Short works

Books : reviews

Charles Stross.
Toast: and other rusted futures.
Wildside Press. 2002

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 11 June 2006

A collection of Stross' early short stories. He has a preface explaining how, with things moving so fast, these stories are already out of date (especially the Y2K ones!) However, they all have a very strong Stross "voice", and are well worth reading, despite any slight anachronisms. Stross a few years out of date is still vastly more up to date than many other SF authors!


After the Future Imploded. 2002
The challenges of writing SF in a rapidly moving world, including an amusing conversation with H. G. Wells
Antibodies. 2000
The dangers of weakly superhuman AIs, and how Everett-worlds agents attempt to stave off the problems.
Bear Trap. 2000
(An Eschaton Universe story.) Stockbroker Alain Blomenfeld is on the run from bankruptcy, when his wife accuses him of acting strangely. But he doesn't have a wife.
Extracts from the Club Diary. 1998
How coffee has fueled progress, and more.
A Colder War. 2000
(One could probably think of this as an early "Atrocity Archives" universe story set in a parallel world.) The Russians have a Shoggoth, and start using it in Afghanistan. But do they really have it under control?
TOAST: A con report. 1998
Report from a post-Singularity ancient computer hardware convention
A Boy and His God. 1997
Howie's parents buy him a pet god, which is safe enough provided he doesn't start worshipping it
Ship of Fools. 1995
Avoiding the Y2K problem
Dechlorinating the Moderator. 1996
Geeks will be geeks, even in a post-Singularity society
Yellow Snow. 1990
In a future world where bio-mods make designer drug production simple, he decides he needs more capital, and that a time machine will open up the perfect market.
Big Brother Iron. 2002
1984, 20 years on, with computers. Doublethink and programming don't mix

Charles Stross, ed.

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 1 August 2010

A collection of Stross' short stories, only one of which ("A Colder War") I've seen before. They vary from light-hearted fluff to deadly serious. "Down on the Farm" is a Laundry short, with all the usual bizarre humour and horror. "Trunk and Disorderly" is a P.G. Wodehouse pastiche, which I enjoyed, but didn't find hilarious, probably because I don't find Wodehouse particularly funny; "MAXOS" is much funnier. "Missile Gap" is a thought-provoking take on other intelligences, with some great sensawunda. But for real full-bore sensawunda, "Palimpsest" takes the biscuit: frankly, this is why I read SF -- I get to kiss an awful lot of frogs doing so, but occasions like this make it worth it.


A Colder War. 2000
(One could probably think of this as an early "Atrocity Archives" universe story set in a parallel world.) The Russians have a Shoggoth, and start using it in Afghanistan. But do they really have it under control?
Missile Gap. 2005
Given overwhelming evidence of superior intelligences, what would the nations of the world do? But maybe it's not those weakly-godlike beings who caused the Change who need to be feared the most.
Rogue Farm. 2003
Joe and Maddie have a rather different reaction to the rogue farm that puts down roots near their homestead.
MAXOS. 2005
A rather plausible solution to the Fermi Paradox. Rofl.
Down on the Farm. 2008
Operative Bob Howard investigates a cry for help from an inmate of the Laundry's Funny Farm. But it's weirder than that.
Charles Stross, Cory Doctorow. Unwirer. 2004
An Alternate History where the internet regulations in the US panned out somewhat differently.
Snowball's Chance. 2005
A rather different pact with the Devil.
Trunk and Disorderly. 2007
Super-rich high-jinks on Mars, P. G. Wodehouse style
Palimpsest. 2009
Maximising human potential by reseeding and conserving the planet. Or not.

Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross.
The Rapture of the Nerds.
Titan. 2012

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 15 May 2013

Huw Jones is a technophobe living on Earth with the remaining meat people after most of the population uploaded themselves into the interplanetary cloud several decades ago. He is overjoyed to be called to jury service, to help decide whether some post-singularity software should be downloaded. But things don't go as he expects, and he finds himself on the run, pursued and attacked by judges, fundamentalists, genies, and weakly godlike versions of himself. Life will never be the same again.

This is superb. Every sentence bristles with wit and insight, and the plot boils with unexpected and ever more serious consequences, delightfully weird extrapolations, and deep questioning of humanity. I particularly like the slow realisation that Huw, despite being a deep technophobe of his own tech-level, is in fact more comfortable and adept with that technology than most people are today are with ours.

