Tuesday, April 3, 2012

2004 – THE FAMILY TRADE by Charles Stross

I’ve read three works by Charles Stross so far, and I’d say I’ve failed to connect with him, even while I can recognize that he plays a paramount role in sf today, and I like what he’s about. I can’t quite say that The Family Trade broke the dam, but it did give me hope that I can someday learn to love the Stross.

Modern-day Bostonian tech reporter Miriam Beckstein get fired from her job for digging into a money-laundering scheme that involves important companies. Then, her adopted mother gives her a locket from her real mother that allows her to “world walk” to an alternate universe where Europe has collapsed and the modern United States has a few still-feudal Viking settlements clinging to the coasts. Miriam learns that one large family has this ability to walk between worlds, and they’ve used this ability to cement their positions as feudal lords and enrich themselves with the products of industrial society from our world. Miriam is a long-lost heir to one of the most important branches, and she becomes a target of other clans. Meanwhile, the economically-savvy Miriam begins to cook up her own plans to modernize the backwards society of the other world…a plan which I assume plays out in the following novels, since we don’t get much beyond an introduction the world here.

The story and mood are highly reminiscent of Zelazny’s Amber series. Highly reminiscent. I’m glad that Stross acknowledges as much before the novel even begins, but the breadth of the similarities bugged me a bit. I had a feeling of déjà vu through most of this book. Stross does make a couple of changes. Putting a female protagonist in this sexist feudal world is a nice change from Amber’s testosterone-fest, and the magic is much toned down while the economics are much played up. There’s certainly enough new here to justify the series’ existence, but sometimes the new stuff feels too much like thought experiment. I read this book because a lot of economists I respect had recommended it on blogs and such. I can see why, but it can verge on being a treatise of economic development (before whipsawing back to vapid actioner).

But, this was a fast-paced book with a clear thread of central plot, nicely developed and paced sub-plots, and a compelling and quasi-believable central character, and those are all of the things that I’ve found lacking in my previous Stross adventures. Now, I feel like if I can just find the Stross work where he combines his dazzling originality (a la Accelerando) with the solid plot and character work we see here, I’ll love it.

As for the Merchant Princes, I can’t quite decide if I want to continue. If I didn’t have a to read list of about 300 books right now (not to mention Hugo noms coming on Sunday), I’d jump right on to The Hidden Family. But, I do feel like I have higher priorities. Anyone out there read the subsequent books? Do they get better?

Grade: B


  1. I've read the whole series, and I'd say on the whole, they maintain the general pace and tone of the first book. I liked visiting the various parallel worlds. As I recall, I enjoyed the first two books the most. The middle books, especially the third, tended to get bogged down. The last book goes into all thriller, all explosion mode. Again, it's a couple years since I finished them, but so I don't know if this helps.

  2. Thanks for the info. I think I'd like to read them, but they may have to go one the backburner for a while.