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Books I will not write #3: No plan survives contact with the editor

Back in 2001, as I noted in the first entry in this series, I was scrambling to make money as a writer (being an unemployed programmer in the middle of the dot-com bust). After my agent shot down my suggestion for an alternate history novel for various good and sound commercial reasons, I generated a new proposal; this time for an alternate history/paratime SF lite series (one that could be marketed initially as a portal fantasy with mediaeval tone, moving sideways into SF of a different kind from my main sales track if conditions permitted).

Caitlin thought it sounded like a great idea, so I sat down and blasted out a first draft of "The Family Trade" in twelve weeks flat. Then went back and re-drafted at length, adding another 40,000 words to bring it up to 195,000 words — or about 600 pages. Being commercially naive I was, you see, thinking in terms of Big Fat Fantasy here. Which is why I was to get a rude awakening in 2002 ...

What I've learned since then is that if you go over about 420 pages, the cost of binding the book blocks goes up sharply — a different process is required, fewer print shops can do it, and they charge more. So Big Fat Books are positively discouraged unless you're extremely successful and able to ship lots of copies. If you're a midlist writer and you turn in a BFF that's good enough to publish, but not to publish profitably in a 600-800 page tome, what will probably happen to you is that your editor will decide to chop the book in half and publish it in two volumes.

This happened to "The Family Trade" (which is why book #1 ends on a cliff hanger and book #2 has a lame title — I had two weeks to make the cut). And it completely derailed my plans for the rest of the series — "The Clan Corporate", as published, is the opening and set-up to the book I really meant to write.

Digging through my files I have rediscovered the series pitch that I wrote in early 2002 to accompany the submission of "The Family Trade" (the uncut BFF mix), explaining to publishers why they might want to buy not just the one book, but a whole series.


I'm removing the (lengthy) plot synopsis for "The Family Trade", because if you're interested in this posting you've probably read the original book.

If you plan to read the "Merchant Princes" series but haven't gotten round to it yet, you may want to skip the rest of this blog entry, continued below the cut (although "The Trade of Queens" diverges widely enough from this series pitch that it might not spoil the novel for you).

However, my current plans for subsequent volumes in the series (if I write them) don't much resemble this eight-year-old proposal. No plan survives contact with the enemy, and the Merchant Princes diverged drastically from this pitch before book #3 comes to a climax. See if you can spot where the requirement to tell the story in 300 page chunks forced me to take a different direction ...

Merchant Princes


Merchant Princes is an alternate history series projected to run to four volumes. A loose extended family called the Clan have the ability to world-walk to different parallel universes. When the series opens they're active in our own and in at least two others, and they make money by smuggling contraband and valuable goods. Their own home time-line is quasi-mediaeval, but despite that they're enormously rich: at home they're the Medicis, and over here they're the Mob.

The Merchant Princes sequence follows the arrival of a long-lost prodigal daughter with innovative business ideas (she's been raised in our world), who blows apart the Clan's centuries-old alliances. The consequences ripple out to have effects on at least six different time-lines, and lead to a confrontation with an alien threat that wants to expunge humanity from the multiverse. Along the way, the Clan (which is an extended family) does a lot of collective growing up.

While positioned well within the frontier of the science fiction marketing category, it is hoped that Merchant Princes will have some appeal to readers from outside the genre. The background concept of "A Family Trade" and sequels echoes both H. Beam Piper's "Paratime" books and L. Sprague de Camp's "Lest Darkness Fall", but the plot structure in the first two volumes may appeal to a crossover audience of both fantasy and men's adventure/thriller readers with suitable marketing emphasis, and the science fiction components have been deliberately kept accessible to a broader readership (much as Julian May's "Saga of the Exiles" initially attracted a substantial fantasy audience to a series that was largely science fictional in concept).

Books — brief description

A Family Trade (completed, 195,000 words)

Tech journalist Miriam Beckstein stumbles into a confusing web of culture shock, intra-universal smuggling, and politics when she discovers that she is descended from a family of world-walking merchant princes (who happen to be the main Heroin connection for the east coast, in our world). In the tradition of H. Beam Piper's Paratime books and (to a lesser extent) L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall, in order to avoid a slippery slope down to an unmarked grave, Miriam starts applying modern business practices and scientific knowledge to a trade dominated by mediaeval mercantilists — with unexpected consequences for three different time-lines.

The Body Corporate (planned and outlined, est. 200,000 words)

Action generates reaction, and The Body Corporate is about the reactions of various parties to the changes Miriam set in train in A Family Trade. Most of the reactions are unwelcome, unpleasant, and dangerous. At the start of the book, the Clan are smug, incredibly rich Medici-like figures. By the end of The Body Corporate they're terrified refugees, preparing to flee into the unknown wastes of a time-line where civilization in North America was wiped out by a surprise nuclear attack twelve thousand years ago.

The History Market (in planning, est. 200,000 words)

Miriam leads what's left of the Clan — a large and fractious collection of refugees, with scattered outliers hiding in the USA, New Britain, and the Gruinmarkt (which is now under US military occupation) into exile in a hitherto-unexplored world line. They discover where the world-line manipulating machinery really came from. Or rather, it discovers them: terrifying alien creatures from the far end of time appear set on seizing control of the multiverse and destroying all competing life forms.

A major character in this book is Sue, Miriam's adopted-out daughter, who is dragged into the Clan's intrigues. Sue battles with conflicting loyalties and struggles to make sense of the clash of powers that has been set in train by earlier events. The group Sue is involved with discovers the existence of an alien threat, and finally manages to organise a cease-fire with the Clan's enemies — but only in the face of the Expanders.

The Clan Collective (in planning, est. 200,000 words)

In the course of this novel, the Expander threat finally arrives. Miriam sends Sue to seek out the wreckage of the civilization that the Clan are descended from, and ultimately to embark on a perilous journey to a world-line where the physical laws of the universe are radically different. There an enigmatic intelligence holds the key to preventing the Expanders hegemonising the multiverse.