Charles Stross.
Orbit. 2005

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 16 July 2006

The Singularity: the "event horizon" of the future, beyond which technological advance is so rapid no meaningful predictions can be made. Accelerando: a story of the post-Singularity. So, Stross has his work cut out.

This is a "fixup" novel of nine substantial chapters, each essentially covering a single decade of the 21st Century, from the almost recognisable 2010s, to the completely incredible fin de siècle, from the point of view of the Macx family, and their AI pet cat Aineko. (The fixup nature makes for some repetition, but that's probably not a bad thing in a book with a scope as sweeping as this.) It starts simply enough, with an extrapolation of today's computer power, with instant access to all information, and ends with weakly godlike transcendent intelligences that have disassembled most of the solar system and reconstituted it as computronium. The final grim vision makes any of today's doom-and-gloom eco-catastrophe scenarios look positively benign in comparison: either become a transcendent incomprehensible inhuman intelligence, or remain a greatly enhanced but nevertheless essentially mentally defective and impoverished humanoid.

This is brilliant: the scope of the vision, the density of the techno-details, the beautiful witticisms (Rousseau's Universal Robots, indeed), just the sheer chutzpah of attempting to meaningfully describe a post-singularity world. Almost paradoxically, the earlier chapters have more techno-details: these are the hardware extrapolations of today's capability. Later chapters, with much modified or uploaded humans forking off ghost personalities to analyse problems as casually as we would write Post-It reminder notes, have less detail. After all, as Benford's Corollary states: "any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced"; this certainly does not fail that test. A convincing demonstration of the exponential power of Moore's law growth, and beyond. This feels like a possible future, and one that's not that far away!

Charles Stross.
Orbit. 2006

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 31 March 2007

Robin has put himself through memory erasure, but, naturally, can't remember why. It must have been to forget something terrible, and he fears people are out to kill him over it. He is beginning to realises that he needs to get to safety somewhere, when his robot counsellor tells him of an interesting experiment: a group of social scientists is setting up an experiment in primitive social behaviour, and wants volunteers for a three year stay, living in a secure pre-Singularity habitat. It seems like the ideal way to be safe from his pursuers, but once in the experiment, he realises he might not have been told the whole truth about its purpose, and that his life is in danger again. Or he might just be going mad.

This is set in the same universe as Accelerando, Stross' post-Singularity vision. But now it's much further in the future, where long-lived post-humans routinely undergo voluntary memory modification to stop them getting stale and bored, and also undergo involuntary memory modification by rogue viruses left over from debilitating censorship wars. The future post-scarcity culture is only briefly shown, mostly in flashback (literally, as some of Robin's memories return unbidden). What's most fun is the deeply disturbing depiction of our own culture, or at least an experimental pastiche of it, as viewed through the horrified gaze of a 27th century dweller: no assemblers, no backups, no datalinks, no freedom.

I initially thought that the ending (just who dies, and who survives) didn't work. But on reflection, I think it does a good job of showing just how different this post-Singularity society is -- a society where identity theft is a heinous crime, but murder is a mere peccadillo, both for very sensible reasons.

Charles Stross.
Singularity Sky.
Orbit. 2003

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 21 February 2005

In the early 21st century, the Singularity occurred, and the super-powerful Eschaton resulted. Now, the Eschaton is a bit nervous about anyone time-travelling to before it was born, and possibly editing it out of existence. So it has scattered humanity widely around the galaxy, and has strict laws against causality-violating time travel. The Diaspora has produced several strange outposts, one of which is the repressive New Republic, forcibly keeping technology at 19th century levels, to keep the peasants in their place. Then the Festival arrives at one of its planets, an alien fleet of infovores, paying for stories with cornucopia machines. The planet's socio-economic fabric isn't so much torn as annihilated, as peasants no longer need their masters, and the New Republic decides this is an act of war. So they send a space fleet to intercept the Festival -- and have the cunning plan of arriving just after the Festival does, using a little bit of (but not too much) time travel. But since the Eschaton is quite willing to enforce its laws against causality-violating time travel with the odd supernova or two, the bulk of humanity is also quite keen to stop anyone coming even close to this, and agents are sent to thwart the New Republic's moves. And the New Republic has no idea how to fight advanced alien technology anyway.

