My mission, should I choose to accept it – and I have – is to talk about the Merchant Princes novels. For anyone who’s reading this without having read the full Stross collection, the MP novels concern a group of related individuals – the Clan – from an alternate universe, the Gruinmarkt, with a more or less medieval society, who have the ability to world-walk between that universe and our own. They use their base in their home world to make money in our world by smuggling drugs where the DEA can’t go, and are rich and powerful at home because of the high-tech goodies they can bring back from America. The protagonist, a thirtysomething tech journalist named Miriam Beckstein, has been raised in our world – but unknown to herself, she’s actually the child of a countess in the other world. Many complications ensue.
Before I get all analytical about these books, let me say that they are, first and foremost, great fun. Stross could have made this almost like a dissertation: given the premise of world-walking, what follows? Instead we’ve got a rollicking plot, full of high-Victorian deus ex machina stuff: the first pawnbroker Miriam encounters in New Britain (a third alternative world that pops up in novel #2) just happens to be the quartermaster for that world’s revolutionary movement, and so on. While the character of Miriam herself is fairly realistic (and appealing), there seem to be a remarkable number of attractive young women who are also skilled assassins. And a good time is had by all (except Miriam.)
Also, you have to love a series of novels in which Dick Cheney, referred to by one and all as Daddy Warbucks, is a major though offstage villain – in fact, there turns out to be literally a whole other dimension to his villainy, besides the stuff we already know about.
But OK, enough preliminaries: what are these novels about?
As Stross notes in his acknowledgements, they’re part of a genre; he gives props to Roger Zelazny and H. Beam Piper, who both wrote walking-between-alternative-universe novels. Actually, though, I think Stross is only half right. Aside from the interuniverse thing, I don’t see anything in the Merchant Princes that reminds me of Zelazny’s Amber books. Piper’s stories, on the other hand, in which a modern American state trooper finds himself in a quasi-medieval alternative reality, do bear an obvious resemblance.
But so do some other novels. I’d argue that the real story Stross is telling is that of the person from a modern, high-tech society who finds himself/herself in a much lower-tech society, and tries to make use of his/her knowledge. So L. Sprague de Camp’s old novel Lest Darkness Fall, which is about an archaeologist transported to Ostrogothic Rome, is really in the same genre. So is David Weber’s Off Armageddon Reef, where an elaborate plot puts an android with the memories of a high-tech human in a position to remake a neo-medieval society – plus get to refight Trafalgar and the Battle of the Nile. (Weber’s novel also fits into a genre that seems oddly widespread in SF: the evil-future-Catholic-Church literature.)
But what makes Stross’s version different from everyone else’s is that he’s noticed something: the fantasy thought experiment, in which someone brings modern science and technology to a backward society, isn’t a fantasy. It is, instead, something that’s been tried all across the very real Third World, as businessmen and aid workers fanned out across nations in which the typical person, two generations ago, lived no better than a medieval peasant. And you know what? Modernization turns out to be pretty hard to do.
I may have a better sense of this than most, because I’m an economist of a certain age. When I went to grad school in the mid-70s, I thought about doing development economics – but decided not to, because it was too depressing. Basically, circa 1975 there weren’t any success stories: poor countries remained obstinately poor, despite their access to 20th-century technology.
Since then the success stories have multiplied, with China and India finally emerging as the economic superpowers they ought to be – though if truth be told, we really don’t know why development economics started working better around 1980. Even now, however, there are lots of places that have access to modern technology, and use it – but remain, in the ways that matter most, firmly stuck in the poverty trap. Feudalism with cell phones is still feudalism.
That’s the situation Miriam literally falls into in The Family Trade, the first Merchant Princes novel. The Clan – her relatives – know all about modern technology, and they’re even able to bring gadgets across. But while contact with America has shifted the balance of power in the Gruinmarkt – a fact that leads to bloody civil war later in the series – it has not led to either economic or social transformation. The analogy Stross puts into Miriam’s head is with Saudi royals, who have townhouses in London but are, in essence, still the tribal chieftains they always were.
And I guess that’s enough for one post! More thoughts in the next round.