Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Clan Corporate, by Charles Stross

The Clan Corporate is book three in Charles Stross' on-going "The Merchant Princes" series. I'm running a bit behind. The fourth book, The Merchant's War is already out. If you have not previously read any books in this series, do not start with this one. This is not the sort of series where you can jump into the middle and understand what's going on. Go back and start properly at the beginning with The Family Trade. However, if you've already been enjoying the series, this book, while taking a turn for the depressing, will be only slightly less enjoyable than its predecessors. It promises many interesting things to come, and I will certainly be continuing with the series.

Although this series uses several plot devices related to the thriller genre, it has been anything but formulaic. It has heavily armed competing factions, but here they are from a different universe than our own, a medieval feudalism. Imagine a society where the merchant class and select nobles have guards armed with kevlar body armor and AK-47s but the general populace doesn't have indoor plumbing. The armaments come from our universe, and the merchants who have genetic world-walking abilities have a sweet set-up. In our world they courier secret documents from the medieval world, safe from any prying eyes. In their world, they ferry illegal drugs around, since they aren't illegal there. Low risk, tons of profit. However, their armaments and money make them a huge threat to the nobility of their universe, and in this book the nobles strike out at them. Meanwhile, in our universe the merchants begin to run afoul of the DEA. The government realizes something much, much more important than mere smuggling is going on. In thriller-ish style the government organizes a response to hunt down the bad guys. However, in real life style, a task force that cuts across several agencies is less than 100% effective. Who has access to what information? Who defines "need to know?" Which employees report to which bosses? Who pays for the building lease? Etc., etc. Most importantly, who gets blamed when things inevitably don't go smoothly? Stross seems to have an intuitive grasp of how bureaucracy works, or more importantly, fails to work. We get to see this series of snafus through the eyes of Mike Fleming, DEA agent and coincidentally, Miriam's ex-boyfriend.

Miriam has been the main character of the series to this point. Although raised in our universe as a tough investigative tech journalist with a background in medicine (slightly typically over-competent thriller heroine), it turns out that she's really a member of the world-walking clan. Once she discovers this, she starts to try to reconcile all the various demands on her: she wants to remain independent, they need her to have more world-walking children. She wants to diversify their trading scheme and bring modernization to their medieval universe, they like things the way they are. At the end of book two it looked like she was making some qualified progress. She'd set up shop in a third universe where the tech was closer to our 19th century and seemed to be reaching some level of accommodation with her world-walking family. In this book she gets seriously smacked down.

It's good that Miriam is less central in this book, because her story gets much darker. We begin to realize that she is not, in fact, the smartest and most capable character in the book, as she would be in a typical thriller. Her family gives her enough rope to hang herself with, and she walks straight into the noose. This leaves her effectively neutralized for most of the book, trapped and unable to make any progress. It even looks like she'll be forced into a child-bearing arrangement, until the ending of this volume throws everything into chaos again.

Stross has made expert use of thriller conventions in several of his books. The entire "Merchant Princes" series draws on that genre, as well as his "Laundry" books,
The Atrocity Archives and Jennifer Morgue. In those he gets to have fun wrapping the Cthulhu mythos into plots straight out of Le Carre and Ian Fleming, all the while remembering that real government bureaucracies track paper clip accounting. In "Merchant Princes," he also gets to include his interest in economic systems. The three universes that we've seen so far have very different political, social, and economic systems. In our world he gets to contrast how the underworld and governmental systems interact in a more realistic way than in your average Tom Clancy novel. In the medieval world he gets to show the real consequences of strictly striated class systems and how they inhibit progress. This contrasts to the background medievalism depicted in many fantasy novels and is over-romanticized in works derived from Tolkein. The third universe has a monarchy with an oppresive state police, but an economy that's only loosely controlled. Miriam quickly sees how she can profit from nudging this system forward technologically, and in this volume we find out that they may already be more advanced than they look. This can be compared to the recent steam-punk type novels from authors such as China Mieville, whose heavily urbanized and squalid worlds have a bizarre and amazing mix of technologies. As always with Stross, his fun, thriller-type novels hide intriguing intellectual exercises under the surface.

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