This is a very clever and wonderfully witty first novel. The culture clashes, the sheer alienness of the Festival and its fringe elements, how a planet reacts to going through two hundred years of technology advancement in a week, and the look at life after the Singularity, are all handled very well. It is dense with wonderful little descriptions, such as describing battlecruisers as looking like a cubist's vision of a rabies virus crossed with a soft drink can. There are several "in jokes" -- sly references to other SF and popular culture -- that add a layer of fun, but don't detract from the plot. Best of all these, the plot appears to be leading up to a space battle of apparently epic Weberian dimension, but which has a wholly different kind of outcome (and where again, not knowing about Weber does not harm enjoyment of the overall plot). I'm not totally convinced that a small Empire like the New Republic could keep most of its technology and mores at 19th century levels, whilst still having beanstalks and FTL interstellar spaceships -- but that's a minor quibble. The various threads are interwoven nicely, and come together for a great conclusion.

Charles Stross.
Iron Sunrise.
Orbit. 2004

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 11 August 2005

This is set in the same universe as Singularity Sky, with Rachel Mansour trying to halt yet another giga-death episode. This time the planet Moscow has had its star turned into a super-nova, utterly destroying it. The only thing the people had time to do was fire off planet-busting missiles at the assumed aggressor, New Dresden -- but they are in fact innocent. The only people who can stop these missiles are the Muscovite Ambassadors in exile, who each have pieces of the abort codes -- but they are being assassinated one by one. It's up to Rachel to stop the missiles, and combat the several different conspiracies under way, each after their own ends.

This is a super sequel. All the plot complexities are present, with loads of hard science, from nanoware to bio-implants, from faster than light drives to weird, and very icky, social structures. The writing has the same lightness of touch, but there are fewer jokes this time, which seems to allow Stross to concentrate more on the plot, which zips along in nicely interwoven threads. There are several apparent gigantic coincidences, but given the invisible finger of the Eschaton in every pie, they can easily be explained away. This is not fluff -- the issues brought up, about the right to tell other people how to live their lives, and when and who to kill, are very pertinent, and even (some of) the bad guys manage to evoke sympathy even as you realise how truly evil they are.

There is satisfying closure at the end, but this universe is open enough to allow Stross to go back and play there any time he wants to.

Charles Stross.
The Atrocity Archives.
Ace. 2004

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 28 May 2006

Bob Howard works for a secret government department. Very secret. Because, you see, there really are eldritch horrors out there, waiting to invade anytime someone proves the wrong mathematical theorem, and it's this department's job to make sure no-one does, and if they do, to clear up the ichor afterwards. The Nazis were stopped from summoning a very nasty demon just in time, but now it seems some present day terrorists are again deliberately trying to contact it. But they don't realise just how nasty the demon really is. Bob stumbles into this plot, and has to save the world. Whilst remaining ISO9000 compliant.

The book is two long stories: the novel The Atrocity Archive, followed by a novella The Concrete Jungle. On the one hand it's is a funny light hearted romp through SFnal and geek allusion space -- from Mornington Crescent to concrete cow abuse in Milton Keynes, by way of Knuth, Clarke and Heinlein, and many more references. It's fun spotting these, but they do occasionally pull you out of the story. However, this romp is mere froth on top of a much grimmer story of, well, atrocities. This is handled well, full of horror and disgust at what the Nazis and others did, and do, without ever feeling voyeuristic. And that's quite amazing, because the whole story itself is a great hard-SF/fantasy/spy thriller, with a believable geek action hero. (Yes, really!)

Charles Stross.
The Jennifer Morgue.
Orbit. 2006

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 26 September 2007

Bob Howard, secret agent and hacker, is having a bad day. He's been cut up on the autobahn by a demon-infested beauty, who turns out to be his entanglement partner in a race to save the world from eldritch horrors, again. Most of the parties involved have their own secret agendas, which may or may not involve helping the bad guys. And, worst of all, it is important to the success of his mission that he doesn't know what his mission is, despite all the clues along the way that might give him an inkling.

This is another great romp on several layers, from the underlying demon horrors, to the nice self-referential plot device being about a plot device. The overall plot is slightly better structured than The Atrocity Archives, and the denouement wonderfully played. Stross, it appears, can't write a bad book in any of the sub-genres he inhabits.

