Stross

Ace, 2015, 416 pages, 34.95 hc, ISBN 978-0425281178

There’s a notion of a quote rummaging around my brain, something along the lines of “in difficult times, you will recognize your true allegiances”. Although that’s far too dramatic for what I’m trying to get across: I haven’t been reading a lot these days, displaying an uncommon ability to tell myself, “Oh, this book can wait until I have more time”. Except for any new Charles Stross book, which I end up ordering almost on the day it’s available. So it is that I practically haven’t read any fiction in a while, but I had Stross’s latest novel in my hand a mere four days after its North American publication.

But then again, I’ve already written about how Stross’ The Laundry Files is my favourite ongoing series. Blending humour, horror, technical references and a wry understanding of contemporary fiction, it’s a series made for a very particular set of readers, but a set of which I am part. It’s also a series that keeps evolving. The first volume wasn’t meant to lead to a series, and the first four volumes had very different intentions (and methods) from the latter ones. But here we are now, with The Annihilation Score, sixth novel in a cycle that may or may not stop at the ninth instalment.

A few things are different in this volume. For the first time, the story isn’t narrated by “Bob Howard”: As anticipated by a few previous volumes in which the story escaped Bob’s narration to feature other perspectives, and finalized by Bob’s ascension to a high-level Laundry position, this new novel is narrated by none other than Dr. Dominique “Mo” O’Brien, Bob’s now-estranged wife following the dramatic conclusion of the previous volume.

Mo is not Bob (even though Bob’s technical patois and sense of humour has clearly influenced her narration) and it shows: Much of the book is spent seeing her trying to hold it together as she must deal with simultaneous crises. Not only does she have to deal with the fallout of her decision to separate from Bob, but the United Kingdom has to face the appearance of super-powered individuals in the build-up to Case Nightmare Green. She’s stuck trying to coordinate a government response while, oh yes, keeping demons both literal and figurative at bay. She doesn’t entirely succeed, especially when she also ends up developing superpowers of his own.

As with most Stross books, the joy of the novel is in seeing a different take on familiar topics. Eschewing super-heroic conventions, Stross does his damnedest to figure out how a nominally competent government would react to the appearance of superheroes. How to integrate them in law, procedures and government operations. How to combine the British ideal of policing by consent to the power fantasies of supernatural powers. For those Laundry Files fans reading from within Westminster bureaucracies, there’s some glee in seeing how Stross imagines setting up a new public service department from scratch, down to making sure the furniture is delivered and installed.

If you’re reading to keep up with the increasingly complex cast of character, The Annihilation Score has a heck of a payoff in seeing Bob’s girlfriends team up to fight evil. It also provides a different (and far scarier) perspective on Bob himself—it’s becoming clear that Bob isn’t quite who he used to be, and that the way he has portrayed himself in the past few novels is a mask trying to pretend that he’s the same likable tech guy of the first three books. The Laundry universe expands to accommodate everything coming out of Stross’s idea factory, and the result still hangs together decently.

In many ways, The Annihilation Score is a test for readers of the series—is the series about Bob or The Laundry itself? Is Bob still a hero? Is the series designed for comfort reading, or for a few upsetting shocks along the way? It’s not the same kind of novel that the first volume in the series was. Fortunately, Stross trains his readers well—over time, the probability of nuclear annihilation in Stross series approaches 100%, and the series has shifted gears so many times by now that The Annihilation Score feels like a natural extension of the series. Even as I have dramatically curtailed my fiction buying habit, one certitude remains—I’m ordering the next Laundry File novel the week it comes out.

The Rhesus Chart (The Laundry Files 5), Charles Stross

The Rhesus Chart (The Laundry Files 5), Charles Stross

Ace, 2014, 368 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-4252-5686-2

One of the hidden benefits of having taken a bit of time away from reading favourite authors in the past three years is that, suddenly, I had two Laundry Files novels to read back-to-back.  Ha!  Take that, interminable wait in-between volumes!  Go away, unfulfilled addiction to one of my favourite ongoing series!  Hello, instant gratification!

At first glance, fifth volume The Rhesus Chart looks like a romp.  Discussing the series on his blog, Charles Stross has announced that while the first four volumes of the series had been homages to spy thrillers, the next three-book cycle would take on aspects of urban fantasy.  So it is that The Rhesus Chart starts off modestly with series narrator Bob Howard discovering a nest of vampires set in London’s financial district.  Now wait: Has someone said “vampire”?  In the Laundry universe?  Why yes: While the novel begins with “everybody knows vampires doesn’t exist”, Stross ends up doing some fancy foot-tapping in order to justify their existence within the framework of the series, and it works pretty well.  When investment banking quants end up thinking a bit too much about the nature of new fiscal instruments, they end up ridden by extra-dimensional parasites that demand consumption of human blood for quantic-cognitive purposes.  When Bob discovers what they’re up to through data mining, he declares an emergency, loads up for bear and…

…and that’s when, mid-way through, The Rhesus Chart takes a most unexpected and delightful plot detour, letting go of the expected fang-hunt in favor of something far more in-line with the series’ satiric approach to occult intelligence.  I’m sitting on my hands not to say more, but I’ll add that right after I was openly musing (in reviewing The Apocalypse Codex) that The Laundry Files was worth reading for world-building more than plot, here is a novel that brings plotting back to the forefront.  Characters in The Laundry Files are far more competent and reasonable than would be expected from similar urban fantasy series, and Stross doesn’t miss an occasion to poke fun at other vampire fiction (most notably by featuring a vampire-hunter demonstrated to be even worse than the vampires).

Throughout, The Rhesus Chart keeps up the fine (and sometimes dizzying) game of spot-the-references, blending geek jokes with pop-culture references, technical wizardry and genre references.  I suspect that The Laundry Files is a narrowcast series: very enjoyable to those who happen to fall within the parameters of its premise, a bit less comprehensible to others.  As a whole, the series is steadily getting grimmer even though The Rhesus Chart certainly seems to be a bit more comic (at times) than its two predecessors: Stross indulges in lame bureaucratic humor in describing how the Laundry forms a committee to deal with vampires (or PHANGs, as they are designated), but scores a few smiles in describing vampires using trendy software development methodology and project-management techniques to figure out what’s happening to them.

Some plot threads are launched that will hopefully pay off in future installments (including a new cat, and a conversation that suggests that Bob’s relationship with Mo is of high interest to the upper management of the Laundry).  The editing is a bit slack in that the same plot points seem hammered home a few times (although, to be fair, the plot does get so convoluted at times that it seems as if even the narrator isn’t too sure what’s happening and why) and the usually heavy-handed exposition risks alienating those who aren’t already fans of exposition, although few of those will have made it to the fifth book of a series that delights in its exposition.

Then there’s the ending, which turns The Rhesus Chart from a romp to a significant installment in the series: The vampires bite where we least expect, several recurring characters die and one of the most comforting relationships in the series is badly damaged.  Some of this could have been predicted from the overall series arc: other than the typical Campbellian plotting tropes, narrator Bob has, as demonstrated in the ways the narration has progressively gotten away from him, grown significantly in power and now knows too much to remain the sole viewpoint.  In order to grow, The Laundry Files needed to shake up some of the foundations of the series, make Bob more miserable and find itself a few other narrative entry points.