As the thematic climax of the Merchant Princes, this novel destroys the world several times over, in different universes. At the end of it, the Clan still survives: but it is no longer a bickering extended family of post-mediaeval mercantilist nobility, and the changes triggered by Miriam's arrival in A Family Trade have resulted in the creation of a multi-universe paratime alliance of worlds.

Series background

(Note: for a synopsis of "A Family Trade", see the separate detailed outline. This section explains why things are set up as they are, in the context of the planned trilogy.)

The starting point for this series is that there are many parallel worlds, and it is possible for some people to travel between them. (The mechanism by which they travel is an artefact of a very advanced technology from another time line, the precise nature of which is unknown to them at first — this is explored in the second and subsequent books.)

In one of these time-lines, the eastern seaboard of north America has been settled by a viking-descended culture, not unlike the eleventh-century Normans. They're Catholic, but this world's version of Catholicism is a formalized and hierarchical version of the old Roman pre-Christian polytheism — Judaism died out around 200BCE, and neither Jesus nor Mohammed came along to syncretize monotheistic beliefs with mainstream imperial culture. The basics of industrialisation have passed this time-line by, and the peak of civilization is roughly 15th to 16th century, late mediaeval.

About 300 years ago, an itinerant peddlar from the Gruinmarkt (one of the marcher kingdoms of what would be New England in our time line) discovered that if he stared at a weird knotwork design he acquired on a brooch he could transport himself to another world. He was, not to put too much emphasis on it, a Kaspar Hauser figure — but he was able to control his ability to world-walk, and he lived long enough to figure out how to make a living at it. He could only carry as much stuff he could lift, and if he moved back and forth too fast he risked vicious migraines or even a stroke, but it was enough to make him a fortune. He could avoid bandits and native tribes, and buy firearms of surpassing effectiveness from the odd 'English' peoples of the other world. So he prospered.

None of his six sons were born with the talent, but some of their children married and the descendants re-discovered the ability. It's a genetically-transmitted recessive trait, and fairly soon the families established a trading clan based on a partnership shareholding system (and first-cousin marriages).

The Clan — composed of the world-walking members of the families — is about the most sophisticated corporate structure in the Gruinmarkt. It's basically a partnership/guild hybrid with a heavy hereditary bias. The lack of technological sophistication of this world goes for business practices as well — nobody has invented the private or limited liability company, and business methods are crudely mercantilist at best. This is significant to the rest of the series of books because it was around this time in our time-line that the relentless surge in technological and business administration really got under way.

The Clan members were marginal players in their own world until about 1850, when the telegraph in our world let them send messages to the west coast (dominated by Chinese settlements in their world) in only 24 hours. Suddenly this gave them immense economic leverage — from about 1850 to 1950 they became merchant princes. But even today they are basically mediaevals, and in our world they still think like mediaeval merchants — or Saudi royalty.

A Family Trade

Miriam Beckstein is a thirty-something tech journalist living in Boston. An orphan, she was raised by a childless couple. The day she loses her job (for probing too deeply into money laundering in the biotech industry), her mother gives her a shoe-box full of yellowing press clippings — and a tarnished silver locket.

Before the day's out Miriam has discovered another wild world where Boston doesn't exist, been shot at by a mounted knight armed with an M-16, and been violently sick. And that's just the beginning as she discovers her long-lost family — who are the Government in their world and the biggest drug smuggling ring on the east coast in ours.

Then the assassins from yet another world start trying to kill her and the shit hits the fan ...

(The full details are in the detailed outline.)

Behind the main plot (poor child raised by honest folks discovers royal ancestry — then says "bugger this, I'm not playing!"), one of the main themes of A Family Trade is the collision of mediaeval and modern business practice and values. Social organisation is intimately enmeshed in economics, and the Clan of world-walkers are still organised as a hybrid guild/partnership, operating without limitation of liability or any kind of charter. (The Hidden Family is even more primitive, operating as a simple family structure.) Hang onto this thought — it's central to how the soap operatic foreground evolves, during the subsequent books. The Clan is structured along lines of money, pride, and insecurity, and Miriam strikes it a near mortal blow through her actions. (Matthias' final leaving present nearly is a fatal blow, in the absence of other circumstances.) At the same time, while the world-walking McGuffin is treated initially as a black box, Miriam is already speculating about underlying mechanisms, telegraphing some of the central concerns of The Body Corporate.

The Body Corporate

The Body Corporate is about what happens when the pigeons Miriam set in flight come home to roost. If A Family Trade showed Miriam trying to reach an accomodation with the Clan, this novel shows the Clan as a whole trying (and failing) to reach an accomodation with hostile powers who have suddenly discovered their existence.

On a character-oriented note, The Body Corporate develops the characters of Miriam, Brill, Earl Oliver, Miriam's adopted daughter Sue, and Erasmus Burgeson (who graduates from pawnbroker and ex-political prisoner to Minister of Information in the Provisional Emergency Parliament of New Britain). Sue, who is 12 years old at the beginning of the novel and 21 by the epilogue, is set up to become the main viewpoint character by the final book.

At the end of A Family Trade we saw Matthias, exiled from the Clan for treason, knocking on the DEA's door. At the start of The Body Corporate the DEA begin to realise that there's something intensely strange about the big heroin smuggling ring they've been investigating. At first the evidence that the drug smugglers are actually from another world is too weird to embrance — but Matthias eventually manages to convince them. The FBI captures a Clan courier, DARPA scientists confirm that he's riddled with intracellular nanomachinery incorporating quantum computing elements that allow him to manipulate the world-lines, and the shit hits the National Security Council fan.

Unlike the Clan, who come from a world with no established scientific tradition, the US government is not going to be content until they understand what's happening and can respond to it effectively — especially in the terrorist-aware aftermath of 9/11. A superblack research organisation designated Family Trade is established by the government in an attempt to understand and reverse-engineer the world-walking mechanism. The Department of Defense perceives the Clan as a far more serious security threat than Al Qaida, and within a year Family Trade is the biggest military R&D operation since the Manhattan Project, siphoning off money from the ballistic missile defense program and other military projects on an enormous scale.

One of Miriam's old flames, a DEA agent called Mike Fleming, is seconded to the huge secret operation: he's the viewpoint character that allows us to watch the attack on the Clan that the US government is winding up to deliver as soon as their time-line shifting machines come on-line. He's also our window on the US military's perspective on the Gruinmarkt.

