CHARLES STROSS ON THE MERCHANT PRINCES SERIES: FIVE QUESTION INTERVIEW
10 April 2013
By Bella Pagan
I feel I've been waiting for this month for such a long time in order to release this one into the wild, as it were! So goodness knows what the author thinks ;) But, here it is ... the engaging, catnip-like, page-turning-read extraordinare that is Charles Stross' The Bloodline Feud! The Merchant Princes series is a mixture of near-future thriller and fast-paced alternate history adventure and The Bloodline Feud is the first volume. The books were originally published as six separate rather small books years ago, but Stross always wanted these to be in the satisfyingly 'proper book sized' volumes you'll see here, and he's reedited the whole (yes, that's right, went through the text of *all* those six books for your reading pleasure) for a smoother more integrated read.
For any that haven't previously had the pleasure of reading his work, Stross has been a pharmacist, a journalist and is now a full time novelist. He has won two Hugo Awards and been nominated a whopping twelve times. He has also won the Locus Award for Best Novel, the Locus Award for Best Novella and has been shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke and Nebula Awards. And he's here, right here, to tell you more about that magnus opus that is the Merchant Princes sequence ...
1. What do you enjoy most about the world you've created in the Merchant Princes books?
The Merchant Princes series have their origin back in 2002, shortly after I'd sold my first SF novels to an American publisher, Ace. I'd already finished Singularity Sky, and as I was finishing up Iron Sunrise my agent made an interesting point. ‘Your US publisher has a right of first refusal on your next SF novel,’ she emailed, ‘but they won't buy anything new from you until at least the first book has been in print for a year. Which means you can't sell another SF novel for a couple of years. So how about writing a fantasy or alternate history series I can sell somewhere else and make us both lots of money?’ Which made sense to me, because I was living hand-to-mouth at the time. (And a magazine I was writing for was in the process of going bust, owing me for several months' work.)
I mention this because it framed an interesting problem: how to write something completely different from my previous work. And also: is it possible to design a bestseller? On top of the requirement to be different enough not to annoy my primary publisher, and the goal of being a commercial success, it had to be something I could get my teeth into and enjoy writing -- only a fool volunteers to spend years writing a multi-book series they don't actually *like* -- and something potentially open-ended.
So I sat down and wrote a bunch of pitches for different ideas. And my agent and I chewed them over and finally agreed to go with one in particular: a big, brassy, wide-screen tale of parallel universe hopping goodfellas and the spirited heroine -- a long-lost cousin who stumbles across them. Our dimension-hopping traders come from a time line that is backward by our standards, where their activities translate into what passes for stupendous wealth: sumptuous clothes, armed retainers, drafty castles with no flushing toilets or electricity. So we can spin it as fantasy, or as a thriller, or as ... well.
No plan survives contact with the enemy. Or Marketing. Or the imp of the author's perverse imagination.
In the course of writing the first book, I got slightly distracted by economics. Miriam, our protagonist, isn't a good match for the barely-post-feudal noble family that discovers her; their fixed view of a woman's position don't include much autonomy, and Miriam naturally kicks back. But I kept noticing little details in the background I'd sketched in that needed elaborating on. If they're so rich, *why* aren't the Clan nobility able to modernize their estates? Like African dictators or Saudi princes, they can import personal conveniences, but not bootstrap a 16th century economy all the way to modernity. And then Miriam ran off and discovered another time line, distinct from both her own and the Clan's -- one where the industrial revolution had kicked off an entire century later than in our own history.
When you're messing around in the toy chest of alternate history, you get to juggle with two alternative theories of how history happens: the Man on a White Horse theory (it's all about kings, battles, and dates: the little people don't count), and the Movement of Masses theory (the guy sitting on the white horse is interchangeable: what matters is stuff like infant mortality levels, mass education, and economics).
What I discovered, by the time I finished The Bloodline Feud (originally titled The Family Trade; then split in two and retitled The Family Trade and The Hidden Family for first US publication; finally reassembled and redrafted in this new edition) was that the original business idea had been replaced as my primary impetus to write with something else: I was writing a different kind of SF, economic SF, playing what-if games with one of the most fundamental questions of our times. Why does economic development happen, or not happen? What does politics have to do with it? What would have happened if we hadn't experienced the 8th century Enlightenment, or if the birth of democratic republicanism as a political ideology had been delayed by two centuries?