It’s that kind of willingness to upset the status quo (as also shown most spectacularly in the conclusion to his initial Merchant Princes cycle) that makes Stross an interesting author even when he’s cold-bloodedly engaged in the mercantile tradeoffs of a continuing series.  The Laundry Files could have stayed in stasis, featuring Bob Howard fighting the newest tentacled evil-of-the-book, but The Rhesus Chart show that Stross is actively reshaping his series as he goes along.  Keeping in mind that the series started from what was meant to be a one-off short novel and that Stross’ game-plans keep evolving as he goes on (with a seven-book cycle now planned to hit nine volumes), this is a series that’s going to be worth reading for a while.

The Apocalypse Codex (The Laundry Files 4), Charles Stross

The Apocalypse Codex (The Laundry Files 4), Charles Stross

Ace, 2012, 336 pages, C$27.50 hc, ISBN 978-1-937007-46-1

Of all the ongoing SF&F series out there, I have to rank Charles Stross’ The Laundry Files as one of my favourites.  It seems specifically designed to appeal to my strange mix of computer knowledge, public-service career, fascination for Lovecraftian horrors, liking for spy thrillers and penchant for geeky comedy.  I’ve been a fan since the first small-press hardcover edition of The Atrocity Archives, and I’ve been fascinated by how the series has evolved from a one-shot singleton to a series with an accelerating plot spanning multiple volumes.

The fourth installment of the series, The Apocalypse Codex, picks up a few weeks after the rather grim conclusion of The Fuller Memorandum.  Narrator Bob Howard is back in service (somewhat) after being abducted by a strange cult and re-possessing his own body, acquiring some curious necromancer powers along the way.  Still shell-shocked by the events, Bob find himself promoted to middle-management early in the novel and is asked to supervise two independent contractors as they go to Colorado in order to investigate a curiously effective preacher.  Operating deep in enemy territory, Bob will have to discover how far his powers go, avoid detection and somehow… manage.

The Apocalypse Codex clearly runs along the same lines as The Fuller Memorandum: It further marginalizes Bob as the narrator (by making him discuss events at which he wasn’t present, effectively switching between first and third-person narration), returns to plot threads introduced in previous volumes, maps out some of the things previously left unsaid and further explains the multiverse in which The Laundry Files are set.  While the set-up of the book may look like another mad-cultist romp at first, it is set against the ticking clock of Case Nightmare Green and eventually leads to a confrontation between Bob and a few past horrors, at a time when he is better equipped to deal with them.

A good chunk of the book is a Peter O’Donnell / Modesty Blaise homage, featuring a new character named Persephone Hazard and her trusty side-kick.  If you’re a North-American with no knowledge of Blaise, don’t worry: the character is interesting enough in her own right, and would make a perfectly good narrator should Bob find himself unavailable at some point.  The tone of the novel does remain consistent with the rest of the series, blending some humor with deep horrors.  (Despite the extraterrestrials brain parasites being featured here, the most repellent horror of the novel has to do with non-supernatural forced human reproduction…)

A distinguishing feature of The Laundry Files (by happenstance at first, and then more deliberately) has been the way the series has steadily pivoted away from its one-shot origins into a series capable of sustaining a longer duration.  We see this further at work in The Apocalypse Codex by the way it lowers the idea density of the series and heightens the ongoing subplots.  I was initially apprehensive about the televangelist premise for two reasons: first, it seemed a bit ordinary and second because televangelists seem to be easy targets for SF writers usually writing from a non-Christian viewpoint.  This second doubt eventually went away once it became clear how thoroughly Stross had researched and presented his subject: The novel’s televangelist isn’t as evil as he is thoroughly manipulated by monsters beyond his imagination, and Stross is careful to provide detailed explanations about how his doctrine differs from the usual, to the point of giving a sympathetic voice to a pastor able to explain the quirks of the cult’s interpretation of scriptures –especially the titular codex.

This being said, my first set of doubts weren’t entirely assuaged: As The Laundry Files slow down for the long haul of a planned nine-book series, it’s normal for the freshness of the first few volumes to be normalized and taken for granted.  This isn’t exactly the best of news for those who read for world-building rather than plot, but it is to be expected.  The Apocalypse Codex does contain quite a bit of imaginative details (including some frightening descriptions of what the American occult services are willing to do) to placate series fans, and the personal growth of Bob’s character is also becoming interesting now that he’s evolving out of the lowly-sysop/operative into a more challenging manager/case-officer.

Astonishingly enough, I can’t help but note the way Bob’s career seems to run in parallel with mine, adding another layer of personal interest in the series: When I picked up The Atrocity Archives in 2004, I was a lowly techie much like Bob, toiling away in a public service bureaucracy at the lowest difficulty setting.  A decade later, I ended up reading The Apocalypse Codex at a time when I’m knocking at the doors of middle-management, taking on a small team and trusting them to do the right thing.  When Bob muses over his own career growth and responsibilities, let’s say that resonates –and this despite the thankful lack of necromancy, otherworldly horrors and brain parasites in my own line of work.

So it is that I suspect that I will remain a fan of The Laundry Files for quite a while yet.  The Case Nightmare Green ticking clock is as effective an overarching plot device as I can imagine, and with every installment, Stross proves that he can make the series evolve at its own rhythm, deepening and extending his universe as needed.  The Apocalypse Codex is strong work from a clever writer, and it just happens to push most of my power chords as a reader.  Onward to The Rhesus Chart!

Neptune’s Brood, Charles Stross

Neptune’s Brood, Charles Stross

Ace, 2013, 336 pages, C$27.50 hc, ISBN 978-0-425-25677-0

I grinned when I heard that Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood earned itself a Hugo nomination: Stross’s brand of densely-packed imaginative Science Fiction may not be to everyone’s liking, but it’s certainly a favorite flavor of mine. Stross is able to meld SF’s traditional core strengths with contemporary social sensibilities to produce SF that’s both recognizably in-genre, while reaching out to integrate new ideas and social inclusiveness. I welcome any excuse to read his books, especially when they take the form of a Hugo nomination.

Loosely set thousands of years after the events of Saturn’s Children, Neptune’s Brood features a vast post-human diaspora settled on multiple worlds. Despite the lack of faster-than-light travel, technology has progressed sufficiently that people can be beamed from star to star… as long as the required infrastructure is in place. But even without the troublesome aspects of sending meat-flesh across interstellar distances, space colonization is hard. As Stross explains in an enjoyable series of explanatory passages, building a colony from scratch requires a ruinously expensive starship, dozens/hundreds of years of hard work in building laser transmission and reception infrastructure, and thousands of very specialized people working together. There’s no way to do that without incurring astonishing amounts of debt, and how do you do that across interstellar distances and years of separation?