Meanwhile, back on the other side, the Clan is splintering along factional lines. Miriam's "young faction" want to switch the Clan to profiting by technology transfer between developing worlds, but the conservative "old faction" want to continue business-as-usual. Miriam's vision of security for the Clan is to turn it into a trans-universal equivalent of IBM and General Motors — but conservative leader Earl Oliver Hjorth's vision of security for the Clan involves an H-bomb in every major city in the USA. (The White House view of the Clan as a horrendous security problem is, unfortunately for them, partially correct: the Clan is a separate sovereign power that overlaps territorially with the USA at every point, and some elements of the Clan leadership are actively hostile.)

Miriam's meddling in the Gruinmarkt and New Britain has caused major economic and political dislocation in both worlds. In the Gruinmarkt, attempts at opening trade schools and instituting land reform are causing friction with the non-clan aristocracy. Some of the old nobility are planning an uprising that will place a new king, violently hostile to the Clan, on the throne of their country. Meanwhile, in New Britain (where there was no American war of independence because England was invaded by France in 1764) her involvement with the democratic underground in time of war is leading her perilously close to backing a violent revolution. (There is an ironic moral equivalence — not overtly signalled in book #1 — between the Clan's drug smuggling operations and Miriam's own involvement with the Levellers, a proto-democratic movement that in our universe contributed to many of the political ideas we take for granted but who are still struggling with monarchical absolutism in New Britain.)

The first part of the book rapidly sets the scene, fast-forwarding past four years of development in which Miriam establishes her power base in New Britain (and narrowly avoids being forcibly married off to the King's idiot younger son), the Clan splits into factions, the US military work on reverse-engineering the world-walking technology, and Clan explorers discover a fourth, seemingly uninhabited, time-line.

The story arc accelerates when, five years after the events of A Family Trade, the king of Niejwein is assassinated by a CIA/Delta force team inserted into the Clan's world by Family Trade in an attempt to gain on-the-ground intelligence. Family Trade is, by any normal standards, out of control, a rogue agency whose leaders believe they are operating under wartime conditions. Meanwhile riots and general strikes break out in New London, where Miriam is trapped as a civil war of succession engulfs the Gruinmarkt.

Earl Oliver Hjorth's faction has decided that the way to deal with a US government that knows about the Clan is to obtain nukes and plant them in federal buildings. Being able to send in commando teams from a parallel universe makes the job of stealing former Soviet nuclear weapons a lot easier ... especially as the US government hasn't notified any other governments that such a threat exists. As the Gruinmarkt shows signs of falling apart, Miriam and her faction and friends struggle to find the nukes — without tipping off the FBI or Family Trade to what they're doing — and remove them. Their nightmare is that if any of them are discovered, the White House will order an immediate nuclear knock-out strike on the Gruinmarkt.

A number of sub-threads are evolving during these events. Miriam has pushed some of the younger Clan members into investigating the roots of the family trait. Their researches lead them to the relics of the Founder, held in a cabinet of curiosities in a Clan palace. The items in question are stolen by a renegade from the Hidden Families (possibly in league with Matthias). The curios, when recovered, prove to be cunningly disguised artefacts from an advanced civilization — high-tech survival gear for a refugee or deep-penetration agent.

(The nature of the world-walking ability slowly comes to light: it's a very advanced survival kit, intracellular self-replicating machines scattered throughout the tissues of anyone descended from the founder, and a point mutation to the wiring of the human visual cortex (similar to the ability to perceive random-dot stereoisograms) that acts as a trigger to the world-walking mechanism. Unfortunately there appear to be hereditary bugs in it; the intracellular kit was clearly a prototype, hence glitches that include the activator gene being a recessive trait ... and the ability not being under full conscious control.)

While these events unfold, one of the younger Clan members discovers a route through to a fourth parallel world. It turns out that world four is in the grip of an ice age — attempts to world-walk to it from northerly latitudes will invariably fail (it's impossible to come out inside a solid object, such as a glacier), but on a trip to Mexico the explorer discovers a route through, and the wreckage of ancient domed cities left by a civilization than developed space travel before the pyramids were built. The cities shows signs of having been devastated by nuclear weapons and other, more obscure, tools. And some of the vegetation and wildlife is eerily alien, as if extraterrestrials have abandoned a terraforming project halfway through.

At the end of the book, having won the battle for control of the Clan atomics, Miriam and her faction realise that the Gruinmarkt is impossible to defend in the face of a determined US military incursion. They prepare to evacuate to the newly discovered uninhabited world. Meanwhile, New Britain is in the grip of a Leveller revolution, and the Clan progressives' technical committee has managed a breakthrough. By use of an engineered vaccine produced in our world, they can activate the family world-walking trait in all the latent (genetically recessive) outer family members. The Pentagon is still limited to bulky machines fitted to aircraft if they want to go world-walking, but the Clan, although outgunned and outnumbered, is more flexible.

Some background to the later books

The History Market levers the frame around the series wide open, by replacing the limited world-walking mechanism with a powerful technology for travelling to alternate worlds. Miriam is now the elder statesman of the surviving Clan members, but doesn't hold absolute power — she's the leader of an unstable coalition who agree on only one thing (that they really don't want to be on the receiving end of the Taliban/Iraq treatment).

By The History Market, the world has slid from the contemporary setting of the first two books into near-future SF. The paratime secret has leaked, and the western governments are putting more effort into containing paratime proliferation than nuclear proliferation. At home, both the EU and the USA have erected formidable perimeter defenses and are pursuing an odd "cooperative isolationism" policy, while secret agencies wage brushfire wars to keep the regional equivalents of Saddam Hussein in check. Behind the scenes, the major superpowers are feverishly building difficult-but-essential continuous-flow gates that will allow them to strip-mine the oil and natural resources of uninhabited parallel earths. (Genre references: "Mozart in Mirrorshades", "Corrupting Dr Nice".) Meanwhile, robot drone aircraft systematically map neighbouring universes, ever-vigilant for signs of paratime insurgencies. It's an era of secretive paratime colonialism and extreme diplomatic paranoia — and the Clan have been relegated to the status of mice hiding in the walls.