Charles Stross.
The Fuller Memorandum.
Orbit. 2010

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 3 October 2010

Agent Bob Howard is in another pickle. His boss Angleton sends him on a secret mission (so secret he won't even tell Bob what it is) to investigate a haunted airframe, which ends in disaster and an Audit. His wife Mo has a traumatic experience with some hastening-the-imminent-end-of-the-world cultists during a mission in Amsterdam, but can't tell him about it. Then her work follows her home. And to top it all off, Angleton disappears, the Russians are snooping around looking for the Teapot, and Bob is in grave danger of being possessed by his work.

This is less of a romp than previous outings. The end of the world is drawing closer, and the events are much grimmer. There are some light touches, and the usual bizarre nature of mundane civil service handling of occult situations (and I liked the glamour explanation of the desire for a certain piece of technology). This is an Anthony Price-style caper, and that's an author I'm not familiar with, so I'm probably missing a whole layer of references here. nevertheless, it's gripping material, and not at all obvious how it's going to pan out (although the revelation of the leader of the cultists is not terribly surprising). I'm looking forward to the next instalment in Bob's fight against total global devastation by the Elder Gods.

Charles Stross.
The Apocalypse Codex.
Orbit. 2012

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 29 July 2012

Bob Howard is mostly recovered from his previous mission: he only wakes up screaming about once a week, and his right arm is back to about 80% strength. So he's available for light duty. This involves riding herd on a couple of "off the books" operatives looking into the politically sensitive activities of an evangelical preacher. Supposedly a training operation, to evaluate Howard's potential for more senior roles, things rapidly go to hell in a handbasket, and Bob's in the thick of it again.

This time the plot structure riffs off a Modesty Blaise style caper. Persephone Hazard (codename BASHFUL INCENDIARY, and talented practitioner of ritual magic) and her faithful sidekick Johnny (a bit more subtle than Dick, I suppose!) McTavish have done off the books work for the Laundry before, but this caper might be more than even they can manage. Initially aggravated by tag-along Bob, they eventually realise his worth.

I've been trying to work out why the Blaise pastiche didn't quite work for me, and I've decided it's Johnny's epithet for Persephone: he calls her "Duchess" (rather than the "Princess" of the source). This term has such a different resonance that it seems to totally change the relationship from reverential/respectful, to here mildly mocking. Maybe this was intentional, but it brought me up short every time.

Nevertheless, the plot has all we come to expect from a Laundry tale: wry observations from Bob, gruesome elder gods, scads of tongue-in-cheek references to just about anything, and some genuinely horrific (because non-occult) moments.

Charles Stross.
The Rhesus Chart.
Orbit. 2014

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 28 May 2015

London can drain the life out of you…

Bob Howard is an intelligence agent at the top secret government agency known as ‘the Laundry’. When occult powers threaten the realm, they’ll be there to clean up the mess – and deal with the witnesses.

There’s one threat that the Laundry has never come across in its many decades, and that’s vampires. But when a team of investment bankers discovers an arcane algorithm that leaves them fearing daylight and craving O positive, someone doesn’t want the Laundry to know. And Bob gets caught right in the middle.

Everyone knows vampires don’t exist. But it’s what every knows that ain’t so that causes the problems. And its Bob Howard’s problem when he discovers that not only is there a nest of vampire bankers sucking the life out of their cleaning staff, and not only is the group led by his ex-from-hell (not literally; a point that needs to be made in a Laundry novel), but there’s possibly someone inside the Laundry itself weaving a “no vampires to see here” illusion. All while his wife Mo is having a tough time with her violin-from-hell (literally).

This is another great entry in the Laundry series. Here Stross has done with his “pastiche” theme, and moved on to a “classic monster” theme. He’s made zombies plausible in SF (in the short story Bit Rot); now he makes vampires plausible in the Laundry world. We get the same mix of tackling bureaucracy while fighting nightmare horrors, with all the wit, humour, drama, and occasional gut-wrenching moments that we have come to expect.

Charles Stross.
The Annihilation Score.
Orbit. 2015

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 9 November 2016

Dr Mo O’Brien is an intelligence agent at the secret government agency known only as ‘the Laundry’. When occult powers threaten the realm, it’s her job to clean up the mess.