The solution, ingeniously posits Stross, is to develop “slow” money, algorithmically created in much the same way emerging digital currencies currently are, that are not subject to the same kind of fluctuations as “fast” money used in day-to-day transaction. Slow money, of course, is different from fast money: a single slow dollar converted to fast money is enough to make an individual rich for years.

Having built a space opera on a physically-accurate economic framework, Stross then proceeds to deliver on of his usual thriller yarns, featuring an endearing heroine specializing in the history of frauds and on the trail of a massive financial con. Despite the heavy economic content, Neptune’s Brood is heavy on thriller plot mechanics, traditional SF devices and amusing set-pieces: By mid-book, we’ve been hanging with skeletal bots, zombie queens, space pirates and genetically-modified mermaids. Stross is clearly having fun, and it’s this blend of economic/futuristic speculation and out-and-out comic thriller sensibilities that make Neptune’s Brood so enjoyable.

Seasoned SF readers will, as usual, find much to like here. Stross understands genre SF completely and fluently plays with typical concepts, subverting a few of them and faithfully upholding others. The way Stross manages to present a vivid interstellar civilization despite the limitations of STL is intriguing (even though he still had to get rid of unmodified humans to do so), and the conceptual economic model her proposes is the kind of work other authors will, or should, adopt as part of their far-future toolbox. Anyone looking for SF speculation probably won’t find any better book this year.

As a long-time Stross reader who often peers over the author’s keyboard as he reveals aborted projects and odd sources of inspiration, it’s good to see his “Space Pirates of KPMG” pitch resurface after being deep-sixed as a sequel to Iron Sunrise. Neptune’s Brood will feel very comfortable to anyone who loves Stross’ far-future speculations (the indebtness to Saturn’s Children and the Eschaton series is obvious, but there’s shadows of Accelerando and Glasshouse in here too, and the criminal/financial theme finds resonance with the Halting State / Rule 34 universe as well.)

I’m not completely blind to the novel’s faults. It’s part of the point of Neptune’s Brood that travel between systems is slow and expensive, but that limits the amount of space-opera scenery we get to see during the trip. There’s also a certain familiarity to the caper-and-thriller plotting that undercuts the originality of the premise; I recall having some of the same reactions upon Saturn Children‘s release. Finally, perhaps more importantly, the narrative ends more abruptly than expected, with nary a denouement to release readers after the climactic so-there.

But those are relatively small quibbles in a strong SF novel in the classical mold, with enough speculation to keep core-SF readers happy, and enough thrilling action to satisfy adventure-minded readers. Stross remains at the top of the SF game and my reaction to Neptune’s Brood reaffirms why I should always make time on my schedule for his novels even as my leisure time has shrunk.

Rule 34, Charles Stross

Rule 34, Charles Stross

Ace, 2011, 358 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-441-02034-8

Every new Charles Stross novel is an event in the world of Science Fiction, and rarely more so than when he turns his attention to near-future speculation.  As is obvious to anyone reading his blog, Stross is a pretty good techno-social pundit, and his willingness to play around with big concepts advantages him when he tackles near-future scenarios.  In Halting State, he imagined a wild conceptual rollercoaster where crime and technology intersected in late-2010s Scotland.  Now, with Rule 34, he revisits the same notional playground and dares ask what’s the future of deviance at a time where ideas spread nearly instantly, and where no idea is so outlandish that it can’t be shared by a group of like-minded people.

The “Rule 34” of the title is familiar to anyone who’s spent time on internet discussion forums: “If it exists, there is porn of it”, which I have always interpreted to be not a warning or a promise, but an acknowledgement that humans, especially as a group, are an imaginative species when it comes to their base desires.  Stross’ application of the concept is to imagine a team of police officers monitoring the internet to catch wind of new dangerous ideas before they have to deal with them on their own turf.  After all, If the newest craze spreading through internet hoodlums is llama-stomping, it far better for the police to be prepared than caught surprised.  (Right on cue as I edit this review, Ottawa feels its first “flash rob”.)

But there’s a lot more to Rule 34 than police using web browsers: It’s an excuse for Stross to start thinking about the near-future of crime and law-enforcement.  Much as Halting State thought about the intersection of crime, games and national security, this follow-up has a bit to say about what happens when crime is run along business principles, when police work becomes enmeshed into the cultural matrix and what the future of “perversion” can be.  (I’m overselling this by talking about “the future of perversion”, but none of the three main characters is traditionally heteronormative, and the deviance to be contained has more to do with consent that sexual orientation.  This, to Stross fans, will be strictly routine.)  As with Halting State, Rule 34 feels stuffed with neat ideas that will pop up elsewhere in the Science Fiction genre within a few years: Stross is, as usual, five minutes ahead of everyone else, and this novel does little to tarnish his current credentials as SF’s essential writer.

But if techno-social extrapolation is Stross’ best-known virtue, Rule 34 shows that he’s constantly underrated when it comes to style.  Like its predecessor, Rule 34 is written in present-tense second-person point-of-view.  The rationale for doing this isn’t as strong as in Halting State (where it could be interpreted as a take-off on the narrative voice of game tutorials), but it does lead to a crunchy game of “Who is narrating this?” toward the end of the volume as the mysteries of the plot are teasingly brought closer.  This time, Stross seems to be having a bit of fun in the narration, and never quite as much as when a particularly spirited piece of writing explains the new shape of the world in a preposterously entertaining fashion.  It used to be that you could rely upon the SF writers with the best ideas to be only marginally competent in writing prose.  Rule 34 shows that Stross is able to combine the ideas with vastly entertaining writing.  It’s still mind you, aimed straight at the techno-nerd segment able to process multiple simultaneous streams of information (chunks of the novel are best appreciated if you can get all of the references to web memes, recent political/criminal/financial history, or simply the info-SF mindset.) but it still, at times, approaches a bravura performance: As he slowly enters his second decade of professional publishing, Stross is getting better and better at delivering the kind of satisfying SF reading experience that genre readers are asking for.  It’s also, in the typical Strossian tradition, both very funny and very scary at once.

A first-rate SF novel, cutting-edge even by 2011’s most rigorous standards, Rule 34 is about as good as the genre can be at the moment, avoiding the prevailing doom-and-gloom atmosphere while presenting a challenging view of the near future.  It’s exhilarating, satisfying and entertaining at once, and it seems likely to rocket up the list of the Hugo Award nominations next year.

Wireless, Charles Stross

Wireless, Charles Stross

Ace, 2009, 352 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-441-01719-5

Over the last decade, Science Fiction author Charles Stross has established himself as one of the genre’s top writers thanks to novels combining strong plotting, sly humour, substantial horror and enough SF ideas to inspire an entire generation of readers and writers.  Commercial imperatives mean that most of Stross’ output has taken the form of novels or series, but like many SF writers in love with the possibilities of the genre, Stross has also kept up a small but creatively rewarding stream of short stories alongside his long-form output.  Nearly a decade after the acclaimed Toast that collected many of his early work, Stross now has a new short-story collection bringing together much of Stross’ post-2000 short fiction output.