The Clan's situation is dire. By the middle of The Body Corporate, the Family Trade Organisation (FTO) had built a clunky but workable paratime machine. They then tried to use it to destroy the Clan, because the national security implications of world-walking are horrifying. (For example, ballistic missile defense is dead if H-bombs can simply appear inside your cities or government headquarters.) There are spin-off technologies, too — free energy, to name just one. (Target a universe where the ratio of the strong/weak nuclear forces are different, open a small persistent gateway to it, and you can make a desktop sized Mr Fusion reactor. Or an atomic bomb that uses lead instead of plutonium as a fissile material.) The US government, by deciding to go after the Clan, has effectively committed itself to an expansionist military conquest of several parallel universes. There's no obvious alternative to a paratime "defense in depth", but it's going to be horribly expensive, and Mike Fleming (who is now in a senior slot within the FTO) knows it.

Miriam's attempts to accelerate technological and political development in Niejwein and New Britain have precipitated bloody revolutions in two worlds (not that they weren't ripe for them before her arrival) and her attempt to modernize the Clan has brought it to the edge of annihilation. However, her progressive faction have fostered a massive scientific/technological complex in New Britain, which has not yet been discovered by the US military. As the Clan's scientists develop the tools for reliably opening up new worlds, the Clan prepares to join in the Great Game. With the Founder's high-tech survival cache (which includes advanced nanotechnology factories) they begin to search for a way out of the trap they're in. Time is short — the Leveller Provisional Government has fallen into the hands of a faction hostile to Miriam, and the Clan desperately needs a way out.

In The Body Corporate the mechanism that gives access to the parallel worlds was largely demystified. (In The Family Trade, it was a black box, but in The Body Corporate it was revealed to be a bunch of nanomachines implanted in the Clan member's mitochondria, that in combination with some heavily modified neurotransmitter receptors allowed family members to do what they do. In The History Market we learn that the Founder of the families wasn't just a random peasant — he was a refugee from an advanced human civilization, known to their descendants as the Forerunners, who had discovered a way to get to parallel universes. Paratime travel being a lot cheaper than space travel, they'd colonized uninhabited versions of earth rather than expanding into space. (See "Mozart in Mirrorshades", "Corrupting Dr Nice", and H. Beam Piper's Paratime stories for examples of SF that prefigure this theme).

The Forerunner civilization never developed advanced AI or space travel; they didn't need to. Instead, they expanded out into a hundred or so parallel worlds. Travel time and communications lag sufficed to slow down scientific development — then they met a rival paratime power. Humans, it turns out, are not the only sapient species capable of emerging from earth. Way back in the Cambrian age, some other time lines turned out unimaginably differently: now the Expanders are scanning the multiverse for signs of paratime travel, in search of rivals to stamp out.

The Expanders are not human. Nobody human has ever seen an Expander and lived. Nobody knows how many versions of Earth they rule, but they're constantly trying to expand into new ones, which they terraform with a biosphere more alien than the Jurassic. The Founder was a deserter from the Time Patrol, an organisation that patrols the boundaries of the Forerunner confederation of time lines that he comes from. They've been losing the war against the Expanders for a very long time, and while the Founder ran a long way, the Forerunners are retreating towards the Clan.

The History Market

The story begins in the aftermath of the Clan's withdrawl to a bombed- out prehistoric city in the Atacama desert of world four — a city covered by a synthetic diamond bubble kilometres across. The Clan is holding an extraordinary meeting. Miriam is weary and depressed and wants to resign from the chair — the members won't let her.

Events in New Britain are going downhill as a totalitarian faction in the Provisional Government turns the resources of the state to the cause of waging total war against the French Empire. The Clan's enormous industrial infrastructure — constructed by Miriam over a period of nearly fifteen years — is on the verge of being nationalised, a catastrophe that will nullify her work and jeopardize the Clan's survival.

We acquire a new viewpoint character in the shape of Sue, Miriam's daughter. Born roughly 12 years before the events of A Family Trade and given up for adoption, Sue has grown up in ignorance of the Clan (like Miriam). The History Market kicks off when some mysterious Men in Black remove her from her college campus and begin to interrogate her about her background — stuff she's never heard of. They're from a government agency descended from the Homeland Protection Bureau, and she's extremely frightened when they tell her that she's a suspected terrorist.

Sue is younger (21) and less experienced than Miriam at the start of the series. She hasn't yet developed a clear view of what she wants to do with her life, and when the G-men offer her a deal — they'll let her go on condition she agrees to work with them to infiltrate her long-lost family — she readily caves in. After all, they're from the Government, and the Government is there to protect us from nuclear terrorism, nanoweapons, and a whole host of nasties. (This is set around 2010, and in a more paranoid world than our own: think 1950's with ubiquitous surveillance cameras, data mining, and a state of emergency focussing on nuclear terrorism.)

The last thing Sue expects is to be kidnapped again as soon as she gets back to her dorm — but that's exactly what happens. Sue is a member of the outer families, the recessive carriers of the world-walking ability. The Clan identified her years ago, but Miriam demanded that Angbard leave her alone in return for her cooperation. Now, years later, the situation has changed. The Clan's genetics lab has figured out how to activate the recessive trait, and the Clan is preparing to pull out of our world completely because it is now extremely hazardous to operate there. One element of Clan security, operating without the cognizance of the top people, has resolved to round up the stragglers and bring them along.

Sue is deeply frightened now, but gets her head together by the time her kidnappers bring her to an ancient alien city in the desert. People in strange clothes from exotic places are congregating here, and none of them seem happy about it. Then she's introduced to her mother, and her whole world is turned inside out.

Subsequently, family reunion notwithstanding, Sue attempts to escape from the Clan. Becoming lost, she has the good fortune to be picked up by an exploration team from the Clan's progressive faction. They're looking for signs of former Forerunner colony worlds, and they have a high- tech toy to help them — a nuclear-powered airship with world-walking hardware built into its frame.