But when average citizens all over the country develop strange abilities, the police are called in as back-up. Mo is appointed as official liaison, but in between dealing with the boys in blue and suddenly superpowered members of the public, Mo discovers to her horror that she can no longer rely on her marriage, nor on the demonic weapon that has been at her side for all her years of undercover work.

What would happen if random superheroes really did exist? Well, if you were the Laundry, you would set up a false front-of-house to deal with them: recruit the good guys, and train them as special constables to root out the bad guys. And who would you put in charge? Well, since Dr Mo O’Brien has been very publicly outed, she is no longer available for typical Laundry undercover work. She’ll do.

But all is not what it seems, as the elusive Dr. Freudstein cooks up a sinister ploy. Even if Mo gets out alive, and sane, and unpossessed, all of which is strongly in doubt, can she keep her marriage intact?

Up until now, Laundry tales have followed Bob Howard, as he has grown from hapless IT guy to keeper of the Eater of Souls. Now it is time to follow his wife, the much more sensible and grounded Mo O’Brien, wielder of the demoniacally possessed white bone violin. And as the theme of this book is “Laundry v. superheroes”, we get a lot of cartoonish japes, some deadly politics, tons of bureaucracy, small team management techniques, bits of the London Underground, a sulky violin, and some demonic terrors.

Charles Stross.
The Nightmare Stacks.
Orbit. 2016

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 30 August 2018

Young investment banker Alex Schwartz had a promising future – until he caught a case of vampirism and agreed (on pain of death) to join the Laundry, Britain’s only counter-occult secret intelligence agency.

His first assignment is in Leeds – his old hometown. But telling his parents he’s lost his job, let alone their discovering his ‘condition’, is causing Alex almost as much anxiety as his new lifestyle of supernatural espionage. His only saving grace is Cassie Brewer, a student who flirts with him despite his fear of sunlight (and girls). But Cassie has secrets of her own – secrets that make Alex’s night life seem positively normal…

Alex Schwartz, recently a highly paid bank employee, currently working for the Laundry on a much reduced civil service salary, and a reluctant vampire to boot, has been posted to Leeds to help set up a secondary HQ. Or at least, that’s why he thinks he’s there. Higher powers have sent him there for a rather different reason.

Cassie was a student, until she got her brain sucked out and replaced by the consciousness of the head spy of an invading Elven army. Alex has to save the world from Cassie’s warlord father. But all he thinks he has to do is convince his parents that Cassie is his new girlfriend. Good luck with that.

We first met Alex in The Rhesus Chart, where Bob Howard helped flush out the vampires. He’s now a Laundry employee (it was either that, or something more terminal), and we get to see how he is faring as the new boy.

Each of the books in the series has a schitck: here it’s elves. Usually in fantasy we get to see an army casually plough through the peasantry in the countryside before the big showdown. Here we get to see them plough through the ordinary people in the suburbs of Leeds: it cleverly demonstrates how utterly horrifying those fantasy battles should be, but somehow never are.

Although there are still the absurdities, of the clash of dark horrors and government bureaucracy, and we care about the various characters, the series is definitely getting darker, as it inexorably moves towards the End of Days.

Charles Stross.
The Delirium Brief.
Orbit. 2017

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 18 December 2019

Bob Howard’s career in the Laundry, the secret British government agency protecting the world from the supernatural, has involved brilliant hacking, ancient magic and combat with creatures of pure evil. So far…

Now the Laundry’s existence has become public, and Bob is being trotted out on TV to answer pointed questions about elven asylum seekers. What neither Bob nor his managers have foreseen is that their organisation has earned the attention of a horror far more terrifying than any demon: a government looking for public services to privatise. There are things in the Laundry’s assets that big business would simply love to get its hands on.

Inch by inch, Bob Howard and his team are forced to consider the truly unthinkable: a coup against the British government itself.

