Reading: Charles Stross — The Trader’s War

There are a couple of series I am slowly buying my way through, one is the Dent-Young’s translation of Shi Nai’an’s The Water Margin, or Marshes of Mount Liang as it’s known in this version, and which will take me a long time to get through all five volumes of some 500 pages each. The other is Charles Stross’ rewriting of his Merchant Princes sextet, which I’ve read three or so times in that form, and which was published in a re-edited and somewhat rewritten trilogy form (by combining the three pairs of books) last year.

Why would I buy a book I already have, and have read? With The Water Margin, it’s not just the translation I’m interested in – though the Dent-Youngs is one of the best; different versions also have different numbers of chapters, and so tell a different story. Somewhat the same with The Merchant Princes, the revised versions cut out a lot of padding of the recap kind, and generally tighten things up a little. I would have to read them together to consciously notice the changes, but the difference in feeling is apparent.

Also, and highly important for me, the original (US series) covers were diabolical, the utter worst of pulp fantasy, I could not reconcile those covers with the author I knew to be one of the most interesting sci-fi writers currently around, it was like a perverse joke. Though the current covers are equivalently of a much more masculine and bolder design (the UK ones at least); much less traumatising for the intended reader. And this could be a problem in itself. Cover design, like all advertising informs the potential audience if they are indeed being aimed at. Being moderately reductionist here, sci-fi has been (and remains somewhat) the market aimed at heterosexual males, while fantasy is for females (I would suggest here sexuality isn’t important).

The Merchant Princes was originally marketed as a fantasy series, however much it was built on an absence of dragons and magic. Now, on the tail of Stross’ successes with The Laundry Files, Halting State, and Saturn’s Children series, it’s being presented as unambiguously as sci-fi, despite using the devices of fantasy. Obviously it can be looked at from either perspective and make sense, and consequently appeal to either or both audiences. It’s the marketing and intended audience that I seem to be writing about now.

It’s no secret that book covers are aimed blatantly at male or female audiences; the original US and revised UK I think cannot be interpreted otherwise. Yes, cover design and genre focus has changed in the last decade, we’ve moved on conclusively from space opera as being synonymous with sci-fi, design tends to starker, more graphic elements than softer realism. Compare Iain Banks covers over three decades for an excellent example of the swing between hard graphics and soft photorealism, or Stross’ own from Iron Sunrise to Merchant Princes, or China Mieville’s.

Within this is far more subtlety and diversity than I’ve considered here, yet it remains that the original covers featured a single woman on four of the six books (the other two had medieval knights in armour with machine guns), and the new ones feature guns, missiles, helicopters, nothing to indicate sci-fi or fantasy, nor that the leading protagonist (and quite a few of the other main roles) is a woman. Perhaps it’s a trick to get that male audience to read such a work, but it nonetheless concerns me, not simply for this instance, but the larger habit in culture of pushing the female audience and community out once something reaches a certain size and aiming entirely for the supposedly all-important male audience.

So while I found the original covers cringeworthy, the sci-fi fantasy equivalent of being told I need special women’s tools or bikes or climbing gear and here it is in pink, the new ones are possibly more of a problem. They signify Stross is an author being aimed entirely at a specific market segment, one largely comprised of hetero males, and this notwithstanding the female (and feminist) lead roles in almost all his books, as well as many GLBT roles. Perhaps it is as I’ve said, a covert, educational project, getting an audience who would never normally read books with main characters like this, but when this audience can get through a whole book (I think Halting State) and not realise the main characters are queer, and then argue against the need for such characters, I wonder if perhaps this courting of the default audience is taking place at the expense of the rest of us, who incidentally happen to be the majority and are quite partial to throwing our euros towards those who neither patronise nor dismiss us.

Also to note, Stross has said in the past on many occasions he has no say at all in the cover designs, and also I’m enjoying immensely visiting Miriam and her scary family again.