The exploration voyage goes horribly wrong, but they discover two important new things — a world which has been ravaged by the Expanders, and another world where automatic Forerunner defenses are still operating. Shot up by robot weapons, the exploration team are forced to try to world-walk to safety the hard way — on foot, through a hostile Expander biosphere. Along the way they learn a lot about the history of the Forerunners and realise that there's an actual threat here, as Expander spores follow them to time-line after time-line on the way home.

Sue and her surviving companions eventually figure out how to lead the Expander pursuit off their course, and return to the Clan-occupied territories to discover that the Clan's covert conflict with the US military has become desperate — a major attack is expected.

Miriam sends Sue to the Gruinmarkt — now under US military occupation, with a mass education and aid program, and a military government — to make the case that there are worse things out there than the Clan. Negotiations ensue ...

The Clan Collective

Details to be determined. This is the thematic climax of the series. Humanity survives, somehow, by the skin of its teeth. A diplomatic settlement of sorts is arrived at between the US government, and the Clan as representative of the Forerunner alliance. The Clan doesn't survive in the form introduced in A Family Trade; they're forced to modernize and by the end of this book they are slowly rediscovering their identity as part of the Forerunner alliance.

The Expanders are not destroyed but are blocked from expansion into a whole raft of world-lines, which are now safe for human occupation in the short term. (In the long term, the paratime equivalent of a galactic war seems inevitable.)

Overall themes

First and foremost, the Merchant Princes tetralogy is an adventure and multi-generational coming-of-age experience, with intrigue, turmoil, plotting, love and hatred among a large clan of world-walkers.

But there are a number of technical and political issues hiding below the surface, which recomplicate affairs and ensure that each novel adds something to the ones that have gone before, both in content and in plot development.

In the first novel, Miriam discovers the Clan. It's a novel of acculturation and personal self-realisation, and Miriam is driven to explicitly destablise a primitive business environment by introducing it to the 21st century. But the setting is still basically cosy and closed — three parallel worlds, and a handful of people who can zip about between them.

The second novel levers open the frame by demonstrating that it's a technology, not magic. When the government develops world-walking machinery, the Clan is going to reap the whirlwind for their historical lack of development and history of unethical business practice. While it's still a dramatic adventure with self-development (and a new love interest) for Miriam, it draws a deeper message about the relationship between imperialism and developed and developing nations (or, in this case, alternate versions of North America). Miriam's private secret has become a public one, the world-walking cat is out of the bag, and the Clan will have to survive in the full glare of public attention. There's also the nearly-mechanical unfolding of the Bush administration's reaction to a real terror threat — an enemy who can plant nuclear weapons in every city in the continental USA, who can spy at will, who for decades have been running the other side of the War on Drugs, and who don't recognize the legitimacy of the US government.

By the third novel Miriam is middle-aged and a senior executive; it's therefore necessary to introduce a second, younger viewpoint to handle the action-oriented components of the plot. Sue is not a simple stand-in for Miriam; Miriam met the Clan already knowing who she was and what she wanted. Sue is not so mature, but the Clan is less oppressive in the years after Miriam's arrival, and Sue consequently has a breathing space. By this time the world-walking mechanism is now well-understood by the Clan, who have unlocked it so that they can travel to an enormous multiplicity of universes, rather than just a limited handful. Sue's story is one of conflict and reconciliation between opposing ideas of society, on either side of a Cold War type barrier. Meanwhile, Miriam's story is one of desperately trying to hold the centre together, in the face of oncoming old age and the threat of decay. In the background, not only has the Clan been forced to change, but so have the governments of the nations the Clan has interacted with, as they discover world-walking technology. In addition, the third novel makes explicit a vague, numinous threat that was hinted at (by the presence of destroyed cities) in the second novel.

The fourth novel resolves the various personal crises set up in books #1 to #3. It also ramps up to a final conflict with the totally unhuman Expanders, in contrast with whom the differences between the various human factions pale into insignificance.

There's some stylistic drift, given the nature of the material in hand. A Family Trade is perhaps "softest" in its approach to the material, being largely a novel of personal development and lightweight adventure. The Body Corporate adds overtones from the thriller genre — in particular the political/technological goings-on in the Family Trade Organisation as seen through the eyes of Mike Fleming, with the US military preparing for war in paratime. The History Market is both an exploration novel with high jeopardy, and a coming-of-age novel. Finally, The Clan Collective adds overtones of Greg Bear style high-concept SF, with the introduction of non-human technological civilizations and universes with different physical rules. Each novel retains the writing style of the earlier ones, but adds the new material on top in a logical and progressive manner, so that the reader is constantly being given a trickle of new information. (This is not a series about internicine backbiting within an unchanging Clan; the Clan changes, and does so radically, during the course of the series.)

Finally, this outline doesn't address the personal character development of the protagonists adequately. That's because it's hard enough to cover the development of a four book series over a twenty year period without also trying to keep track of a dozen major characters. Suffice to say that Miriam gets a second chance at True Love, Brill gets to assert her independence, Erasmus Burgeson goes from being a broken- down pawnbroker and part-time revolutionary to a high government minister, Baron Oliver gets to twirl his moustaches with evil panache while holding the fuse to a hydrogen bomb, and Miriam, her daughter, and her mother and grandmother have more than one major family argument.




Just wow.

Have to say this looks like an even more interesting read than the published series.

Any chance of the Expanders ending up in... something? :-)


I am eager to find out how the rest of the story has changed and developed. Thanks for the alternate history of an alternate history.


I am sadly stuck after finishing book #3 because #4 is not out in e-book format.

Accelerando was the first full novel I read in e-book format and since then I have purchased every single one of your books through Kindle or Stanza on my iPhone. I needs book #4!

I can't even read this whole entry because I don't want any spoilers. Definitely bookmarking this to read later.


Frak! I think I need a sit down and a cup of tea after reading that.


So? Looks to me that the first half of the plot synopsis has survived far better than most battle plans - even if in six medium-sized volumes rather than two doorstops. If and when you want to do so, I can't see anything stopping you adjusting the synopsis for The History Market to start from where you actually reached and writing (rearranged and chunked up suitably) another trilogy. In which case, I and quite a lot of others will almost certainly be buying it.


