Stross’s older Merchant Princes series gets a revival in Empire Games. Whereas Merchant Princess was a story in search of a genre, starting with what appeared to be a portal fantasy and then running off into a story of shenanigans in a family business (with bonus parallel world), Empire Games adheres more closely to a spy thriller. Stross has played Len Deighton pastiche for laughs in the Laundry novels (or at least on of them) and the ALLCAPS project names are overt reminders. However, Stross is aiming for a more sensible tone as he sets up a cold war involving parallel universes so that he can have a cold war thriller in a near-future America.
In an odd similarity to Peter F Hamilton’s recent novel, Stross also uses some science fiction devices to create a kind of ‘soviet-punk’ sub-genre. In the later novels of the Merchant Princes series, the main character had found herself in an alternative-universe North America run by a hidebound British Empire in exile on the verge of a leftist revolution. In Empire Games, the revolution has happened and technology has leapt forward thanks to the world-walking remnants of the ‘Clan’ creating a collectivist industrial society with nuclear weapons and the beginning of a space program.
Meanwhile, what was our reality in Merchant Princes has now become its own splintered reality. The USA is aware and deeply paranoid about neighbouring parallel universes and is intent on tracking down the few remaining Clan members left. At the same time, the US is busy exploiting the natural resources of neighbouring realities.
Into the mix is Rita, a young woman with an untapped capacity to move between worlds, a secret intelligence agency hidden within the Department of Homeland Security, an ageing East German spy and hints that Scientologists are up to something.
No real surprises are offered but it is as well executed as you might expect from Stross. Laundry fans will miss the humour but should enjoy the intrigue. For those hoping for some more science fictional content, we learn nothing more about the world-walkers’ ability or about the mysteriously advanced civilisation that has left behind trans-dimensional ruins in one reality. Instead, Stross uses this book to re-establish these mysteries from previous books.
I guess the book could just about stand by itself but reading the original series is probably wise. Having said that, there is enough recapping of past events to ensure you don’t have to re-read Merchant Princes to catch up if you haven’t read them recently.