Espionage and Cold War paranoia prevail as near-future governments in alternate timelines test one another’s defenses and capabilities in this opening installment of a science-fiction trilogy and sequel to the six-volume Merchant Princes series (The Trade of Queens, 2010, etc.)
The previous series focused on trade, smuggling, and the power politics of godfather-style families across alternate timelines. Here the USA (not ours, but close) of timeline No. 2 has become a hypertrophied military-police/surveillance/espionage state (“President Rumsfeld” tells you all you need to know). In the less technologically advanced timeline No. 3, the revolutionary North American Commonwealth is locked in a nuclear standoff with the vast French empire. Because of a nuclear attack that destroyed Washington (and for other, even more alarming, reasons), the USA desperately wants to learn what’s happening there. A committee headed by generic cold warrior Col. Smith recruits people, called world-walkers, who possess the ability to cross between timelines in latent form, intending to awaken their abilities and send them into timeline No. 3 as spies. The guinea pig is Rita Douglas, estranged daughter (though it’s hugely more involved than that) of Miriam Beckstein, the prime mover of the prior series who, fearing the USA’s power, now guides the rapid technological development of the Commonwealth. This novel and its prequels are, for Stross, almost defiantly orthodox in structure (see the narrative pyrotechnics of Rule 34, for instance) and stately in development. Still, his writing is as complex and subtle as ever, so series newcomers may well need to absorb the first 200 pages before the sociological and political implications fully emerge. Which viewpoint readers identify with, and there’s plenty of scope for ambiguity, will depend mostly on what they themselves bring along.
An absorbing but ultimately underwhelming yarn that patiently builds on existing foundations without venturing a conclusion or even a cliffhanger.