Wow. That was an interesting outline. So, outside of the binding process, how else did it die on the altar of the editors?


Did you envision the expanders descending from any particular real ancient creature, or did you plan on leaving their true forms unseen even at the end of the series?


"After my agent shot down my suggestion for an alternate history novel for various good and sound commercial reasons"

Why? Is this some expertise the agent has of the market or the publishers? Are stories that similar/predictable that this determination can be made? Hollywood seems to follow this theme that certain concepts are "in" and others "out" and this leads to very boring output, especially since a studio' portfolio is must less diversified.


If you bear in mind that our ancestor back in Cambrian times may have been some form of hagfish, and how different we are from that (real bones, jaws, lungs, legs, etc.), then rolling forward evolution from one of the other lifeforms around could give rise to almost anything.

On the other hand, the very first Cephalopods appeared late in the Cambrian. Perhaps we should be looking at something like Cthulhu?

Perhaps the Merchant Princes and the Laundry are actually the same story, from different viewpoints?


Intelligent land sponge with a glass skeleton and domesticated trilobites?


Book #4 is in Tor's republish-in-ebook-format queue, along with a couple of thousand other titles. It came out in a gap between Tor Ebook Program 1.0 and Tor Ebook Program 2.0, and kind of fell between the cracks. (Books 1-3 made it out in 1.0, and 5-6 in 2.0. See?)


Well, there was the whole business of turning an 800 page story into episodes of 300 pages, plus or minus 30. A 300 page subsection of an 800 page novel is not a novel in its own right unless you add loads of extra stuff to give it a climax, resolution/cliff-hanger, character development, and so on. So the 800 page book ended up in four 320-page (average) volumes. That's kind of disruptive.

Also? Don't underestimate author burn-out. Writing a single 800 page book is slightly easier than writing four books summing to 1300 pages.


Why? Is this some expertise the agent has of the market or the publishers?

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: it depends. Agents (mine included) are often former editors. Remember I'm not selling to you; I'm selling to publishers. If a publisher won't buy the book, it ain't going to get published and make me money.[*] So my agent is a valuable sanity check on what I can conceivably sell to the editors she does business with on a day to day basis.

Where it breaks down is where you're dealing with a grey area, or experimental work. The Laundry books were one such -- the elevator pitch "a humorous Lovecraftian horror technothriller pastiching the style of different British spy thriller writers" is not exactly the easiest sell to someone who's thinking in terms of which shelf category in the big chain bookstores to use to plug the product.

But I've learned to trust her gut judgement about the more commercial strands of my work. If she says something will sell, she's right. If she says something won't sell, she's usually right (but not always).

[*] Unless I want to turn into my own publisher. And I've got better things to do with my time, like write. It's called "division of labour" ...


With the note that I am not an author, and the agent wa aware of this in advance:-

I have had the argument with an agent that IMO the reason first trilogies sell better than stand-alone first novels (even ones that later expand into series) is because publishers market trilogies more heavily, which makes the argument that trilogies sell better a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, but he couldn't or wouldn't see that. Charlie et al; your mileage may differ, but I'm more likely to make my first purchase by a new (to me) author a stand-alone novel, or at least a first of series that will reach a proper end than volume 1 of a trilogy that may not all get published and/or end on a cliff-hanger. Remember, it's not just money I'm investing in your product, but my time to read it, and I have a "to be read sometime pile" (ok bookcase actually) about 100 volumes "deep"!

So FWIW (and you won't care much now since I have bought it and sequals Charlie) I would never have bought "The Family Trade" (either version) as my first Charles Stross novel.


Now I'm curious. Did you intend the Expanders to be a fundamentally Earth-bound empire as well, or would they expand in both space as well as dimension?

Also, "Antibodies" is one of my favorite short works of yours, and I clearly see some parallels. I hope you get the opportunity to explore this universe a bit more.


Didn't you say that you had ideas for more stories set in the MP universe? I can hazard a guess what they're about... And that guess makes me very happy!


Charlie, given that the Merchant Princes started as a quasi-fantasy for contractual reasons, and only started to show its true SFnal colours as the series progressed, did you get any indication, from sales or anecdotal evidence, that readers who bought into it as a fantasy series dropped off as it became more SFnal?

I'd love to think that MP helped convert some fantasy fans to the One True Path.


GULP H. Beam Piper meets Poul Anderson, meets steampunk .... meets your own "transfer-to-the-disk" story - meets Niven's known space perhaps, or is it the tales of the flying horse (unicorn) ... A MUCH bigger picture. Initially, I didn't like the "Family Trade", bacuse of the cut mentioned right back at the top. Now I've re-bough vol #1, and read all the rest except "Trade of Queens" (Bloody "Forbidden Planet had no copies AGAIN) Well ......


This is deeply wonderful!

I have been digesting the novels (protein) and trying to reverse engineer the DNA of the series.

Now Mr. Stross have brilliantly explained the Phenotype and Genotype of the series, and its evolutionary history.

This is also useful to me because of the several Multiverse novels and many multiverse short fictions that I, my wife, and my son have been writing.

One key insight I'd had, and explained to people including Mr.Stross at Worldcons staring about 2000, was as summarized in the one paragraph below, indicating a deliciouys case of convergent evolution of novels, from "Black Physics" by myself and my wife:

"Okay," said the Colonel, "(4) There is some sort of Black Physics transport network. You want to travel from solar system A in our universe to solar system B in our universe, but we don't have starships. So you sidewise to some universe that does have starships, from A to A', take starship from A' to B' sidewise from B’ in the starship universes back to our universe, and you're now at B."



I agree, and am also afraid of starting a new series. (For instance, I read the first book in Card's Alvin Maker series without realizes it started a series. I was not happy when I got to the "end" of that book. And now I'm ca. 7 books in, and am not sure what to do...)


Do like me - stop reading them when they aren't fun any more. I did that with the Wheel of Time after book 5 and haven't looked back.


Thanks. Author burnout explains my perceptions of the later books. To me, they felt different from the first, and well, weren't near as much fun though there was a substantial "Wow" factor.

Now I know.


