In a genre consumed by propulsion explainers and grandiose quests, Charlie Stross has a talent for creating loopily appealing science fiction plots out of corporate and market interactions. His Merchant Princes series takes a highfalutin' genre conceit—a genetically blessed subset of the population that can skip between alternate timelines—and plays it out in a pleasingly mundane way.
Gangs of rivalrous universe-hopping cousins become smugglers, as well as serving as a kind of inter-dimensional FedEx, over the course of the original six-book sequence. The protagonist, Miriam Beckstein, vanishes enticingly at the end of the series, as does most of the cast in what Stross describes on his blog as a "brisk thermonuclear holocaust."
In Empire Games (Tor), the first of a new trilogy based on the same idea, Stross takes the concept in a more political direction. Now Beckstein's daughter, Rita Douglas, is entangled in the kind of Homeland Security apparatus that might spring up in the face of nuclear conflict in proximate timelines. In 2020, as a variety of clashes threaten to spill into the almost-but-not-quite-our-own-world home timeline of the story, Douglas, an out-of-work actress, struggles to figure out how to play her role as a double agent.
As always, Stross writes characters in authority who are overbearing, frequently misinformed, and largely well-intentioned. They would be more at home in The Office than the Death Star. Empire Games, as its title suggests, leaves commerce mostly behind in favor of a more standard government-conspiracy-within-conspiracy structure, but it remains readable and human.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Empire Games".