Geek Chocolate were recently lucky enough to sit down for a long chat with the profilic and innovative writer Charles Stross, and in that conversation, he shared with us the saga behind the saga of The Merchant Princes. Originally published in six volumes between 2004 and 2010, The Family Trade, The Hidden Family, The Clan Corporate, The Merchants’ War, The Revolution Business and The Trade of Queens, these have now been bound together in three volumes, The Bloodline Feud, The Traders’ War and The Revolution Trade as a prelude to the new stories in the same universes he is currently planning.
“The Merchant Princes have an odd history. Rewind to 2001, and there’s a young, hungry Charlie Stross who’s just lost his job and is eking out a living as a freelance computer journalist and has sold a novel or two and has acquired a literary agent in New York who he loves, because she’s on commission, she’s on his side, and she’s a business oriented monster. Every author needs an agent like that.
“Anyway, my agent emailed me and said “Now you’ve handed in Iron Sunrise, there’s a slight problem. The contracts we signed with Ace give them an option of first refusal on your next science fiction novel. You can’t sell science fiction to anyone else at novel length until they’ve rejected it. Only for one book, and there are ways to break it, but only if you want to walk away from your publisher. Now the problem is the first novel isn’t out until next year, and they’re not going to bother looking at a new novel until the first has sold, so you can’t send them a new SF novel until 2004, which is nearly three years away.”
“She continued, “So, why don’t you write a big fat fantasy series or an alternate history adventure which I can sell and make both of us lots of money.” And the “making lots of money” angle really appealed because a magazine was going bust owing me four months work at the time, so I generated some book proposals and ran them past her because she was a former editor and has an eye for the commercial side. You don’t want to commit to writing something for a period of years if it’s going to bore you silly, you don’t want to commit to writing something for a period of years if it’s not saleable. So what I do, I come up with ideas of things I’d like to write, several ideas, and then take the most commercial one. This is how the business works.
“I’ve got a couple of problems. I don’t like monarchy. I don’t like feudalism, sets my teeth on edge. I’ve grown up in the UK, a country that actually had a feudal monarchy for a long time and chopped its head off in 1649 and good riddance. So all this “divine right of kings” and the chosen one who will defeat the dark empire, I’d much rather write a fantasy trilogy from the point of view of the intelligent boy who’s the son of poor but honest folks who tries to better himself, deal with the evil, oppressive aristocrats, and becomes the Dark Lord, but for commercial reasons that’s a bit difficult to tackle, especially if you’re trying to start a career.
“So, we turned our attention to alternate history and parallel universes, and she shot down my first couple of ideas as just too barkingly weird. I still have this setpiece I’ve got to use at some point in which a pair of SIS agents walk into a bar in Finlandised demilitarised Germany in the early 1960s. It’s a gay bar, and there on the stage in the background are the Fab Four, who nobody knows, and you have this duo of agents, this very dried out, grizzled guy, very pale looking with scary eyes, called Bill, Bill Burroughs, and his young swivel-eyed sidekick Phil, “Don’t you fucking call me Dick.”
“So you have Philip K Dick William and Burroughs walk into a gay bar in Hamburg to shake down and grill the nightclub’s owner, this shady, louche, extremely fat guy who’s in his seventies called Adolf and his skinny boyfriend Rudy Hess. I was thinly going to rip off the plot from Footfall by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle and The Iprcress File by Len Deighton: who’s been stealing our agents? But that was just a bit too weird for the market in 2003.
“So I then decided, let’s go about this cold bloodedly and systematically, let us see how to plan a bestseller. Well, rule number one, steal from the best. Two, make sure that the best people you steal from are dead. There is no point reading a Robert Jordan novel if Robert Jordan is still alive and publishing, and not being in the assassination business this seemed… well, just don’t go there. Rule number three, do not steal from just one source, or everyone will notice you’re being derivative. Steal from two or more and remix them.
“So I looked around and went, okay, I really want to do science fiction but I’ve got to have a fantasy element as well for contractual reasons. Fantasy element! Nine Princes in Amber, Roger Zelazny. You can’t go wrong with Zelazny. And parallel universes, that’s a no-brainer. Who else did parallel universe stuff that’s still in print after their death? Ooh, H Beam Piper, his Paratime books. He died in 1964, they’re still in reprint, he’s a much more science fictional take and regrettably libertarian as well. Let’s mix it all down, let’s take the premise of Nine Princes in Amber, extended family of squabbling, quasi-medieval aristocrats who can walk between worlds, let’s take some of the tech background from H Beam Piper’s Paratime series, let’s remix them.
“So I came up with the idea of these people who could walk to other timelines, and they come from a timeline where a high Viking culture colonised the Eastern seaboard of North America, and the twist is they’re not high tech world walkers, they’re from this rather backward, sixteenth century-ish civilisation, and they first discover the ability when their founder can walk to New England circa 1770ish. There’s not a lot of difference between his world and New England back then except the natives speak this odd language called English and carry these sticks that go “Bang!” and make holes in things.
flipside, he knows where the bandits hang out in his world and he can avoid them by taking short cuts. He prospers, has lots of kids and dies, his family fall on hard times, and then a generation later they discover some of the grandchildren have the ability, the ones who married their cousins. It’s a recessive trait, not actually genetic, but appears to be genetic throughout the first series.
“What are the long term consequences? Well, a clan of several interlinked families, lots of blood feuds, central structures of control to ensure the right cousin marriages occur without too much inbreeding. In their world, nothing much has changed, they’re stuck in a development trap, however they have become very wealthy indeed because they’re the only people who can get a message from their side of the continent to the opposite in one day thanks to FedEx. In our world, they’ve also prospered, because they’re the only people who can move a hundred kilos of heroin from Central America to the US, okay it takes them a few months, but there is guaranteed zero interception. So they’re basically doing inter-universal arbitrage and shipping of questionable goods, and all this is semi-stable.
“They had a big internal war, basically a blood feud that killed 50% of them thirty years ago, but that’s now been papered over, they are so rich in their own world that their own king wants to marry one of his sons into them, and all of this is going swimmingly until a tech journalist in her thirties from Boston gets fired from her day job, goes to see her mom, and her mom tells her to get down a shoebox with some souvenirs from her adoption.
“By the end of book six I’ve detonated more nuclear weapons than in any other series I’ve written, and uttered the dreadful phrase “President Rumsfeld’s America.” If you think the War of Terror in our world has been bad, think how much worse it could have been if Narco terrorists from another dimension nuked the White House and killed George W Bush in 2003, and the new trilogy is going to be exploring some of the political consequences there in more than one timeline, including one where France successfully invaded England in 1760, the industrial revolution kicked off a hundred years late, and they’ve just had their first Leveller ranter democratic revolution in 2001, and these guys are serious about democracy in the same way that Lenin and Trotsky were serious about communism.
“This is the idea structure. When you’re stuffing these ideas up the interior of two thirds of a million words of prose it’s a little bit more subtle. Not everyone always gets it. Unfortunately I made a strategic blunder in one of my novels, Glasshouse, by not making it very obvious at the beginning what the title referred to, old British army military slang, a glasshouse is a prison. It’s only recently that I’ve realised that this wasn’t common knowledge and nobody understood what the Hell the story was about.”
The Bloodline Feud and The Traders’ War are currently available from Tor and The Revolution Trade will follow on 6th June
Special thanks are due to Sophie Portas of Pan Macmillan for arranging the interview and Charles Stross for his time.
The rest of interview will be online shortly, where Charlie talks about The Rapture of the Nerds, his recent collaboration with Cory Doctorow, the upcoming Neptune’s Brood and much more.