"it's not just money I'm investing in your product, but my time to read it,"

I agree, there is an eyeballs time issue involved. It seems that novels are now the new short story. When short stories were abundant, it was easy to buy a collection and quickly find authors that you liked and then buy their novels. You even had a decent flavor of what those novels might be like given the short story themes. **

I find I resent novels that are really N-ologies when I know little or nothing about the author. It is even worse if that fact is not made clear on the cover. I find these books often have no real closure and leave an unsatisfied feeling.
I am then left with the choice of taking my losses and trying another author or doubling down with the next book in the sequence. One bad experience of this and the author may never sell me another book without lots of recommendations. I am also tempted to agree with what someone in another thread said about not starting a series until it is completely published.

** By my count, A C Clarke wrote over 100 short stories, and around 27 novels (incl. collaborations). A 4:1 ratio.


To me, the interesting thing was that, if I understood things right, this was supposed to be a straight-up fantasy to avoid Ace's "first look at any science fiction" clause.

This proposal seems to suggest that the fantasy needs to be superficial and trope-related to avoid publishers getting crabby about their authors and their projects. Still, I'm a little surprised that Ace didn't get testy about the Merchant Princes series regrounding itself in SF as it progressed.


I'm really not sure I see understand the difference between science fiction and fantasy.

(Is that heresy?)


Fantasy has swords and elves; science fiction has lasers and Vulcans.


Well ... it's fascinating how, as dire as the action would get in your original proposal, the actual series got a lot more dire and a lot blacker at the end. But it's clear that you could still graft a lot of the later parts of the proposal (expansion of the world-traveling mechanisms, contact with the Forerunners, attack of the Expanders, etc.) onto the existing series if you should ever overcome the burnout and want to continue it. While "The Family Trade" isn't my favorite of your works, Charlie, I've read and enjoyed it all (well, I'm not sure that "enjoyed" is the right word for "The Trade of Queens" considering what happens to the Gruinmarkt). So I'd read any sequels you wanted to write.

That said, I have a rather technical question. One of the things that distinguishes different ideas of paratime is the kind of paths between worlds. For instance, Piper's Paratime is a one-dimensional ray of worlds that starts at Home Time Line and goes forever into the Fifth Level where humans never got to Earth. Keith Laumer's Imperium exists in a web of worlds embedded in a 2-dimensional grid. And so on. This affects the action and the background in a story where one world of set of closely-related worlds is potentially under attack from others, because it determines what other kinds of worlds the characters get to adventure in while defending, attacking, scouting the enemy, etc. It's basically a question of what kind of metric is applied to the overall metaverse; what makes a world close to another, and distant from a third. So the question is, had you thought that out yet?


davharris @25: I'm really not sure I see understand the difference between science fiction and fantasy.

The thing to remember is that what the book is and how it is marketed are two different things. Elves and dragons do not make Fantasy. Warp drive and phasers do not make SF.

  • Fantasy is restoring the balance.

  • SF is constant, relentless, change.

  • Horror is seeing what lies beneath the false reality.

This is from Clute, Malzberg, etc...


  • Star Trek is Fantasy.

No matter what happens the balance is restored, and it's all ahead warp factor one.

  • LOTR is SF.

In each cycle the magic goes away and the world is never the same.

  • The Laundry novels, and most of the Stross Vector is Horror.

The Merchant Princes series started out looking like fantasy. Ace were okay with it. Then my agent got a clause amended in the contract for Ace's next SF novels, saying "... option on the next SF novel, excluding books in the Merchant Princes series". Which allowed me to go more overtly SFnal in the MP books, but didn't impact Ace's sales because by then the two marketing tracks were clearly divergent.


I'm a little curious to know, did you ever hear from any fantasy readers who were won over by the series?


This is the most intriguing of an extremely fascinating series of articles showing what might have been. Thanks for sharing.


By that definition, doesn't that mean that Phillip K Dick is horror too?

In fact, IMHO it makes them all broad almost to the point of meaningless - Not only Trek, but Star Wars is Fantasy as its about restoring the old Republic. Julian May's Saga of the Exiles has the Fantasy bent, as the whole point with the Exiles is (a) restoring the Status Quo to the Galactic Milieu and (b) restoring the Status Quo to history as they disappear into prehistory. Discworld is SF (grows and shifts constantly); all fantasy roleplaying games with a social bent end up SF as we track the PCs impact on the world... If horror is seeing what lies beneath... that covers PKD, Detective & Noir fiction, Fringe, X-Files, Lost, Twilight, etc.



Fantasy is scifi and sci fi is fantasy.

Seriously it's a publishing figment to separate the two as you could rewrite 90% of sci fi /fantasy books with the opposite theme and barely notice the difference.

One reason Star Wars is popular because it's high fantasy dressed as sci fi - they rescue a princess from the evil overlord's tower - how much more obvious does it have to be?

It seems that there's a problem with some publishers and how they promote books at the moment, probably due to the way the world is changing, but a new author has to strongly identify with one of the core 'brands' thriller/horror/sci fi/fantasy/crime/etc in order to get published and books have to be fatter than they used to be to get picked up.

It's easy enough to see on your own bookshelf - take a look at your fave books from the eighties and nineties and compare them to books from the last decade...

34: 20 - I'm not certain of this, but I think "Ender's Game" (AM 1) was originally written as a stand-alone novel, and only became a series later. Since I've read EG once, before AM 2 was written, and never read any other Scott Card, I could well be wrong though.

As Trey says in #21, stop reading when they're not fun any more (in one case I've a recommendation to read the first 4 or 5 of the series, then skip the next 5 and pick up after that, to avoid what the recommenders felt was a lump of bad slash).

23 - Add to that that you can have had a number of short stories published (even had an editor commission a piece from you for an anthology), and still be searching for a placement for a first novel... No names etc without their and Charlie's permission, but this is the position a friend of mine is in. Various - Never mind whether they're our laws of physics or not, but science fiction always uses "sentient meatbag made" devices, and fantasy uses metaphysics and/or "divine beings" as the main source of "capabilities beyond the technologies of the author's time"?