Watchers of the contemporary SF market know how unlikely it is for a major publisher to produce a hardcover short story collection: they don’t sell as well as novels, and the tendency over the past few years has been for smaller presses to pick up those collections in a targeted appeal to reach the author’s fans.  For Ace to publish Wireless is a testimony both to Stross’ popularity and to the rewards that his fans can expect to find in his short stories.

Those expectations are well-placed: Even before mentioning the anthology’s reprinted stories, the major reason to read Wireless is “Palimpsest”, an original novella published here for the first time.  Here, Stross tackles time-travel by confronting clichés: As we follow an operative recruited by an incredibly long-lived organization tasked with the survival of the human race, we begin by seeing how operatives are asked to murder their grandfathers.  It gets much weirder after that, as timelines are changed and overwritten from the fabric of the universe, leaving the operatives with memories contradicting history.  It’s a major novella with an ultra-wide-screen scope that is rarely seen in today’s Science Fiction.  Tackling issues spanning millions of years, “Palimpsest” (currently nominated for a Hugo) delivers on that good-old sense of wonder, sums up the state of a familiar theme and extends it a bit further.  It’s an impressive story, and its density of ideas alone justifies Wireless’s purchase: Most SF novels on the market today don’t even have a fraction of the excitement that Stross crams in a single novella.  (Better news yet: During an interview at Readercon 2010, Stross admitted that he’s thinking hard about continuing “Palimpsest” to a full-length novel.)

The rest of the book’s table of content may be more familiar, but it’s no less thrilling.  Wireless reprints “Missile Gap”, another impressive Hugo-nominated novella that uses familiar Stross tropes and sends them out for a ride. The conclusion is similar to Stross’ classic “Antibodies”, with a Tipplerian spin: Big thinking designed to make us feel very small.  Its mercilessness is only matched by Stross’ celebrated “A Colder War”, which blends Cold War paranoia with Lovecraftian horrors; it’s an early test-run for the Laundry Files universe, and it’s still as bleakly devastating today as it ever was ten years ago.  It’s not the only test-run in the volume: “Down on the Farm” is another entertaining adventure set in the world of the Laundry Files, while “Trunk and Disorderly” is an amusing Wodehouse pastiche that prefigures some of Saturn’s Children.

Like many other anthologies, it also comes with a bunch of weaker and slighter stories: I must have read “Rogue Farm” three times by now, and never developed any affection for it.  “MAXOS” is a short-short that’s more of a joke than anything else.  “Unwirer” is written in collaboration with Cory Doctorow and goes overboard with Doctorow’s usual didactic discourse on technological freedoms.  Finally, “Snowball’s Chance” is an amusing deal-with-the-devil story that is probably more fun for Scottish readers with a fondness for reading their accent in print.  It’s no accident if those underwhelming pieces are also the shortest in the book: Stross needs space to properly unpack his ideas.

I have long considered “A Colder War” to be a classic of sorts, and I think that “Palimpsest” will soon join it as a defining Stross story.  To see both of them in print in the same volume is a wonder in itself.  That they come packaged with a few more of Stross’ shorter pieces will satisfy both fans and neophytes: For anyone looking to discover why Stross has become such a major SF author, Wireless densely demonstrates why even his short stories can be as satisfying as his longer work.

The Fuller Memorandum (Laundry Files #3), Charles Stross

The Fuller Memorandum (Laundry Files #3), Charles Stross

Ace, 2010, 312 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-441-01867-3

There are books I look forward to, and then there are new books by Charles Stross.  From the moment I saw The Fuller Memorandum in my local bookstore (a few days ahead of its official publication date), I knew that the rest of my day would revolve around finishing the book.  As an excuse to pull up a comfortable chair, a jug of ice tea and read uninterrupted for a few hours, I couldn’t have asked for anything better: I consider Stross’ two previous Laundry Files novels to be among the most enjoyable Science Fiction books of the past decade, and they’re only a part of why he’s one of the best SF authors working at the moment.

Initially launched at Golden Gryphon with The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue, Stross’ Laundry Files series blends together an unusual mixture of geeky humor, lovecraftian horror and espionage thrills.  Narrator Bob Howard starts as a geek whose explorations of higher mathematics landed him an irrevocable job within a British secret agency dedicated to protecting the world against para-dimensional Evil Ones.  The ideal target audience for this series is equally able to giggle at UNIX jokes, feel the vertiginous awe at alien horrors and appreciate the twists of spy-novel pastiches.  In short, the target audience looks a lot like me, and part of why I like the Laundry Files novels so much is the knowledge that I’m catching references that others aren’t –and missing out on quite a few as well.  (SF fans will be pleased to see The Fuller Memorandum nod briefly at David Langford, and give a much more substantial homage to Mike Ford.  Other chuckles include Bob’s weakness against shiny Apple products, and the real reason why the Laundry is so hilariously paranoid about paperclip requisitions.)

Still, the most interesting thing about The Fuller Memorandum as an entry in The Laundry Files is how it pivots Bob Howard’s adventures from two loosely connected larks to a much longer sustained series.  The narration is darker, the action stays close to the Laundry’s London HQ, Howard is physically damaged by the events of the volume and we’re starting to see how a number of threads are starting to fit together.  Many of them concern the terrifying Case Nightmare Green mentioned almost as a throwaway in the previous volumes, and that’s no laughing matter.  Among The Fuller Memorandum’s big revelations is the true identity of Angleton, and that has a number of unpleasant implications for the rest of the series as well.  Perhaps more significantly, it’s a volume that definitely exists as a part of a series: While The Jennifer Morgue could be enjoyed on its own as a Fleming/Bond parody, the Anthony-Price-inspired The Fuller Memorandum does its best to provide essential context but fits better in the continuity of the Laundry Files.

For instance, Howard’s growth as a narrator is best appreciated by those who have seen him discover the terrors out there during The Atrocity Archives and lose quite a bit more of his innocence during The Jennifer Morgue.  By the time this third volume ends, Bob has become something… very different and considerably more dangerous.  His relationship with now-wife Mo is further tested, and even his place as a narrator of the series isn’t quite so secure: Thanks to an elegant narrative sleigh-of-hand, Stross gradually trains us to be less reliant upon Bob’s first-person narration and that shift of perspective proves essential during the three-ring circus that is the climax of the novel.  The result, along with a far darker outlook on the universe of the series despite a just-as-light narration, is reminiscent of Stross’ other Merchant Princes series in how it chips away at the foundations of the series, and trends toward ever-grimmer plot developments.

The result is that even if The Fuller Memorandum doesn’t quite manage the kicks-per-page density of its predecessors, it’s very satisfying and lays down the groundwork for a promising series without locking the author in a repeating pattern.  Case Nightmare Green provides an anchor point for the next few volumes –and if Stross’ past stories are an indication, we may get a truly wide-screen apocalypse by the time the series reaches a conclusion.  Which is why, as I finally let go of the book after a pleasant afternoon of uninterrupted reading, I am satisfied but barely satiated by this third entry in the Laudry Files series.  Stross hasn’t even finished writing The Apocalypse Codex yet, and already I can’t wait for it.

