Charles Stross, Empire Games, Tor Books, £7.99, pp331, 0765337568
For devotees of science fiction, the publication of another novel by long-term Edinburgh resident, Charles Stross, is welcome news and Empire Games will not disappoint. It is the first part of a projected trilogy and while it builds on his earlier Merchant Princes series, it is a novel that stands in its own right. Anyone reading him for the first time will have no difficulty getting into the groove but tighten your seatbelts for a tale that shifts between different time lines and alternate histories.
In Time Line One, history diverged from our own some two millennia ago and was home to a group of world-walkers who could travel and profit by transiting into Time Line Two which is basically our world up until 2003. A major event then changed its history but readers will find it uncomfortably familiar – an intrusive surveillance state we’re all travelling towards at the speed of light – even if its Department of Homeland Security is kept busy intercepting world-walkers rather than denying visas to ordinary travelers. In Time Line Three, England was invaded by the French in 1760 and republicans are now governing a democratic Commonwealth.
The pacey plot mixes science fiction with espionage and politics. Its heroine is a likeable character who has to cope with conflicting loyalties and uncertainties about who are, to use Trump’s delicate phrasing, the ‘bad dudes’: the government who entrap her in Time Line One or the people of Time Line Three who just might be offering a democratic alternative. There is the usual pseudo-scientific babble that characterises much science fiction – tales of dimensional parameters, Q-machines and the like – but the basics are easy to follow.
Empire Games is a good read and an enjoyable way of passing the time on a train or plane journey. Science fiction addicts will devour it but I suspect that this kind of fiction is formulaic. But Charles Stross is hugely popular and is tapping into a need for fantasy adventures. Read at your peril for it may turn you into the kind of geek who will anxiously wait for the second part of the trilogy that is due out in January 2018.