The Laundry is reeling from the recent elven invasion of Leeds, and its existence is now publicly known. Bob Howard has become the public face of the organisation: apparently junior enough he can plausibly deny knowledge, and demonstrably innocent of any involvement in the recent disaster. Unfortunately, the Laundry is also now visible to the government, and that poses a much worse threat. And worse still, an old enemy seemingly put down in The Apocalypse Codex has reappeared, in the UK, threatening everything. And then the government shuts down the Laundry…

The series gets darker and darker, with here a plausible threat of demonic possession of the entire UK, with nothing to stand in its way. Stross is clearly very angry with a certain breed of politician – his descriptions of the process of privatisation and other governmental shenanigans are frighteningly recognisable (particularly when being read around the time of the BoJo/Brexit General Election) – but he also manages to inject much of the trademark (semi-)humorous bureaucratic nightmare of the rest of the series.

Charles Stross.
The Labyrinth Index.
Orbit. 2018

Britain is under New Management. The disbanding of the Laundry, the British espionage agency that deals with supernatural threats, has culminated in the unthinkable – an elder god in 10 Downing Street.

But in true ‘the enemy of my enemy’ fashion, Mhari Murphy finds herself working with His Excellency Nylarlathotep on foreign policy – there are worse things, it seems, than an elder god in power, and they lie in deepest, darkest America.

A thousand-mile-wide storm system has blanketed the midwest, and the president is nowhere to be found. Mhari must lead a task force of disgraced Laundry personnel into the storm front to discover the truth. But working for an elder god is never easy, and as the stakes rise, Mhari will soon question exactly where her loyalties lie.

Charles Stross.
Dead Lies Dreaming.
Orbit. 2020

In a world where magic has gone mainstream, a policewoman is hired by the government to find a band of outcasts calling themselves ‘the Lost Boys’.

What follows is a tale of corrupt billionaires, rotting mansions, assassination and dark magic, when family secrets are revealed, and all players will be drawn into a heist to find a forbidden book of spells that should never be opened.

Charles Stross.
Quantum of Nightmares.
Orbit. 2022

It’s a brave new Britain under the New Management. The Prime Minister is an eldritch god of unimaginable power. Crime is plummeting as almost every offence is punishable by death. And everywhere you look, there are people with strange powers, some of which they can control, and some, not so much.

Hyper-organised and formidable, Eve Starkey defeated her boss, the louche magical adept and billionaire Rupert de Montfort Bigge, in a supernatural duel to the death. Now she’s in charge of the Bigge Corporation, just in time to discover the lethal trap Rupert set for her long ago…

Wendy Deere is investigating unauthorised supernatural shenanigans. She swore to herself she wouldn’t again get entangled with Eve Starkey’s bohemian brother Imp and his crew of transhuman misfits. Yeah, right.

Mary Macandless has powers of her own. Right now she’s pretending to be a nanny in order to kidnap the children of a pair of famous, Government-authorised adepts. These children have powers of their own, and Mary Macandiess is in way over her head.

All of these stories will come together, with world-bending results.

Charles Stross.
Halting State.
Orbit. 2007

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 30 July 2008

Sometime in the next decade, in an independent Scotland, a daring bank robbery is committed. In this time of near-universal surveillance, the entire event is captured on video. But that doesn't really help: the robbers are orcs, and the bank is in an online game. Nevertheless, the police and the insurance company investigators are called in, and it turns out things are maybe more serious than it seems, especially when one of the game's programmers vanishes -- perpetrator, or victim?

It appears that Stross cannot write a bad book in any genre, or in any style. Here it is multiple second person viewpoints, that work perfectly to emphasise the gaming context. The main characters are great, and the various locations beautifully realised. I love the way Stross can do nerdy types, and make them realistic and sympathetic.

The tech is futuristic enough to be fun, and immediate enough to be scary. We are at a tech level only a year or so before the opening events in Accelerando, where augmented reality glasses provide all with different views of the world. And this can occasionally delve into weird when the wearers are have a very different view, such as gaming on the bus to work, or being hacked into. This world is close enough that it seems plausible, and far enough out that it's beginning to be very different. And it's a good mystery, too.

Charles Stross.
Rule 34.
Orbit. 2011

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 17 April 2013

This is the second book set in Stross’ near future high-tech grungy Edinburgh. It is about 4 years after the events in Halting State. As a result of those events, DI Liz Kavanaugh has missed her chance of promotion, and been shuffled sideways to lead the Rule 34 squad, policing internet porn memes in case they are in danger of becoming reality. She is called in to sign off an apparent accidental death, but rules it worthy of investigation. Then other weird accidental deaths start happening over Europe. Meanwhile, lowlife loser Anwar Hussein is offered a sinecure job of Scottish Consul for a microscopic Eastern European Republic. And a gangster arrives in Edinburgh to set up a new division, only to discover his contact has just died, in an apparent accident, that is being investigated by the police...

