Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Revolution Business, by Charles Stross

The Revolution Business
Charles Stross
Tor: 2009

The Revolution Business is the penultimate volume in The Merchant Princes, from author Charles Stross. This is a series which features multiple / parallel worlds and a family, a Clan, which has the genetic ability to walk between the worlds. One of the worlds is our own, circa 2001 / 2002. The others exist in our same timeframe, but with varying degrees of political, economic, and technological development. The true focus of the series is on Miriam Beckstein, a woman raised in our world but a scion of Gruinmarkt – the fulcrum of so much of the activity and societal change in the offering. Miriam is the grounding character of the series as she was set up from the first volume as the main protagonist, but Stross does tell the story of The Revolution Business from multiple viewpoints to give a wider perspective of what all is happening. The New Britain storyline does get short shrift, though, and there is a bit of a mess in figuring out what those events are and how they tie to the larger story of the novel and series.

The primary thread running through The Revolution Business is the impending war between Gruinmarkt and the United States. The United States government has known for two volumes that the world walkers from the Clan were responsible for a large portion of the drug trade and seeks to shut down said drug trade. That was before six nuclear devices disappeared from secure bunkers, with one bomb only recovered by mistake. In the eyes of the United States government, the Clan had gone from “nuisance” to “threat”. Threats will be dealt with. Threats with weapons of mass destruction, with nuclear devices stolen from the United States, will be dealt with harshly.

The cover of The Revolution Business prominently features a mushroom cloud over a castle. Unless Tor’s art department is guilty of false advertising, there is an expectation raised before the reader turns to the first page that one of those nuclear devices will be detonated. Whether it is one faction of the Clan against another, or the United States fighting back against the Clan, is not clear from the artwork – though I will say that within a few chapters it is clear which of the above two directions Stross chooses.

This cover creates a level of expectation and tension in the reader. Since this series takes place at least partly in our world, there is no getting around the fact that nuclear weapons have only been used twice in history as a weapon. Twice, and never again since the dawn of atomic weaponry. That there is a mushroom cloud is on the cover of this novel is significant and horrifying. As is the fact that the cover also shows modern buildings off to the side of the castle, suggesting that the threat is not simply against Gruinmarkt, but also against the United States. This tension pervades the entire novel and is one of the stronger aspects of The Revolution Business.

One of the weaker aspects of The Revolution Business is that the novel consists of a slow build towards one event, but despite some political maneuvering in Gruinmarkt on the side of Miriam and her supporters, not a whole lot actually happens in The Revolution Business. Not until the bomb, and after that, not until the end. The Revolution Business has a feel of Stross setting things up for the conclusion to this series, The Trade of Queens. It is difficult to say that a novel which features the detonation of a nuclear device and yet another cliff-hanger ending has a feeling of stagnation to it – not when Miriam’s status in Gruinmarkt changes with every volume, but The Revolution Business has a sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop.

This is odd, because looking back at the novel I can identify more than a handful of moments that are significant in shaping the novel and what may come next. Identifying the moments would serve to spoil major development points, but there are serious developments in The Revolution Business. So why does the novel feel so flat?

My guess is that the more that Stross strips away the wonder of the world-walking and brings science into the bones of the novel, the more distant the story becomes. Decoding the knots is one thing, but the POV of the US operatives is rife with the ALL CAPS codewords of various operations and political figures. This is a staple of how Stross handles the Laundry novels, and in that context it works, but even there it is distracting. In The Revolution Business it is just out of place. It marks a change in the narrative focus of this series and this is not a positive. Yes, The Merchant Princes has never been a flat out fantasy series. It initially felt like a dual-world fantasy, but despite the low tech of Gruinmarkt, it was never exactly that. As the series progressed it has become increasingly clear that there is a science fictional basis to it. In itself this is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. Merely a thing. How Stross handles the SF elements of this series would be the mark of how good the series can be. They are only tools an author can use, after all.

So, decoding the knots (the focus of the world walking) and having technology figure prominently in the series is not a problem. Up until this point I have appreciated Stross’s handling of it. Until this point.

Here is where we get into a matter of taste. Stross’s science fiction is not to my taste. I find it cold and somewhat impenetrable, and thus dull. Stross’s science fiction is lauded by his peers and by readers. I can’t argue with this. He is recognized as one of the top writers of science fiction working today. However, his science fiction is a turn-off. There is still enough character and interest with the multiverse and inter-world warfare to keep me going, and I appreciate that the turn has taken this long to take effect, but the feeling that Stross is more an ideas man and less a character / story writer is strong right now and I fear that is the direction the series is taking. That’s fine for those who like it, but The Revolution Business did not work the way some of the previous novels.

On the other hand I have a theory about The Merchant Princes, and it is a reverse Bret Saberhagen theory. The odd volumes (1, 3, 5) have been somewhat disappointing. The even volumes (2, 4) have satisfied. The Revolution Business has held this pattern and I can only hope that volume 6 will continue the trend and conclude the series in a most satisfying manner. No matter what that is.