The Trade of Queens (Merchant Princes #6), Charles Stross

The Trade of Queens (Merchant Princes #6), Charles Stross

Ace, 2010, 303 pages, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1673-8

When Charles Stross says he’s going to destroy something, believe him.

If The Trade of Queens is notable for something, it’s the finality with which this sixth volume upsets the nice fantasy universe introduced at the beginning of the Merchant Princes series.  As the narrative has moved away from comfort-fantasy elements to a harder-edged techno-thriller mode (not your usual genre-shifting progression!), Stross seems determined to eradicate his starting premise with a vengeance…

…but a more general assessment seems appropriate before touching upon spoilerrific considerations.  As the sixth entry in the Merchant Princes series, and the fourth-and-final volume of the current story arc, The Trade of Queens is pretty much all payoff for the various subplots launched in the series so far: It begins with the nuclear destruction of a large portion of downtown Washington, and then moves on to bigger things as the US government, motivated by the political calculations of a surprisingly influential figure, moves to definitely retaliate against the Gruinmarkt.

As an arc-closing volume, it ties together a number of threads while leaving readers begging for a follow-up a few years down the line.  The most immediate problems are resolved (sometimes less-than-favourably), even though larger issues still have a lot of potential for exploration.  There’s an offhand description of a few new parallel worlds that packs a lot of ominous ideas in a few sentences, but those new universes will have to wait until another volume for exploration, as The Trade of Queens seems justifiably preoccupied with taking care of what’s happening in the known ones.  The techno-thriller tone of the series grows even stronger this time around, as it tackles political fiction and a strong critique of US foreign policy during the past decade.  As a nod to savvier Nobel-winning fans of the series, its thematic underpinning (the “development trap”, or what enables some societies to advance more quickly than others given the availability of superior technology) is even explicitly stated late in the narrative.

Even though Stross has to juggle dozen of characters, a handful of parallel Earths, an apocalyptic scenario and the conclusion of a four-book cycle set in a six-book series, most of the characters of the series get a payoff of sorts.  Miriam finally comes a little bit closer to the forefront as the one who best understands what’s happening and how to react: it helps that she grows more comfortable in the new identity that has been pressed upon her for the last few volumes.  The conclusion is satisfying in a very dark fashion, and it does mark a reasonably comfortable stopping point for readers wondering if they can start reading the series so far.

Now that the entire cycle is available, one notes a weaker third quarter (The Revolution Business) due to overwhelming plot-juggling and a somewhat linear fourth quarter that inexorably leads to its concluding passages.  Still, the overall success of the series is undeniable: I found it impossible to let go and finished most volumes of the series on the same day I began them.  This is delicious high-end SF, smart and compelling.

In more spoiler-laden territory (turn around now if you don’t want to guess), I was gobsmacked at the way Stross goes about destroying the comfortable fantasy universe he could have milked for several more volumes.  Or, as I thought toward the end of The Trade of Queens: Wow, I’ve never even imagined a thermonuclear carpet-bombing before.  The science-fiction fan that I am can’t help but impose a gleeful reading of “fantasy worlds delentia est” over events that upset the nature of this series forever.  For all of the apocalyptic nature of this fourth volume (there’s an affecting side-show description of a major nuclear exchange midway through the book), it’s satisfying in its uncompromising nature… and it helps that a good chunk of the series’ sympathetic characters don’t exactly win, but certainly live to fight another day.  The scathing criticism of the Bush administration mindset is another layer of enjoyment that may not be equally appreciated by US readers, making it all the more amusing for everyone else.

While I wish the second arc of this series would have been delivered as one massive book (which may have helped with some pacing issues), The Trade of Queen is a volume that wraps things up as well as it can, while promising much for an eventual follow-up.  There’s a reason why I look forward to every new Stross book, especially if they leave entire worlds destroyed in their wake.

The Revolution Business (Merchant Princes #5), Charles Stross

The Revolution Business (Merchant Princes #5), Charles Stross

Ace, 2009, 320 pages, C$27.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1672-1

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: If you’re going to start reading Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series, don’t crack open the first volume unless you know you can get every other book in short order.  Not only is it the kind of addictive storytelling that makes it difficult to stop reading once things get underway, but the combination of high-concept genre-blending, plot twists, large cast of character and complex intrigue makes it essential to keep going as so to keep the entire story alive in our heads.

I am writing this with some experience in the matter: I made the mistake of reading the first four volumes of the series in rapid succession in 2008, marooning me two books away from a satisfying conclusion.  I managed to restrain myself when the fifth volume appeared last year, but now that the sixth is in stores and concludes the series’ current story arc, I had to face the daunting prospect of re-immersing myself in a complex series two years later.

It’s an uphill climb at first, because The Revolution Business picks up briskly after the events of the fourth volume: The Clan of world-travelers previously introduced is besieged by enemies in two different worlds: Stuck in a civil war on a parallel Earth, they’re being viciously hunted down on this side by the US government after a failed attempt at nuclear blackmail by a renegade element.  The already slim chances of negotiation between our heroine Miriam and the elements of the American government charged with tracking down the world-walkers are getting slimmer as Miriam is trapped by the actions of her family and the US discovers that the Clan has stolen six portable nuclear weapons from its military inventory.  Things escalate steadily over the course of the novel until no less than two nuclear bombs are detonated before the last page is over.

After two years away from the series, I won’t try to claim supernatural powers of recognition: It took me about a hundred pages in The Revolution Business to be comfortable once more with the lengthy cast of characters, their multiple agendas and their unfolding plans.  Miriam, the character through which we entered this universe and with whom we spent so much time during the first two volumes of the series, gets very little screen time as Stross is busy moving the various pieces of his plot in place for the conclusion in the next book.  If The Revolution Business has one problem, it’s that it’s very obviously the third quarter of a longer four-book arc and, as such, is stuck in the narrative trap of escalation.  The wild inventiveness of the first three volumes, which introduced one new parallel Earth per book, slows down considerably: this may be Stross’s least idea-driven book so far, so busy is it with the plate-spinning mechanics of storytelling.  In fact, The Revolution Business spends nearly all of its length setting up the fourth volume, and doing so through about a dozen character streams.  Sometimes, it feels as if there is a lot of activity for the characters, but little actual progress in the overall plot.  On the other hand, the payoff is breathtaking: The last paragraph alone kills off one major sympathetic character and destroys a major city.

As you may guess, this isn’t a particularly hopeful passage in the Merchant Princes series.  A cycle that started off as fantasy before being revealed as Science Fiction gets remade in techno-thriller mode as more attention shifts to the American government reaction to the parallel-world intrusions.  As a terrifyingly creepy character takes over the reins of the official response and comes up with increasingly sophisticated devices to replicate the world-traveling capabilities of the Clan, the stakes get higher and higher.  Add to that the evidence of civil war between the Clan and the conservatives of the Gruinmarkt and no wonder this series gets darker at every page.  Some chilling snippets of intercepted conversations hint at even more depressing events to come.