And that's what's keeping me on track now, as I work on the next books in the series.
2. You are known for writing many different flavours of science fiction, from space opera to SF meets spy-craft via Lovecraft to near-future crime. Do you think it helps you to change your subject matter to keep fresh creatively?
I'm playful (some would say, uncharitably, I'm lightweight): I get bored easily. And it takes years to write a series of novels. Each hour of reading pleasure experienced by a reader corresponds to a month of work by the author. I think it shows clearly if an author goes stale in the process of writing a long project. So being able to switch to a different series or stand-alone novel helps immensely.
I will freely confess to having burned out during the writing of The Merchant Princes. (Luckily burn-out is reversible.) The series, in the form of the new omnibus editions, are around 620,000 words long. That's about 15,000 words longer than War and Peace; it's one and two thirds times The Lord of the Rings. They came over a six year period, concurrently with other books, and I burned out and recovered at various points in the writing. After finishing, I needed a few years off the project: I spent them writing other works, and now I'm back at work on a second series in the same universe. But if I'd had a choice between ‘write nothing but one series of novels’ or ‘become an accountant’, I'd be doing your tax return by now.
3. Not all authors have the ability to write long-form novels and pen short stories or novella length works. What do you like most about each form?
They take rather different skills. (I'm extremely rusty on short format work at present because I've spent the past several years focusing on writing novels). In general, the shorter a story, the more complexity you have to leave out of it. With novels, we expect ideas, character development, thematic issues, and multiple converging plot lines; in novellas we usually have room for no more than one plot (or two simple ones, if we sacrifice something else). Tighten the focus to novelettes or short stories and something -- be it characterization theme, or plot -- has to take a back seat. And by the time we're down to a short story, we usually have nothing left but an idea, a character portrait, or a sensibility. But by the same token, the shorter, more tightly-focused works also require us to concentrate more on exactly what it is that we're trying to convey to the reader. Smaller does not necessarily mean simpler; and a short story isn't simply a novel with bits missing.
4. Do you think that the populace as a whole is more interested in technology, therefore the possibilities of SF these days, or does one not translate into the other?
We're living in an age saturated with technology, to the point of being overloaded with it. This simultaneously generates ennui and aversion. For the former: last week Samsung launched a new phone, the Galaxy S4. It's a remarkable piece of hardware, probably more powerful than all the supercomputers extant in 1986 combined. It's a phone, movie player, computer, barometer, camera, GPS unit, and probably a dessert topping and a floor wax as well. Yet its launch was met in the tech press with yawns: it was *predictably* radical and extreme. As was the iPhone 5 before it. Here's a category of device that debuted with an earthquake in 2007 -- the sheer shock of the original iPhone launch is hard to remember these days, for it was totally unlike anything that came before it -- and six years later we've normalized it.
Meanwhile the flipside of ennui is fear and aversion. The panic over GM crops – ‘frankenfoods’ -- doesn't need recapitulating. Neither does the fear over nuclear power that was dying down before the great Tohoku earthquake of 2011 triggered the three meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi. In both cases, large, opaque corporate-run industries provoke fear and mistrust out of actual proportion to the problem when something goes wrong. We've become so used to the illusion of knowing everything that the shadowy gaps in our perception loom disproportionately large.
5. Given our rate of technological change, do you feel that we are getting nearer to the subject matter of science fiction, so there is less for the SF novelist to work with creatively? Or do you feel there is just the same potential for the writer as ever?
The present is embedded within the future; the future is the present with extra, currently unforeseen baggage. This makes writing believable near-future SF very difficult indeed, although it's still just about possible (if you focus on a relatively small area and avoid the temptation to try and be predictive).
On the other hand, some areas of SF just don't care. Space opera involving interstellar dreadnoughts clashing by night is a perennial. It's not realist-mode fiction -- we've got no reason to believe such FTL Napoleonics are permitted by the laws of physics, and usually not even the sketchiest future history to get us from 'here' to 'there' --but it's still popular. Fiction teaches us about peoples' concerns about the present rather than about the future itself.
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The Bloodline Feud will be followed by The Traders' War in May and then The Revolution Trade in June. See here for both blurbs . You can also see more posts on the Merchant Princes books on and by Charles Stross on our blog here. And an all-new Merchant Princes series will be along in due course, with info on that here.