To shift gears…

This may be an odd statement to make about a series which is so obviously steeped in the politics of the alternate world of Gruinmarkt, but The Revolution Business takes a semi-unexpected step into the politics of the United States and has damning things to say about the George W. Bush administration. This would be almost out of place, except that Stross ties the activity of the Clan over the years into the politics of the United States and shows that the Clan has political savvy in workings to strengthen their position, even while keeping the US Government ignorant of their true identities. In doing so, Stross particularly damns the historical actions Vice President Cheney as well as showing how Cheney might respond to a threat like the world-walking Clan.

There is more focus in this novel about the power of VPOTUS, codenamed WARBUCKS, compared to that of the actual President. There is a throwaway line that the President is much savvier in private than he comes across in public, but the focus here is on the Vice President as the dangerous man.

It isn’t that this is all entirely out of place, because it does fit in with the changing nature of the series, but the bluntness of the conversations about the authorizations given by the Vice President and the power he wields does stick out a bit. It is noticed as more than just a story point. On the other hand, if the events of The Merchant Princes were factual, I could believe that this is how the Bush Administration would react. A political argument could be made about whether the Administration should (or should not), but that would be a discussion for another place and time. I wonder if one’s reading of The Revolution Business will be shaded by where one stands on the political spectrum. Very likely.

My final thought about The Revolution Business is that I wish there was a “The Story So Far…” pre-chapter at the start of this volume, because I had a difficult time remembering all that came before in The Merchant’s War (though I do remember the shape of the series). I don’t think that would have influenced by enjoyment of the novel, but it would have helped my comprehension. That’s just me.

In the end The Revolution Business is unsatisfying. It sets up the conclusion, but does not stand well on its own either as part of the series OR as a novel in its own right. It is part of a series which is still worth recommending (despite half of the novels being disappointing), but as an individual volume there is no need to rush out and read this one. On the other hand, longtime fans of Charles Stross may find much to appreciate here as he steps away from any hint that this might have been a fantasy series.

Previous Reviews
The Family Trade
The Hidden Family
The Clan Corporate
The Merchant's War


Jonathan M said...

Hey Joe,

Im glad I read this review as I was toying with the idea of buying the book despite my increasing frustration with Stross as a writer. However, it sounds as though it is something of a dog's dinner.

The lack of action in New Britain was predictable. Ever since Stross introduced that world he's been struggling to find things to do with it. In fact, I think it symbolises the problems with the series as a whole.

The world was a brand new market. When he introduced it I assumed it was so that he could show us the Clan building up a new system and his protagonist a power base. However, it's pretty clear that after the initial book, Stross got bored with that and didn't want to write about inter-world trade.

So instead it's a place where there's loads of plotting and some chasing but Stross can't and will not do action. So it doesn't completely work.

This leaves the world somewhere between the site of an intellectual exercise in world-building and the site for an espionage/action thriller but Stross delivers on neither resulting in books where people sit around talking but nothing really happens.

The same problem with the second strand of the family. Other than reveal that there are more worlds and variations on the knots, they've played only a minimal role. Stross introduced them and then didn't know what to do with them.

It sounds like something very similar has happened again with the US government. From your description it seems amorphous with some rather pedestrian political criticism thrown into an undifferentiated mess.

I think the series is just poorly written. It's demonstrated how much trouble Stross has dealing with plotting, characterisation, motivation and the need for restraint when introducing new agents. Throughout the series he's introduced new stuff in order to get himself out of a tight corner but once that corner escaped he has no further ideas for that stuff and so it sits on the sidelines occasionally getting the odd bone thrown at it (like the fact that you can't worldwalk while pregnant meaning that New Britain gets used because Miriam gets stuck there).


Joe said...

I just can't enjoy most of what Stross writes. I'm debating whether to even read Saturn's Children in an attempt to cover the Hugo novels. With limited exceptions, his fiction doesn't work for me.

Whether Stross got bored with New Britain, or he changed the direction of the story, or...I don't know...but the storyline feels dropped. The fourth world, with the doorway to a vacuum, gets mentioned (and symbolically is a major plot point), but isn't explored at all here either.

I'm curious where Stross may take it.

What I definitely agree with is Stross not doing action well. In most cases action occurs off the page and is then referred to. With other writers I might be okay with that, but with Stross...

Also - I think Miriam must get pulled out of New Britain (unless I read the novel wrong), because she shows up in either Gruinmarkt or the US, or both. I think both. I think someone brings her.

BruceLin42 said...

Hi - found your review while searching for discussions of Revolution Business. (The novel just game out here in the UK so I'm six months late to your review!)

I thought the points you raised were spot-on. The addition of Cheney and "BOY WONDER" seemed plausible, but jarred - up until now the series hadn't actually been obviously in our world.

At the end of the story, I too felt that nothing had happened, and the plot didn't advance to the things I wanted to see. Somehow even a nuclear bomb going off didn't really register as a major event until after I finished the novel and thought back over the plot.

I'm still looking forward to Book Six and hopefully some conclusions to the braided plots.

Joe said...

Mr. Soup,

I'm with you in looking forward to the sixth and final book. So far Stross has done well for me with books 2 and 4, so I'm hoping the trend continues.

Plus, it's quite conceptually interesting.