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The Hidden Family      Accelerando
Charles Stross      Charles Stross
Tor, 303 pages
      Ace Books, 390 pages

The Hidden Family
Charles Stross
Charles Stross was born in Leeds, Yorkshire and he now lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. He sold his first short story in 1987 to Interzone. But it was his first sale to Asimov's SF in 2001 that provided his big break into the US market.

Charles Stross Website
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SF Site Review: The Atrocity Archives
SF Site Review: Singularity Sky

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

Science fiction writers are renowned for their ability to juggle several ideas at once, keeping their readers' heads spinning right to the end of the story. There are few writers, however, who can keep those ideas flying in two very different books at once, one an homage to classic fantasy and the other poised on the edge of where science fiction is heading right now. Charles Stross is one of those few.

The Hidden Family is Book Two of The Merchant Princes, and it's a fine example of Stross at his most entertaining. The series is both an homage to and updating of Roger Zelazny's Amber Series. It's the kind of project you undertake only if you have utter confidence in your ability to pull it off. It all rests on two foundations, a carefully thought-out scheme involving parallel worlds and alternate histories, and a main character who is one of the most memorable in recent fantasy and SF.

The parallel worlds are our own and two others, each with a different history and technological level. A family known as the Clan has gained the ability to move from one world to another, and they have made their fortune exploiting the differences found in each, not necessarily in a lawful, socially accepted manner.

In The Family Trade, the first volume of the series, a young woman named Miriam discovers that she is a member of the Clan, and a world-walker. Needless to say, her life changes drastically, and she finds herself caught up in family feuds and power games, culminating in attempts on her life. In The Hidden Family, Miriam is on the run, looking to both save herself, and her allies in the Clan. She begins to set up her own financial and power base, exploiting business ideas that the Clan has never considered. Meanwhile, the intrigue, conspiracies, and murders continue.

Miriam is the center around which The Hidden Family's story revolves. It is her thinking, and her reactions that prompt decisions on the part of all the other characters, especially a group of women who are Miriam's main companions in the novel. Olga, Paulette, Iris, and Brill form a formidable group that is fairly unique in this kind of story. There are plenty of well-drawn female characters in genre writing these days, but it's hard to think of another adventure story such as this, especially by a male writer, in which a group of women continually set the pace while the male characters are placed into the role of necessary support.

In contrast, Accelerando's characters are harder to place into any kind of existing social framework because a good many of them are not human. Accelerando is Stross's latest and greatest statement in post-human science fiction, taking ideas about the information singularity, post-scarcity economics, nano-tech, bio-tech and artificial intelligence several steps beyond their use in his novels, Singularity Sky and The Iron Sunrise.

Much of Accelerando was first published as a series of stories in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, here they are melded together into a continuing narrative, a practice with a long history in SF -- Clifford Simak's City is a classic example. Stross pulls it off as smoothly as anyone ever has, there is little feeling of jumping from one episode to another, and the book reads as if written as one single novel.

The main reason for this is the character of Manfred Macx, whose creative skills are harnessed to a business philosophy that compels him to give away guaranteed fortune-making business models to complete strangers. The favors they in return bestow on him make him a wealthy, and highly influential, man. Manfred and his business sense are at the cutting edge of a society undergoing major upheavals. The singularity, that moment when things change so drastically that the aftermath cannot have been foreseen, is coming. Some argue that it has already happened, people just haven't realised it yet.

Manfred and his descendants find themselves on a joy-ride through a culture undergoing a post-human transformation. Contact with an alien information pipeline has given some idea of what might be coming, the transformation of the Solar System into a group consciousness, huge and unknowable. But there are also hints that the post-human loss of individual consciousness may be a trap, that there are good reasons for Manfred and those other human and post-human characters who have held onto their individuality to want to keep it.

While the ideas at play in Accelerando, and the style in which they are presented, place the novel right at the artistic edge of SF, the theme of the gallant individual struggling in the face of a vast, incomprehensible universe connects the novel directly to the classical tradition of hard-core science fiction. Indeed, for many readers, one of the joys of reading Stross's work are the knowing asides and references to the seminal works of the field. Stross's innovations are rooted in the history of SF, and all the more successful for it.

One idea that distinguishes Stross's fiction, and also many other of the current wave of post-human novels, is a concern with economics. There's a suggestion by Stross, Ken MacLeod, Iain M. Banks, and several others that nineteenth-century economic models and their twentieth-century corrections won't work in the new post-human culture. For Stross, economics is a concern that runs through all his work, providing a theme that unites Miriam's lecturing of the Clan on modern corporate business practices in The Hidden Family to Economics 2.0 in Accelerando, the new economics that lets post-human society leave Manfred's own radical business philosophy far behind.

Taken singly, The Hidden Family and Accelerando are each highly entertaining novels, two very different stories that should each find a large audience. Taken together, published as they were in a two-month period, they are evidence of a major talent at the top of his form, a writer capable of simultaneously invoking the best of classic SF and pushing the boundaries of the field. The Hidden Family invites and lives up to comparisons to Zelazny and The Princes of Amber. Accelerando shares place with Greg Egan's Schild's Ladder as the most radical, uncompromising look yet at a future that is by definition beyond comprehension. This is writing for people who know, understand, and love science fiction. Treasure it.

Copyright © 2005 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L Johnson was pleased to discover that when it comes to the marketing of Accelerando, Charles Stross practices what Manfred Macx preaches. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.

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