Still, grimness can be exhilarating in Stross’ hands and part of the appeal of the series as it starts winding down is to wonder at how far he’ll push it.  This is an author who has already destroyed the world a few times in other stories: we can justifiably be concerned for his characters as they try to escape from events spinning out of control.  Now that the nuclear genie has been uncorked twice by the end of this volume, it’s anyone’s guess where this will go.  What seems clear is that the narrative arc started in The Hidden Family is ready to wind down, and I defy anyone who’s made it so far in the series not to start reading volume six as soon as they’re done with The Revolution Business.  If you’re about to start reading the series and you don’t have it nearby, don’t tell me I haven’t tried to warn you.

Saturn’s Children, Charles Stross

Saturn’s Children, Charles Stross

Ace, 2008, 323 pages, C$27.50 hc, ISBN 978-0-441-01594-8

One of the most vexing issues to face genre SF these days is the necessity to put away outdated futures. Seminal writers in the fifties may have have imagined glorious visions of housewives in space, but we know a bit better: We know that housewives will be rare in the future, and we suspect that space travel is likely to remain impractical for humans. Any modern SF writer worth his books’ cover price has to stop and consider whether the ideas hardwired in the collective DNA of the genre are still possibilities knowing what we know now.

Charles Stross is one of the smartest genre SF writers on the market today, so it’s a delight to see him come up with a novel that squarely confronts those issues in Saturn’s Children. It’s an updated homage to Heinlein and Asimov that seeks to tie classic extrapolations to a future we can still imagine from today. It’s a romp, it’s typical Stross (perhaps too-typical Stross) and it’s a terrific read for those weaned on classical SF.

While perfectly readable on its own, Saturn’s Children is best appreciated with a curriculum of previous reading experiences. Since it’s an explicit homage to Heinlein and Asimov, it’s best appreciated with some knowledge of those authors. In particular, it features a heroine, Freya, with strong similarities to the titular heroin of Heinlein’s Friday (the cheesecake cover of the American edition of the book may be too outrageous for some, but it is a blatant reference to Michael Whelan’s infamous Friday cover), tours the solar system much like in Heinlein’s The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (along with descendants like John Varley’s The Golden Globe) and freely quotes attitudes from much of Heinlein’s middle-to-late period. Since Saturn’s Children also riffs on the power chords of the Three Laws of Robotics, familiarity with Asimov’s I, Robot is suggested.

It begins as narrator Freya contemplates suicide. You would too if you were in her situation, a female sexbot created to serve the needs of a human race that has since disappeared, now stuck above Venus with little means to her credit. Fortunately, Freya is one of many fembots cast from the same model, and they try to help each other when they can. Shortly after being summoned by one of her sisters, Freya is stuffed in a ship and sent off to Mercury, where her Grand Tour of a post-human Solar System only begins. Fans of Stross’ work won’t be surprised to learn that espionage, thrills, secret identities, romance and high-tech jargon are all included in the tour. The prize is a dazzling recasting of Heinleinian and Asimovian themes in something that feels convincingly modern, up to an including a neat extrapolation of the social vulnerabilities of Asimovian-wired robots left without human masters.

Saturn’s Children is most distinctive when it points and smirks endearingly at the trail left by Heinlein, Asimov and other well-respected SF legends. Heinlein’s well-known quote about the need for humans to be generalists is upended with a rude reference to trading other people’s skills for sexual acts. Other specialized jokes abound: A crucial poultry-shaped MacGuffin is referred to as a “Plot Capon” while the threat of humans being genetically re-created becomes “pink goo”. And so on; even if this a standalone book, the more you remember about SF, the more jokes you’ll get.

As a Stross book, it’s largely what fans have learned to expect from the author: it hits the usual techno-jargon, humor, romance, thrills and hints of horror that figure so often in his work. Readers who loved his previous books will completely satisfied by this one. (Conversely, those who still don’t get what Stross is trying to do won’t be any closer to an answer with this one.) Stross has attained the status of a reliable author a while ago, but at the price of delivering excellent novels that are perhaps a bit too similar. From an uninformed perspective, Stross writes very quickly: due to a number of factors, his fans have enjoyed twelve novels in six years, an insane pace that doesn’t allow any margin for error. As a result, Saturn’s Children may be superbly entertaining, but also feel just a bit too familiar to be truly impressive. (On-line chatter suggests that he’s aware of the issue and is about to slacken the pace a bit, which should be for the best.)

Small quibbles about Stross’ prodigious writing output aside, Saturn’s Children is another solid hit for him, and a superb example of genre Science Fiction at this moment in time. It makes interesting use of familiar tropes with contemporary thinking, and it’s a wonderful read from beginning to end. Stross has been accumulating fans ever since coming to prominence with his first novel, and this merely keeps up his winning streak.

The Merchants’ War, Charles Stross

The Merchants’ War, Charles Stross

Tor, 2007, 336 pages, C$28.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1671-4

Things never get any less complicated in this fourth volume in Charles Stross’ ongoing “Merchant Princes” series. Readers should be advised that in addition of being a fourth-in-a-series, The Merchants’ War is the second in a tightly-linked four-book sequence: They will be lost if they haven’t read the previous tomes, and few of the plot lines are resolved by the time the last chapter ends. Since, as of early 2008, the remaining books in the series still haven’t been published (that will have to wait until 2009), readers may want to stock the books for later reading.

But if you’re reading this in 2010 (lucky you!), here’s where things stood at the end of the third volume: Series heroine Miriam Beckstein, a journalist having discovered her talents for walking between the worlds, narrowly escaped a terrible wedding via an ever more terrible coup against the world-walking Clans. Lost on the unfriendly streets of Third-Earth New London, it’s time for her to take back control of her own destiny, even at the risk of making waves against the authoritarian regime of New Britain. There are a lot of dueling plot-lines by this point in the series, and it’s a mind-bender to try to keep up with them all. Even Miriam, after being in the spotlight for the first books of the series, is becoming just another character among many even as her role in this book is a little more active than her forced isolation in the third tome. A fourth reality even gets added to the mix this time around, proving that things can never get too complicated. But Stross’ clean style, combined with his usual humor and hard-edged understanding of economic realities, is enough to keep things hopping.

The series also keeps shifting in tone. The Merchant Princes have never been completely fantasy, but as the US government starts studying world-walking after being tipped off at the end of the second volume, Stross is bringing the series ever closer to Science Fiction: There is a superb sequence set in top-secret government laboratories in which the jargon flies as thickly as in Stross’ more conventional SF novels, and that in return promises even more interesting developments in latter books.

In parallel, a team of explorers from Miriam’s clan has also set out to explore the possibilities of world-walking as a science, discovering a fourth Earth that hints of a long-gone advanced civilization. That sequence is also one of the highlights of the book, and also promises much in latter novels.

