Reading: Charles Stross — The Revolution Trade

Another “Book 3”, this being the rewritten third volume of the original Merchant Princes trilogy which was first published in six separate books between 2004 and 2010, the re-editing into three novels as they were originally imagined now preceding an upcoming second trilogy. The original six I began reading 2009 or so, and I’ve been through them three times. The new trilogy isn’t substantially different, just tighter and less explaining of what went on before. The ending seems somewhat different, with a section I don’t recall, which perhaps anticipates where the new trilogy is going.

Book 1, The Bloodline Feud, and Book 2, The Traders’ War, I’ve read in the last several months, and commented on the specific changes in the marketing and covers, possibly reflecting the loudest segment of Stross’ audience. Many of the original series had a woman on the cover (representing the main protagonist, Miriam Beckstein), and decidedly of the fantasy fiction genre in style. The new trilogy covers are all hard graphics, guns, warships, missiles – yes, very attractive in their own right but explicitly marketed at a heterosexual, white male audience. If that’s what it takes to get guys to read fantasy (the female half of the sci-fi/fantasy split), well I suppose it speaks eloquently for lack of imagination and curiosity on their part. I do also find with Stross that increasingly this is the audience he’s also writing for, however diverse and representative his books (and blog) are. A good portion of the former sixth book is devoted to the USA bombing the east coast of a parallel-universe North America with more than 200 hydrogen bombs, and … every time I read this series, I know I’ll have to get through that part and for me fundamentally the fixation on gear and tech and minutia and descriptions, it’s some of his most boring writing and a direction he seems to be favouring.

This happened for me with other writers – Neal Stephenson and William Gibson notably – and eventually I have to put them away. Brilliant story-tellers who got lost white male land. I can’t think of a less pejorative nomenclature, for while some women skiffy/fantasy writers I’ve read have lost my interest, it’s never to this obsession with high-tech war toys, gear fetish, and specifically hetero Anglo-American males doing macho shit with this stuff. If there is a smallest, least interesting story in fiction to tell, it’s this, and far too often it’s the one that gets told.

Conversely, besides this I simultaneously find the Merchant Princes series the most intellectually and imaginatively engaging of Stross’ books (different though from ‘favourite’), which is why I think I keep reading them and am looking forward to the new trilogy. Certainly up there with the best of Iain Banks and China Miéville for massive socio-political themes and potentially utopian societies, and the thought-experiments that go hand-in-hand with proposing such things, which Stross does extremely well.