The Family Trade

Posted by : atcampbell | On : November 15, 2005

The Family Trade by Charles Stross

Everybody in the room has read at least a part of The Family Trade, and everybody except one person finished it. Several people had also read the sequel, The Hidden Family, which is actually just the second part of the same novel. A significant chunk of time was spent debating why the American publisher decided to split the novel into two parts, whereas in Britain it was published as one book. Several readers vented their anger at Tor, who “took an axe and went down the middle.”

Another big chunk of the discussion was spent comparing The Family Trade with other world-walking SF and fantasy books, such as Bulmer’s The Diamond Contessa, or most notably Roger Zelazny’s Amber series, which reportedly was an inspiration for Stross. Comparisons with Amber were in Stross’s favor, because in Amber, to quote a reader, “everybody can do any damn thing, and it’s really chaotic;” whereas the world-crossing rules in The Family Trade are more constrained, therefore leading to more interesting situations.

The ideogram that Miriam, the heroine, used for moving from one parallel world to another, was compared to other science-fictional and magical world-walking devices, such as a spiral pattern in Andre Norton’s books, a mosaic on the floor in the Magician series by Feist, or an ability to see certain spots where it’s possible to cross into a parallel world, as in The Diamond Contessa.

Readers also discussed the advantages of Miriam’s situation versus those of other book characters that were thrust into technologically backward worlds. Some characters had crossed into other worlds with nothing but clothes on their backs and expertise in their heads. Miriam was lucky in that she had a chance to acquire a laptop and vast stores of knowledge on CDs. Readers also found it interesting that Stross chose a protagonist who not an expert in survival techniques, martial arts or weaponry — things that would be ostensibly the most useful trying to survive in a medieval world — but who is knowledgeable in economics and understands the modern world.

What will she make of the medieval society into which she was forced? Will she be able to reform it? Some readers were interested to see what Miriam’s ideas will be on how to develop the trade between the two worlds (ours and the parallel medieval world). Stross points out in the book that there are traps built into the history of business for the last 200 years, and Miriam wants to avoid those traps. The idea of selling shares to raise a lot of money to go in and industrialize the medieval world real fast can have a lot of bad consequences. Readers found themselves wanting to see what Miriam does in that respect.

I, personally, too am interested to see how Miriam will go about revolutionizing the medieval society. I hope that Charles Stross will do with this series what Neal Stephenson said he was trying to do in the “Baroque Cycle”, though, in my opinion, not very successfully: to show how the pre-industrial world transitioned into modernity; to show the birth of finance and commerce as we know it today. I also hope that Charles Stross will do it in a lot more entertaining and concise way than Neal Stephenson. 🙂 And so far he has done a good job of that.

As one reader pointed out, this setup — inserting a person from an advanced civilization into a technologically backward society and attempting to reform it — contains an opportunity to explore a question: is history determined more by great personalities, or by impersonal, economical and social, forces? If a particular reformer had not been born at a particular age, would someone else had taken his/her place? Do socio-economic revolutions happen on their own schedule, regardless of who leads them? One can hope Stross will examine this question in the subsequent books of this series.

Everybody liked the heroine for several reasons. She thinks fast: within 24 hours of her kidnapping she bought a laptop and the CDs with the information she needed, to give her a greater insight into her situation and ideas on how to change it. She is smart and capable; she refuses to play a victim’s role she is pushed into; she does not allow herself to be manipulated by the Clan.

On the lighter side, several women in the group liked that Miriam had a messy house, and even more that her messiness made it more difficult for kidnappers to abduct her.

Several people got a kick out of the scene where Miriam works the crowd at the royal party and she treats it like a trade show, of which she had attended quite a few in her “former” life as a technology journalist. It’s a wonderful transposition of the set of skills she has.

The irony of discovering that being a medieval princess is really overrated was not lost on anyone. “Gee, the world I picked where to be a princess! It’s nowhere near as good as being a middle class American”, commented a reader. Indeed, the book leaves no romantic illusions about a life of a royal woman in the Middle Ages, showing how physically and mentally uncomfortable, restrictive and stiffling her life was compared to that of an average American woman of today… Even a 21st century Saudi Arabian princess has it better: while similarly powerless, she can at least enjoy hot showers. 🙂

Some female readers were impressed that this book did not contain what one of them called “icky romance.” It is icky, she says, to read about a woman pining for a guy who’s bad for her. Instead, Miriam just has wet dreams. Instead of gooey romantic stuff, she fantasizes about sex with Roland.

The Family Trade is definitely a crowd-pleasing novel. It appeals to people of widely varying tastes in fantasy and science fiction. Those group members who could hardly get through Stross’ Singularity books had no difficulty reading The Family Trade. Those, on the other hand, who enjoy hard SF, were not dissatisfied either. After all, according to Stross, this novel is only fantasy “for rather odd values of fantasy.” It has something even for those who value the science and technology aspect of SF. One such reader was curious what does the knot ideogram (the world-crossing aid) really look like, and how can it be described from the knot theory perspective. “In knot theory they draw drawings trying to represent more dimensions. It would be interesting to try to draw this knot and see if we disappear”, he said.

However, having high standards for the science in SF, he found Stross did not try to answer some questions in sufficient depth. When you cross into a parallel world, what do you take with you? For example, are you also moving the air that’s in your body? It appears so, judging from the fact that the clothes you are wearing are transfered along with you; but what if you were handcuffed to a wall? Could you go?

The only criticism of the book voiced in the meeting — or the only one I recall — was that in some places the exact physical layout of the castle is critical to the events in the book. Miriam develops a very detailed mental map of objects and architectural features — such as doors, stairs, etc. — in both parallel worlds, because things like unsecured doors in the “other” world may let an assassin enter the facilities and cross over into her world. The castle layout has a life or death significance to her. So she spends a lot of effort mapping it out, and the reader, too, needs to keep track of it closely in order to evaluate the danger she is in. One of the readers found it tiresome.

Other than that, most people found this book very entertaining and were planning to read part two, if they hadn’t already.

Elze Hamilton