At the same time, The Merchants’ War also keeps the series firmly set in the techno-thriller genre. After the incidents of the third volume, everyone is racing to find where the Clan’s “nuclear insurance policy” is located in Boston, and the scene in which they do find out is second in horrified interest only to the scene in which they discover another bomb they didn’t know about. Oh yes, this is a lively book.

The twists and turns keep piling up, as do the ideas and character revelations. The mix of technologies that the Clan uses against the Nobility’s aggression is intriguing, even as it’s an excuse for a few laughs—such as transporting “re-enactors” forces in a schoolbus.

But trying to review things at this point is like seeing half a movie and being asked for comments. The best thing to say so far is that the rhythm, inventiveness and quality of The Merchant Princes is intact after four books, and that all signs point to even more fascinating follow-ups. Sadly, these follow-ups still have to be published, and there are at least two of them to go before a natural breathing point.

So there’s really no news to report: if you like the series, this book isn’t going to change your mind, but any further development will have to wait until everything is out.

So, reader-from-2010, how good was it?

The Clan Corporate, Charles Stross

The Clan Corporate, Charles Stross

Tor, 2006, 320 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30930-0

I won’t claim that Charles Stross can do no wrong: after all, I’ve read his web-published early novel Scratch Monkey and it’s still early in his career (his first novels were more or less published in 2003), but The Clan Corporate, third book in the “Merchant Princes” series, is a superb example of how he’s one of the most reliable, interesting and entertaining genre writers currently working.

Ignore the “fantasy” label on the book jacket: Stross develops even his “fantasy” novels with the rigor and sheer extrapolative joy that is to be found in the best science-fiction. (This is, after all, the type of parallel-universe fantasy indistinguishable from sufficiently-advanced plot science.) But this third volume furthers bends the genre classification of the series by introducing strong thriller elements that take this novel to the boundaries of the techno-thriller.

If you remember the end of the previous volume, you’re probably wondering how much mayhem a high-ranking defection has caused for Miriam Beckstein and her family. The answer, as you may guess, is more trouble than anyone can seem to handle: The Clan operations are in disarray, especially now that the US government has taken an interest in world-walking. The defector’s insurance policy, a nuclear device hidden somewhere in an American city, keeps ticking away despite all-out efforts to find the device. New characters make appearances, none more intriguing than Mike Fleming, an ex-boyfriend of Miriam’s, now working for the DEA but drafted in a new deep-secret interdepartmental government effort to find out more about the world-walkers smuggling merchandise just under their noses. In a post-9/11 environment featuring “Daddy Warbucks” as a particularly ruthless vice-president, the US government really isn’t playing nice.

Oh yes, the “Merchants Princes” series hasn’t yet made its SF underpinning clear, but we’re not in fantasyland any more. Stross’ keen nose for thriller mechanics is familiar to fans of his “Laundry” sequence, but it’s developed to great effect here, placing Miriam against yet another capable enemy. Better yet, this volume’s introduction of real-world thriller elements makes it feel even closer to our reality than ever before.

Not that she needs the extra complications, in between setting up a new business in third-Earth New London and trying to keep her own family away from her. After the events of the previous volumes, no one is particularly keen on seeing Miriam run around without supervision—she eventually finds out the limits of her freedom after a particularly bad mistake. Poked, prodded and ceremoniously prepared for unwanted nuptials, Miriam comes to realize that it will take the intervention of a third party to free her. Fortunately, third parties aren’t particularly rare in this series so far…

Plot twists, developments and extended idea riffs continue to abound in this superbly readable entry in the series. The ending is abrupt, but the multi-party power struggle makes the plot deliciously convoluted, and the series’ distinction of featuring an abundance of very smart characters continues to produce unexpected sparks of interest. Miriam’s becoming less of a central character, but the series continues to chug along without any dip in interest. Stross has hit a fertile streak with this series, and his execution so far will be enough to reassure any reader that the series is in good hands.

Still, one crucial word of warning to the impatient: The Clan Corporate is the first in a tightly-linked sequence of four books: It ends with a flurry of new plot developments and an unpleasant cliff-hanger. People susceptible to hissy fits over incomplete stories may want to stock up and wait until the fourth volume in the sequence comes out in 2009. Yes, that’s a long time. But it’ll be worth it.


The Hidden Family, Charles Stross

The Hidden Family, Charles Stross

Tor, 2005, 303 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31347-2

Readers who thought that Charles Stross’ fantasy debut The Family Trade was heavily in clever details, plot twists and smart characters are about to get even more good stuff for their money with this follow-up: The Hidden Family piles on more complications, more developments and even more worlds to explore.

This fantasy series’s premise is that a genetic trait in some humans allow them to travel between parallel worlds, at the price of terrible headaches. The first to discover this ability were inhabitants of another world, one that, by the early twenty-first century, is still stuck in medieval times. Using our world as a source of high technology, those families were able to consolidate their power base thanks to illegal trading on behalf of cartels in our world. (Think about a parallel world without border guards…) One of the several wild cards in this scheme is the sudden re-appearance of one Miriam Beckstein, a long-lost relative who was unknowingly raised in our world as an orphan, eventually becoming a high-tech/business journalist before discovering her gifts and being coerced in the family business. The Family Trade delivered a lot of back-story and intrigue in a short time and The Hidden Family picks off right where the previous book ended, not an accidental choice given how both books were conceived as a while unit before being split for publication.

The first big twist of this installment, as hinted in the first volume, is that there is another world out there. Not just another America, roughly technologically equivalent to Victorian England, but another family of world-walkers waging war on the clans known to Miriam’s family. Our heroine is quick to seize upon this opportunity and see the potential profit margins in enabling technological transfers between more worlds. There are complications, of course: The regime at the other end is a totalitarian monarchy that wouldn’t take lightly to Miriam’s revolutionary ideas. And Miriam can’t go directly from here to there, but has to set up a transfer point in her family’s intermediate universe.

As if those new developments weren’t enough, Miriam’s power base in her family is still very much in jeopardy: Her secret love affair with a cousin is already material for blackmail, her relatives can’t stand her lack of manners, and even the senior members of her family are contemplating whether she’s bringing in more trouble than she’s worth. Palace intrigue, plots and counter-plots all unfold in complex patterns, even as a key member of Miriam’s family business plans treason and defection…

Fortunately, Stross’ crackling prose not only keeps all of those development as clear as possible, it makes reading the book an engrossing experience. This is one of those “just one more chapter” novels that hypnotize readers until the last page, leaving them wanting even more.

Plot-wise, this is almost as busy as the previous installment, and the ideas just keep on piling up. The interactions between the world are rich in implications: the doppelgangering of locations in dual worlds, for instance, is an idea that constantly reveals new facets. The economic implications of world-walking are cogently explored (even if only conceptually as of yet) while the realities of a renaissance-era world-view constantly rub Miriam the wrong way, offering a subtle counterpoint to the triumphant medievalism so prevalent in classical fantasy.

