Empire Games (Empire Games #1) by Charles Stross
Published: Tor Books (Jan 17, 2017)
Posted: NetGalley, Medium (Nov 29, 2016)
Tentative Rating: 2 to 3 Stars*
Charles Stross is one of the greatest futurists of science fiction. Not only was he one of the first great post-singularity novelists, but he also gave artificial intelligence a lot of legitimacy in his works. So, when I saw a 150-page sample of his new Empire Games on NetGalley, I dropped everything to read it. I don’t normally write reviews of samples but, hey, it’s Charles Stross! What follows is my impression of the novel based on the sample, so take my opinions with a grain of salt.
Although I read and review a lot of speculative fiction, I don’t expect every novel I read to be visionary. Sometimes I just want to kick back and relax with a good spy thriller. If you’re looking for something similar, Empire Games may satisfy your desire for general, action packed science fiction.
At its heart Empire Games seems like a fairly decent story about spies hopping across divergent timelines. The granddaughter of an East German agent, Rita Douglas cruises through life’s ups and downs in a security-sensitive surveillance state of 2020. But, when the entire timeline is threatened, she’s called to rise to the occasion and awaken the World Walker within.
The problem with Empire Games is that it isn’t terribly original and features a lot of poor story choices. Illegal trade and threats between multiple timelines provide the backdrop for Empire Games (such as in Timeline One which features enemy merchant princes or Three with its British-centric New American Common Wealth). The timeline aspect should be cool, but they’re shallow nods to H. Beam Piper’s Paratime series. Nothing interesting is given its own depth and life. I did enjoy what Stross did with sci-fi homages in character dialogue. There are homages to Blade Runner, Crisis on Infinite Earths, William Gibson, and other sci-fi Easter Eggs and are entertaining enough.
Although I haven’t read the full novel, I think the problem with the sample of Empire Games is the pacing. It tries hard to be a quick action read and, in so doing, glosses over many of the primary timeline’s interesting technology. It’s a futuristic surveillance state, one would think there’d be a lot to talk about. The other timelines are not given any real exposure. Does Miriam’s fringe group care about the ethical considerations of their terrorism? Unknown… everyone other than Rita seems flat.
There’s also a fair bit of “cheese” in Empire Games. The sample starts with an annoying glossary that repeats the word “nuke” excessively. Before you say I’m being sensitive, I read a number of reviews that had an issue with the glossary. The U.S. is also painted early on as a caricature of itself, referring to “Rumsfeld’s America.” The sample did improve. But constant inane dialogue between government officials painted federal law enforcement in a goofy light (stern faces, silly gaffs and botched ops, flag waving as if in mockery). I get the tone of the narrative and the flawed view of “Empires” within Empire Games, it’s just not handled seriously.
On a positive note, I enjoyed reading about the World Walker courier Hulius Hjorth. A Major in Timeline 3’s Department of Para-historical Research, he’s an experienced spy with a deep knowledge of Timeline Two and Three. Through his involvement, we learn a lot about both timelines as he fights the panopticon that is the United States. Strangely, it’s almost as if his chapters belong to a better novel.
Empire Games offers a fast-paced, high-tech spy story complete with alternate realities and divergent timelines. I didn’t love the sample but wouldn’t advise against reading the finished novel when it’s released. Empire Games has the potential to be an interesting, world-hopping tale of empires at war. If I had to rate the sample it would be between 2 and 3 stars.
(This sample was provided by the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. You can check out the up-coming novel by Charles Stross by pre-ordering here.)