I just read the first two books of the Merchant Princes series, by Charles Stross: The Family Trade and The Hidden FamilyStross explains here that these were written as one book, and the series was more or less designed to be science fiction disguised as fantasy.

Miriam is a Boston tech journalist who’s fired from her job in an infuriating way– in order to prevent her from publishing a sensitive story.  Visiting her stepmother for consolation, she’s given an old family locket which has the power to take her to other worlds.  (Always rebellious, even to authors’ nudges, she puts it away when she first gets it, and doesn’t try it out till page 35.)

She finds herself on an altenative, medieval Earth, and soon learns that she’s part of a family (the Clan) with the world-walking talent… a messed-up family with the manners of aristocrats and the morals of mafiosi.  And then people start trying to kill her.

Stross finds most fantasy too conservative, too in love with the stone walls and the trees and the pretty velvet dresses (to say nothing of pointy ears and dragons, both blessedly absent here).  He obviously not only prefers the future; the present is too hidebound for him.  His novel Glasshouse is in part an acerbic satire of the American midcentury.  So Miriam very quickly decides that she needs to modernize the other world.  The theme of the extended series turns out to be development economics.

It’s probably not fair to critique that aspect based on just two books.  However, it’s kind of a slightly more realistic Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  As an example: a good portion of the second book consists of Miriam getting a foothold in New Britain– yet another planet accessible by worldwalking , with steampunk technology.  It’s a pretty good procedural on how you might proceed in an 18th century society: what tech you could choose, how you’d set up a corporation, how you’d treat the help, who you’d ally with. 

Stross is good at this sort of thing– a long buildup of procedure was also the heart of Glasshouse.  He’s also good at adding in intrigue; Miriam has plenty of enemies.  But in some ways she does almost as well as Twain’s engineer, and I’m not sure I buy that.  For one thing, there seem to be no technical snafus… her designs just work, and just interface perfectly with New British tech.  I’ve researched the history of technology, and the big problem with time travel would be the host of supporting tech and industry that just isn’t there.  If you wanted to build boilers in ancient Rome, the steel wouldn’t be strong enough, the pistons wouldn’t fit, no one would know how to make the valves.  Technology proceeds incrementally, and with frequent failures. 

The other problem is the social context.  In our own world, we’ve found that just importing technology doesn’t create development… not even importing college courses.  You can set up a car plant in Upper Volta, but it’s just a very remote extension of Detroit.  Stross depicts a world so alien to entrepreneurship that every company must be formed by an Act of Parliament.  A few lucrative patents aren’t going to change that.

There’s also the problem of technological unemployment.  Miriam talks about tripling the output of the Clan’s estates.  Sure, but modern agribusiness would employ 3% of the peasant workforce… what do the displaced workers do?  You’d better have factories ready for them to move to.  And what are the factories going to make, when the middle class barely exists yet?

Stross really seems to like working with female protagonists.  (Even if they’re not born female, as in Glasshouse.)  His feminism is impeccable.  He likes to underline how horrible premodern societies were for women… then he goes and create a bunch of omnicompetent Valkyries who do what they want anyway.  Miriam is so resolutely practical that she sometimes comes off as a Heinlein character in drag.  She falls in love, but even that is a minor subplot, and her love interest frankly is unbelievably patient with her.

Fantasy seems to insist on interminable series these days, and I’m not sure it’s good for the genre or for Stross.  The plot sometimes feels bolted together… the story that leads to Miriam’s firings points to the Clan, which is a huge improbable coincidence.  A subplot about her journalistic career just peters out.  Stross spends a lot of time making characters looks suspicious who later turn out to be perfectly cuddly, while the actual bad guys are mostly just stupid.  The Clan’s internal opposition to Miriam just crumbles in the big confab at the end.  Did this really need to be a six-book series?  Zelazny’s Lord of Light, which tells a not dissimilar story, fits a whole epic into a slim 300 pages.

I don’t mean to be negative; I enjoyed the books.  Stross is good at depicting culture shock, and demythologizing kings and dukes.  (Well, mostly good; he can’t help depicting one duke as a steely, canny old bastard with a heart of gold.)  His forte, I think, is problem solving.  He puts his protagonist in a deep dark hole and figures out how they’ll claw their way out of it.  And they’re generally very clever, so it’s interesting to watch them do so.