This is again written in multiple second person viewpoints. Coincidences abound, scams economic, political and technical are presented with panache, and everything ties up in a neat bow that explains why all the weird stuff has been happening.

Stross’s view of the near future is bleakly funny, with laugh out loud one-liners, and brilliant off-the-wall extrapolations, all set in a rather depressing future.

Charles Stross.
The Family Trade.
Tor. 2004

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 18 August 2007

Discovery that you are a long-lost princess is a standard fantasy trope. But what if it happened for real -- where the reality isn't that of a fairy tale princess, but of an unenlightened mediaevalesque family, full of feuding, intricate and fatal political manoeuvrings, all funded by drug dealing? That's what happens to Miriam Beckstein, one day a 21st century investigative journalist, the next catapulted into a parallel world and revealed as the unwelcome long lost heir to a powerful Family. She has to adapt, and fast. But she isn't going to be the compliant little heiress the head of the family wants.

This is quite a departure for Stross -- the only science fictional part is the "world walking" of the select few who can slip between the parallel worlds. The rest is politics, economics, updated Norse religion, and culture shock, but still in the great Stross style. And Miriam is a likeable and competent character, struggling to come to terms with, even to outwit, her fate.

The cover proclaims this as "Book one of the Merchant Princes" -- there is truth in advertising here, as there is very little closure on the first part of the story -- everything is left on a series of sizzling cliffhangers -- can Miriam not only survive, but even prosper, in her new life?

Charles Stross.
The Hidden Family.
Tor. 2005

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 29 August 2007

Miriam Beckstein has discovered that she is a missing member of the Clan, world walkers between our world and a medieval one. An assassination attempt leads her to discover a third, Victorian-esque world, populated by a lost branch of the Clan formenting civil war in mistaken revenge for their unwitting abandonment. Miriam decides to solve her problems through advanced economics.

If Glasshouse is an exercise in showing just how awful contemporary civilisation is in contrast to a post-Singularity world, the Merchant Princes series shows just how wonderful contemporary civilisation is compared to the past, particularly concerning plumbing, medicine, and freedom. The story is getting deliciously intricate, with the advent of a third world, and indications that there might be more. And the ability to world walk has enough restrictions around it that it isn't an automatic "beam out of trouble free" card.

Charles Stross.
The Clan Corporate.
Tor. 2006

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 4 November 2007

Miriam Beckstein's problems are getting worse. Her attempts to prove her worth to her Clan by setting up a profitable business in the Victorian-esque world appear to be backfiring: her relatives are interpreting this manoeuvre as dangerous revolution. As the net tightens around her, and even her mother acts against her, it appears that she may lose even the last vestige of freedom, and be married off to the King's idiot son.

This is lovely stuff, full of marvellous characters, subtle sub-plots, and snappy dialogue, impossible problems, unexpected twists, and little foreshadowings. This entry in the series digs Miriam into a deeper pit, and ends on a cracking cliffhanger.

Charles Stross.
The Merchants' War.
Tor. 2007

Charles Stross.
The Revolution Business.
Tor. 2009

Charles Stross.
The Trade of Queens.
Tor. 2010

Charles Stross.
Empire Games.
Tor. 2017

It’s a time of ambition, treachery and dangerous secrets

Rita Douglas is plucked from her dead-end job and trained as a reluctant US spy. All because she has the latent genetic talent to hop between alternate timelines – and infiltrate them. The United States is waging a high-tech war, targeting assassins who can move between worlds to deliver death on a mass scale. And Rita will be their secret weapon.

Miriam Beckstein has her own mission, as a politician in an industrial-revolution US. She must accelerate her world’s technology before their paranoid American twin finds them. It would blow them to hell. They’ve done it before. Each timeline also battles internal conspiracies, as a cold war threatens to turn white hot. But which world is the aggressor – and will Rita have to choose a side?

