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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Charlie Stross, The Trade of Queens: Book Six of the Merchant Princes

[Welcome Charlie Stross, and Host, Paul Krugman]

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread.  – bev]
The Trade of Queens: Book Six of the Merchant Princes

Charles Stross And The Family Trade

So, the obvious question: what am I, of all people, doing as host of this symposium? Shouldn’t I be writing about financial catastrophe or something?

The short answer is that Charlie Stross is one of my very favorite authors – one of the handful of living writers of whom I find myself wondering, “When’s his next book coming out? What’s he going to do this time?”

The long answer is that what drew me to science fiction, more than four decades ago – before I got into economics, and in fact part of the reason I went into economics – was a certain kind of possibility: the creation of fictional worlds, different from our own but not too different, as a way to play with ideas about who we are and where we’re going. And I do mean “play” – not being too serious, mixing ideas about society, economics, politics, and so on with derring-do and romance is crucial to keeping things light enough to tolerate.

And nobody does this better than Stross.

What Stross books should you read? All of them, if you can find the time. Is there any writer on Earth so bubbling over with ideas? His stuff ranges from more or less conventional sci-fi to the dark satire of the Laundry novels – black magic is real, but it’s based on algorithmic computations, and carried out by nerds who work for a stifling bureaucracy. (In The Jennifer Morgue we’re introduced, among other things, to a PowerPoint presentation that turns the audience into zombies. I think I’ve encountered that presentation at several conferences.) Even his short stories and novellas bear repeated rereading for their sheer intellectual cleverness – for example, nobody has made as much of the paradoxes of time travel and Stross does in his novella “Palimpset”.

But what we’re here to talk about today are the Merchant Princes novels, of whichThe Trade of Queens is, alas, the last, for now (though Stross does say that there are more story arcs in his head, which gives me hope).

I’d urge readers interested in the background to the Family Trade series to read Stross’s explanatory essay on his blog: Charlie’s Diary. In it he explains why he got into the fantasy genre, whose ideas he stole, uh, remixed, and, as I’ve already mentioned, gives us hope that there will eventually be more.

The underlying conceit in these books is that there is a family with the ability to walk between alternate universes. The universe they’re from is one in which modernization never happened and the east coast of America is at a more or less 11th-century level, ruled by Germanic warlords. The universe they go to is almost, but not quite, ours – the differences become grimly apparent by the end of The Trade of Queens. There’s also a third universe in which things went wrong in the 18th century, so that there has been an industrial revolution, but a delayed one, and representative democracy never got a toehold.

Given this conceit, Stross could have written a more or less conventional upbeat tale, in which Miriam Beckstein, his modern American protagonist (who turns out to be a long-lost member of the world-walking nobility) brings enlightenment to the downtrodden. But if he’d written that, he wouldn’t have been Charlie Stross. Instead, the novels are a tale of the remarkable ability of human societies to make the worst of opportunities. And they are, especially as you move into the later books, informed by a deep political cynicism: you should never, Stross warns us, underestimate the ability of reactionaries and authoritarians to screw things up.

So bringing modern technology from America to the Gruinmarkt, its counterpart in alternative universe #1, doesn’t bring modernization and freedom; it just reinforces the grip of a corrupt, vicious aristocracy. (Stross, unlike your typical fantasy writer, has no nostalgia for the days of kings, lords, and ladies. As he says, “If you want a modern cognate, you need to look no further than Kim Jong-Il.”) In an earlier essay on these books,  I characterized them as a meditation on development economics, pointing out that the experiment of having people from an advanced society drop in on less-developed nations actually happens all the time – and that in many cases, all you get is feudalism with cell phones.

Meanwhile, in (almost) our America, the world-walkers use their talent to … smuggle drugs, with a certain Dick Cheney as their protector and enabler.

And when Miriam tries to show them another, better way, her efforts – although it seems for a while that they might be succeeding – eventually go for naught: the reactionary faction sabotages her efforts because it doesn’t want any changes that will undermine its power. And it goes downhill from there: because the reactionaries can’t be bothered to understand what makes a more advanced society tick, they bring on their own – and almost everyone else’s – destruction.

So far this might sound like it’s all about the evil of right-wingers, of various vintages – but this being Stross, it’s not that simple: there are, as he writes in his essay, no unambiguous good guys. In New Britain, alternate universe #3, the awful monarchy is overthrown by brave revolutionaries – and the result is a mess, with the clear risk that the new regime will turn out even worse than the old.

But I realize, as I write this, that it’s starting to sound as if there no sympathetic characters. In fact there are: Miriam and her growing circle of friends and allies are enormously appealing, and the novels end on a note of hope amid the disaster.

I also realize that I may be making these books sound didactic, when they’re anything but. That’s the point of great science fiction: you can have fun with ideas while having fun across the board. And Charlie Stross writes great science fiction. Read it, and enjoy.

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Paul Krugman

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