Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Book Review: Empire Games

Empire Games
Charles Stross
Science fiction

In theory, Charles Stross ought to be one of my favorite authors. He writes idea-oriented science fiction. He's not postmodernist or relentlessly pessimistic or anything-punk. He's a friend of John Scalzi. His "Laundry Files" series is funny and imaginative.

And yet . . . I find that most of Stross's novels have something off-putting about them. Sometimes I just don't like the main character(s). Other times Stross is so busy stuffing ideas into the story that the characters have nothing much to do. And once or twice I've hit something that just makes me say "Ew. Do not want to read."

Empire Games is my favorite non-Laundry-Files Stross so far. It's a sequel to his earlier "Merchant Princes" books, but it's not necessary to have read those first. (However, Empire Games is full of spoilers for the earlier books; you'll lose something by reading them in reverse order.) I liked the protagonist, at least when she wasn't being wimpy. The central idea is a familiar one--Harry Turtledove used it in his "Crosstime Traffic" YA series, to take one contemporary example--so Stross doesn't have to spend all his time riffing on it. The pacing is outstanding; I'd even go so far as to dub Empire Games a page turner.

My chief quarrel with Empire Games is that it takes the main characters all the way up to page 262 to do something they should have done on page 30 or so. Yes, there's plenty of in-story justification for it, but that doesn't make it not irritating. It happens (I think) because of the political metaphysics Stross is using. I won't attempt to characterize his personal politics--he can do that for himself--but in Empire Games there's an unstated assertion which I find both tedious and contrafactual. Namely: There are no good governments. There are only bad governments, some of which oppose one another.

I'll hold off on critiquing this idea in detail. Suffice it to say that it (a) is deployed to prevent the characters from acting rationally, and (b) makes it very hard to care which side comes out on top, or even whether either side survives at all.

Happily, there is a caveat to my caveat. This is the first book of a series. I do plan to read the next one; see prior remarks re: pacing. Hence, I reserve my final judgment. Watch this space.


  1. I've read some Strias that I thought was intensely good and others that were pretty poor. But with this recommendation I went out and ordered the first in the series. Thanks!

    1. Stross got autocorrected dagnabbit 😉

    2. Let me know what you think!

      I'm curious: which Stross did you think was intensely good, and which pretty poor?

    3. Loved most of Accelerando, disliked much of Glasshouse. Which is weird because they are one right after the other. Glasshouse is like an unofficial sequel, or at least the same milieu.

      Accelerando was all great ideas. Glasshouse was concept, and not well developed.