The Hidden Family is just the second installment in an ongoing series, so readers shouldn’t be surprised to find out that the end of this book only offers a respite of sorts for Miriam, just as other things go catastrophically wrong. There’s plenty of material for future plot threads here, and yet other possibilities remain unexplored for now, though I don’t doubt that Stross is busy preparing how best to integrate them in future installments.

The Family Trade, Charles Stross

The Family Trade, Charles Stross

Tor, 2004, 303 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30929-7

Most polls prove it: the single biggest reason why people pick up books by specific authors is because they are already familiar with their work. In an American market where 100,000 books are published every year and most people don’t read even one book per month, why should casual readers take a gamble on unproven authors when they can just buy a “name” book knowing what to expect?

Of course, some authors make an effort to avoid being pigeonholed. Although Charles Stross is better known for idea-crammed Science Fiction, he consciously diversified genre, publisher and readership with The Family Trade, delving into so-called fantasy for Tor Books. His process was even amusingly codified on his blog as “Five rules for cold-bloodedly designing a fantasy series”. But when a quintessential Science Fiction writer like Stross feels free to play in another genre, no one should be surprised if some of his established strengths carry through the genre frontiers.

So the result is a book labeled as fantasy, but conceived according to the rigor of hard-SF. Miriam Beckstein is a Boston-based high-tech/business journalist, but her latest scoop is more trouble than her bosses can stand: she finds herself fired and sent home. Coincidentally, an artifact from her past unlocks a latent ability to travel between parallel worlds, at the price of terrible headaches.

It’s a promising setup, but it’s what Stross does with it afterward that transforms The Family Trade from a run-of-the-mill fantasy (“Plucky orphan discovers that she’s rich and powerful in another world”) to an excellent start to an ongoing series. Whereas lesser writers may have dawdled in describing the wonders of discovering another parallel universe, Stross thinks harder: The parallel world is still at a medieval-era level of development, and taking advantage of world-walking isn’t simple when there’s another culture and language to learn. But it gets better, because Miriam is far from being the only world-walker, and the rest of her family really doesn’t want her running around without supervision. Miriam may be fearsomely intelligent (there are no “you stupid heroine” moments here), but her opponents are just as crafty in their own way, and her continued existence depends on a web of complex political alliances more than her family’s filial bonds. Further revelations make it even clearer that the source of the family fortune is not legal, and that other families definitely want Miriam to die.

In between learning the social rules of her second universe and defeating assassination attempts, Miriam turns her business experience into a plan to profit from her ability. Complications quickly pile upon further complications, making The Family Trade a lively and sometimes-unpredictable read.

Stross’s typical strengths are a mixture of accessible prose, fascinating ideas and a willingness to engage with social and economic issues. All of those traits are admirably deployed in The Family Trade, resulting in a mesmerizing reading experience. This is a terrific first volume in an ongoing series, although impatient readers should be warned that this is really the first half of a tightly-linked two-volume set: Get both The Family Trade and its follow-up The Hidden Family if you want to reach a satisfactory conclusion to Miriam’s initial adventure.

But Stross fans already know that everything the man writes is gold: In the past five years since Singularity Sky, Stross has established himself as a solid and reliable writer whose books just keep on getting better and better. Now even the most reluctant anti-fantasy readers can pick up this series without fear of disappointment. And as Stross cold-bloodedly designed, this is a series with quasi-limitless potential. If Stross can keep up the density of plot developments, this is going to be a wild ride.

Halting State, Charles Stross

Ace, 2007, 351 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-441-01498-9

I love the feel of sizzling neurons in the evening.

People read Science Fiction far various reasons. I’m in it for the rush I get when SF knocks a few new ideas in my head, links them to the world at large and asks if I’m ready to deal with them. It’s a cognitive pleasure that is seldom seen elsewhere in fiction, and Charles Stross excels at it. Even when he’s dealing with occult horrors or dimension-hopping economies, Stross is never too far from the “use the future to think about the present” ethos of the best SF. With Halting State, Stross attempts the most dangerous game imaginable for SF writers: a near-future thriller.

It’s a risky dare, because it carries along its own metric for failure. Never mind that Stross isn’t attempting to be a futurist: a surprisingly large number of falsely sophisticated readers will read his novel as a grab-bag of predictions and pass judgement on how closely his extrapolations will match our real-world 2010s. And there are no ways to win at this game: The slightest errors will be highlighted, and what does survive may not be detectable from the then-mainstream. (There are surprisingly few rewards for being prescient in SF.) Halting State is a novel with an ever-closer examination date.

It seems, at first glance, like a departure from Stross’ three existing strands of fiction. It’s not far-future post-Singularity SF like Accelerando, it’s not occult horror/thriller like The Atrocity Archives and it’s not a fantasy of finance like the series launched with The Family Trade. But look closer, because the links with his other fiction are all over the place.

First, Stross is still fascinated by how economics shape our societies. The trigger to Halting State is theft. Virtual theft, as an attack on a bank set in a virtual role-playing game results in a police and insurance investigation. This may be virtual money theft, but it quickly has real-world consequences as the lead investigative team is assembled: A computer expert who knows on-line gaming, an insurance investigator who wields a mean sword and a police investigator who finds herself bemused by the whole case. These three characters each get alternating viewpoint chapters, rounding out our perspective on a case that becomes more complex than anticipated. Because this isn’t just a game.

And this is where Halting State takes off, as it riffs on the nature of reality and fantasy like the best of Stross’ SF work so far. The theft is the tip of a much deeper business, one that has links to the setting of the novel. As it turns out, Stross doesn’t set his novel in a newly-independent Scotland just for the local atmosphere. SF used to dream about how the real could shape the virtual, but the current crop of genre fiction (including William Gibson’s surprisingly similar Spook Country) is busy describing how both the real and the virtual interact until it all becomes one single augmented reality.

But this vertiginous realization comes with the understanding that virtual universes have been with us for a long time, and that “The Great Game” keeps extending its reach as computers end up forming part of our identity. That’s the point at which Halting State is revealed to be tightly linked to Stross’ “Laundry” espionage/horror series, and where his usual mixture of horror, humour and speculation finds its ultimate expression.

Stross keeps on getting better with each novel, and Halting State is a tour de force in many ways: Stylistically, it’s more audacious than it has any right to be with a second-person narration, but even that works after a while. Thematically, it vigorously explores Stross’ usual preoccupations. Narratively, it features a number of strong scenes and carefully-measured revelations. Conceptually, it proves that high speculation is not incompatible with near-future settings. It’s a good thing that Stross is able to temper his extrapolations with a heavy dose of humour, because some of the speculations in here are enough to drive anyone to full-blown paranoia (an approach explored in Ken MacLeod’s not-dissimilar The Execution Channel.)

So who said that SF was running out of future? There are more fresh ideas in this “near-future thriller” than in most “far-future science-fiction” published this year. Stross made a dangerous bet in looking at a future well within the lifetime of most readers, and it looks as if he’s well-placed to win. Even if reality catches up to this novel (and I’m hardly the only one who caught recent news of virtual bank thefts in Second Life), doesn’t it suggest that you too should read this novel as soon as possible?