Sunday, February 26, 2006

Charles Stross: The Hidden Family

Charles Stross's Merchant Princes series is rollicking good fun. There's plenty of adventure, invention, conflict, great characters, and the underlying story is about different paths to economic development. I hadn't expected a story with this much economic sense from a purported member of the gang of "New Scottish Socialist SF Writers", but apparently that's more a characterization of who he hangs out with than how he thinks. Even as a follow-up to Accelerando, it's surprising; Accelerando was very full of a sense of property-is-so-last-century.

But on to The Family Trade and The Hidden Family. The first book stands well enough on its own as science fiction. Miriam is a smart journalist working the high-tech sector around Boston who suddenly discovers that she has the ability to travel to an altenate earth. It turns out that she's a long-lost member of a family in which this abilty passes from generation to generation. Miriam's family have set themselves up as medieval lords in this alternate version of North America where the industrial revolution hasn't happened yet, even though they seem to share our history up through at least the early 18th century. The families have paid for their place in society by smuggling hard goods between the worlds. Early on, it was gold and jewels, but currently, the most valuable commodity is illegal drugs. Being able to smuggle around the borders through the alternate world is a very lucrative business, but isn't doing any good for anyone but the families.

In the first book, Miriam learns the lay of the land, and figures out how the family politics work. It's clear at that point that she's figuring out that she doesn't like the smuggling business, or the way women are treated in the families, and she's determined to do something about it. With her background covering the high tech sector, it's obvious that bringing in new ideas and helping the society to progress is on her mind. But the first book ends before she has a chance to really get started. It's still a fun read, but you're definitely left wanting to read the sequel.

And the sequel (The Hidden Family) lives up to the expectations built by the first book. Miriam discovers another world and a lost branch of the family, and builds a company and a personal empire by importing new technology. Her goal is not just to build a power base, but to do so in a way that accelerates development of technology in the two new worlds she has access to. She shows the families that ideas are more valuable trade goods than the most valuable commodities, and manages to start two worlds on a path to modernization that should eventually free up many hands and allow many more people to get away from back-breaking manual labor and start contributing to progress and abundance.

Miriam does a great job of making it clear that progress is beneficial to all, and even if she's going to make herself wealthy by following this path, she'll need plenty of help, and those who ally themselves with her will probably be able to make themselves rich as well, while raising the standard of living of all those around them.

I loved the sense of life in these books; the vision of progress; and the distaste for rigid, controlling approaches to enterprise. The female lead and her strong female support group was very refreshing. They had to survive physical trials, fight armed attackers, avoid booby-traps and ambushes, and negotiate the distractions of love. Most of those fighting to stop Miriam were male, and most of the women were supportive, but certainly not uniformly so in either case.

This is the strongest candidate I've read so far this year for the Prometheus award. It's very well written, very engaging, and I really liked Miriam's approach to addressing her problems.

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