5 Questions: Charles Stross, author of Empire Games
To celebrate the release of Charles Stross’ new novel Empire Games, we have an exclusive interview with the author. He talks to us about his new book, the Cold War and today’s political climate, plus offers his top writing tip.
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1. Empire Games is the beginning of a new series, though it has thematic ties to your Merchant Princes saga. How has the story evolved?
Empire Games is more than just thematically linked to the earlier Merchant Princes series; it uses the same setting, albeit revisiting it seventeen years after the last of the previous books and introducing many new characters (in addition to revisiting old ones).
The earlier series started out with a deceptively tight focus on a premise familiar from dozens of fantasy novels: a woman from our world stumbles on a locket that enables her to visit another, secondary world with what appears to be a quasi-medieval civilisation. However, the Merchant Princes books then go on to treat the idea as science fiction, not fantasy, and as the frame widens we get to see other parallel universes, disturbing hints of a vanished technological civilisation that travelled between them, and eventually high drama as the US Government discovers that the "extra-dimensional narco-terrorists" of the Clan have been helping themselves to certain US Government assets, namely backpack portable nuclear weapons.
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Along the way we get a close-up perspective on the economics of technological development: just why do some societies rapidly develop into industrial and scientific powerhouses, while others stagnate? And our accidental heroine, Miriam Beckstein, winds up moving from investigative journalism, through involuntary membership of a feudal aristocracy, to accidentally triggering a revolution in a relatively backwards monarchy that rules the Americas -- the New British Empire.
In Empire Games we come back to the story seventeen years on. The US Government, paranoid and defensive in the wake of the assassination of the President in 2003 with a stolen nuclear weapon, is still looking for the remains of the attacking force as they explore a multitude of uninhabited time lines. Meanwhile, the New British Empire is now the North American Commonwealth, a revolutionary republic on a war footing. They've been conducting industrial espionage against the United States (in Miriam's original time line) for years, as they face off against a multiple continent-spanning French Empire ruled from St Petersburg. But now a succession crisis is looming as the leader of the revolution lies dying; and meanwhile, the first reconnaissance drones from the United States have appeared in Commonwealth skies.
And two very different -- but both nuclear-armed and paranoid -- versions of North America are about to go toe-to-toe in an inter-dimensional Cold War.
2. With the USA's political landscape front-and-centre of the news, the book is incredibly timely. What inspirations, real world or otherwise, influence your writing?
There's a long lead-time on books, especially when they're conceived of as a trilogy: I worked out the original idea for Empire Games in late 2012, and it was written in 2013 and 2014. The extraordinary political upsets of 2016 weren't even on the horizon -- if anything, I was taking a nerdish interest in the Snowden leaks from the NSA, and pondering just how far you could take a surveillance state in the near-future USA if there was a real, disastrously competent threat to national security. (The War on Terror is very much a paper tiger to those of us who remember growing up during the Cold War, with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and millions of soldiers ready to fight World War Three at the drop of a hat.)
But we're now seeing the almost complete destabilization of western politics as the outcome of a long-term campaign of black propaganda run by a guy who at the end of the Cold War was a Colonel in the KGB -- Vladimir Putin. And this stuff doesn't seem *remotely* dusty and old-fashioned right now.
3. Did you have a favourite character to write in Empire Games, and if so, why?
I'm torn between two: first, Rita Douglas. She's our primary protagonist, and she's also wearing a mask almost the entire time. She straddles two worlds, an adopted interracial child raised in a loving family that hides an extraordinary secret: she comes to the attention of a shadowy government agency when they realise her birth-mother has become a major political figure in another time line. However, nothing about Rita is simple or unconflicted. She resents her perceived abandonment, feels like an alien in her own nation, discovers that the same agency who want to train and use her as an agent also deliberately prevented her getting into college because of her parentage.
But Rita is straightforward compared to her adopted grandfather Kurt, a former East German dissident, now living out his retirement in suburban Phoenix, Arizona. Growing up there was the best possible training for living in 2020 America, and Kurt has passed on almost everything he knows to Rita. But although the German Democratic Republic no longer exists, some of its secrets are still worth killing for: and Kurt holds the keys to something called the Wolf Orchestra ...
4. Which book, film or TV programme do you always recommend to people and why?
I'm always diffident about this sort of question -- I don't watch TV, and because of eye damage I've been physically unable to watch most movies released this century, and I mostly don't read books similar to those I write -- but you can't go wrong with the classic Stanley Kubrick movie, Doctor Strangelove! It's the perfect evocation of the hilarious, pants-wetting terror that was the Cold War, and Peter Sellers delivered what may be his best performance. And even though it's nearly old enough to claim its pension, it seems to be becoming ever more relevant this year.
5. What's your top writing tip?
Don’t get hung up on polishing! Everyone starts out trying to write a novel and ends up re-writing the first chapter endlessly. This is a snare and a delusion. The first chapter is important, but you should only sit down to re-write it when you've finished the rest of the story. That way, you'll know what it needs to set the reader up for, and you won't spend too long spinning your wheels on it because you also need to fix the second chapter.
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For more information on Charles Stross, visit his website or follow him on Twitter.
Empire Games is the first book in the Empire Games series, set in the same world as Charles Stross' Merchant Princes series.