Charles Stross.
Dark State.
Tor. 2018

Two superpowers are on a collision course

In the near future, one America is experiencing its first technological revolution – whilst in a parallel world, the United States is a hi-tech police state. But both timelines are poised for conflict. Miriam Burgeson’s America is heading for civil war. However, a high-profile defection might avert this crisis, if only Miriam and her agents can arrange it in time. And Rita Douglas, rival US spy, arrives during this turmoil.

Rita’s world is rocked when she realizes Miriam is her birth mother, changing her own mission irrevocably. Then her United States discovers yet another parallel earth, and the remains of an advanced society. Something destroyed that civilization – Rita’s people are about to rouse it – and two worlds will face the consequences.

Charles Stross.
Invisible Sun.
Tor. 2021

Two twinned worlds are facing attack

The New American Commonwealth is trapped in an arms race with the USA, its more powerful parallel-world rival. Yet the Commonwealth could destroy itself; its first leader has died, leaving a crippling power vacuum. Minister Miriam Burgeson survived the old regime’s collapse, but is now accused of treason by the new order. Her political rival plans to ascend – and remove her in the process.

However unity is needed against a far greater danger. In their drive to explore other timelines, the USA awakened an alien threat. It crushed humanity on one version of Earth. And if the two superpowers can’t combine, it will do the same to them.

Charles Stross.
Saturn's Children.
Orbit. 2008

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 26 July 2009

Freya is a robot designed to be a "companion" for humans -- but she rolled off the production line a year after humanity went extinct. Doomed to be unable to fulfil her design parameters, she is miserable and contemplating suicide. But she is interrupted by a vicious aristo trying to kill her. Suddenly she finds herself dodging assassins, on the run across the Solar System, searching out her sib-bots, figuring out who's on which side, finding out what it means to be free, and trying to discover why she is the target of assassins.

This is a marvellous late-Heinlein homage, with many nods to Friday (but without the baby fetish) and others. There are laugh-out-loud puns, allusions, and direct references to Heinlein's work (wait for the "spung", and the door dilating, amongst others). If you don't get the references, it won't spoil the plot, for although it owes something to Heinlein, it's all Stross: funny, clever, with wonderful future tech, brilliant robot designs, some horrific imagery, and a mind-manglingly complicated plotline with complexity upon complexity slowly revealed. It's wonderfully written -- it's in the present tense, which I usually hate, but here didn't even notice until about two thirds in, it's just so right. And I love his description of space travel -- the size sheer of the Solar System is brilliantly captured (giving me flashbacks to that other great Heinlein homage, The Golden Globe), and the mind-numbing tedium of that travel will stay with me for a long time.

Marvellous, on many levels.

Charles Stross.
Neptune's Brood.
Orbit. 2013

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 10 July 2014

She was looking for her sister. She found Atlantis.

Krina Alizond is a metahuman in a universe where the last natural humans became extinct five thousand years ago. When her sister goes missing, she embarks on a daring voyage across the star systems to find her, travelling to her last known location – the mysterious water-world of Shin-Tethys.

In a universe with no faster-than-light travel, that’s a dangerous journey, made all the more perilous by the arrival of as assassin on Krina’s tail, by the ‘privateers’ chasing her sister’s life insurance policy and by growing sign that the disappearance is linked to one of the biggest financial scams in the known universe.

This is a tale of robots, interstellar space travel, body modification, economics, child abuse, brain downloading, deep sea diving, and more. This is set in the same universe as Saturn’s Children, although several thousand years later, when the robots have established an interstellar civilisation. Krina Alizond is a clone-daughter of Sondra, trained as a historical economics librarian, now at loose on the universe, trying to track down her clone-sister. The reason gradually becomes clear: they have a great secret, and lots of other people are after it.

The robots are “humans”, but not the old-fashioned “fragile” variety: those keep going extinct. These new improved less-fragile people still have many of the same issues, though, only with longer lives and stronger more malleable bodies for those issues to play out in.

The main thrust of the book, leavened by many delicious little scenes of utter madness, is how to run a currency across interstellar space when there is only slower-than-light travel, and the scams that can be played as a result. That might sound potentially dull, but remember, this is Stross. The complex plot weaves several threads skilfully together, until the final denouement where all becomes clear (and Stross again subverts Weber).

Good fun, with some deep ideas, and I gave it my vote for the Hugo this year (with Ancillary Justice second).