O S Card is a Moron mormon, and "Ender's Game" was originally a stand-alone, IIRC. "J May's "Saga of the Exiles" turned out to be christian claptrap in the end, which was a shame. Evn LoTR has been shown to be consistent with RC theology, unfortunately, though there the quality of the writing, and breadth of vision saves it (See U K le G's critique in "Language of the Night")


Ender's game was indeed originally written as a stand-alone novel, and the follow-up series aren't nearly as good*. They're not the "Tales of Alvin Maker", however, which are set in an entirely different universe. (I can't comment on the latter, having not read any, but since Card's books seem to become monotonically less readable as time goes on....)

*"Speaker for the Dead" has some good stuff in it but is awkward and written to need a sequel; "Xenocide" is just poor, and "Children of the Mind" is awful. I didn't even try the later ones.


NOT quite TOTALLY off topic, but this is just so good I thought you ought to see it. Fantasy meets sf meets the UndergrounD map!


My reaction to that middle earth underground map: Can someone please write a sequel to LotR taking place after the industrial (or maybe even informational) revolution?


I thought Saga of the Exiles was quite good, even liked the book she wrote as a prequel to the Miliue trilogy , then it all started to go wrong, really really wrong, by the time it came to the last book (magnificat) I was only reading out of the same impulse that causes people to slow to a crawl and gape at a bad car accident.


Till@38: "Can someone please write a sequel to LotR taking place after the industrial (or maybe even informational) revolution?"

I thought JRRT made his thoughts on that quite clear already in "The Scouring of the Shire."


Sadly that won't happen: LotR is Fantasy.

This is despite allynh's attempt to deny its belonging to that branch. However, the title of the third volume is a bit of a giveaway: 'Return of the King'. It is all about trying to cling on to the past, to resist change, to put things back the way they were. Not everything can be put back - some eggs can't be unbroken, and JRRT is too good a writer - but the whole tone of the story is that of wanting to stay in a comfortable past, not of moving on to the future.

One bit of the future which is completely rejected is the industrial revolution. The transformation of Isengard is regarded with horror by all the protagonists, and is one of the changes that is joyfully reversed.


I know about that (and also about Tolkien's musings about the beginning of the age of man and the end of the age of the elves ...), but that's exactly what would make a projection of Middle Earth into "our" 1870-2070 interesting. Of course, one could say, with Middle Earth as foundation myth for Great Britain (one intention behind LoTR, wasn't it?), the real-world 1970s etc. is something like this projection. But that's only half of the truth - the question remains if it is possible to write "industrial high-fantasy" without it becoming parody (like Pratchett) or thinly-vailed allegory about racism etc. (as our gracious host deliberated in one of the other books not written threads).

43: Various ref OSC - Thanks for confirming my thoughts. 37 - One little niggle; I can't see a place that would serve instead of "Mornington Crescent", for playing the game!

27 onwards. One must remember that parts of the Industrial Revolution were really nasty - an expected life-span of 35-40 years for Sheffield file-makers, for example .... JRRT couldn't see the long-term improvements until too late (remember that the backgound for LoTR was started as far back as 1919 ....)

OTOH, some of his earler/later writings, published after his death suggest an alternative to the conventional scenario.

LoTR is our FUTURE.

Remember the technology that the Elves and the men of Numenor had, particularly the latter. IIRC the quote: "missiles that fly miles across the land, with a great roaring sound, and never miss their mark" and the at least near-orbit, or even cislunar capability of Earendil's ship, especially the second one ... "A ship then new they built for him/ of mithril and of elvenglass and laid on him undying doom/ to sail the shoreless skies and come/ between the Sun and light of Moon" (again, mis-quoting perhaps, from memory)

Somewhere, I've still got the notes for a talk I gave to the Tolkien Society on that very theme!


"Ender's Game" was in fact a short-story, originally published in the August 1977 "Analog".

I remember reading it very well, it was very powerful, too bad the brain-eater eventually got OSC.


Aspects of LOTR could be described as post-tech, with a few artifacts surviving, glamdring & orcrist for example, apparently powered by bio-electric fields and capable of detecting the genetic modification performed by Melkor on kidnapped elves, with a user interface comprehensible to untrained beings.


I swore off OSC after he wrote this anti-gay tirade. This was somewhere in the middle of the post-pre-quel to Ender's game, which was IMHO more enjoyable than the direct EG followups.

That is, until I came upon a bargain bin with 'Empire' in it. Now I know what right-wingers feel like when they read Charlie's more political views - it literally had me frothing at the mouth! I tried to imagine what it'd be like if you liked (or wrote) that book but that was very difficult. Still a rewarding experience, but for different reasons that straightforward escapism :)

Maybe I'll try Ayn Rand next, but I suspect that's not as bad - and after I finish 'The Shockwave Rider' I have Hannu Rajaniemi's 'The Quantum Thief' next in line, as recommended by our gracious host. That's the first book I bought without even reading the front- or back-flap (turns out I'd read most of it here anyway), and I'm looking forward to it very much!


"Perhaps the Merchant Princes and the Laundry are actually the same story, from different viewpoints?"

Rather - 'A Colder War'.


Regards Luke


I enjoyed May's Exiles and Milieu series. Once you realize that she is retelling Paradise Lost it starts to make sense


Thanks for the retrospective on the Clan Corporate series. I've enjoyed the series as is, but suspect I'd have enjoyed the originally planned series much more. Here's hoping you can either re-use some of those pieces in other stories or in later extensions to C-C.


Without giving too much away, I am seeing some parallels here with the Expanders and some elements of Missile Gap


Aargh! I just finished #3. "... And the bad part of town had noticed her..." And I won't find out what happens!?!?!

I finally broke down and bought a DRM'd epub from B&N*, because I missed the window on WebScriptions. And now our gracious host informs us #4 is in ebook limbo. Too bad it's not as simple as Tor finding a pirated eversion, and cleaning it up quickly. Oh, the horror ... thanks to my OCDness I can't buy the later books until I read #4 ...

  • Promptly de-DRM'd so I can read it on MY terms ... although Baen's html is still my preferred format.


The short story can be found here:


Do the expanders have any relationship to Alistair Reynolds "Smiling ones"?


I have no idea what Al's "smiling ones" might be -- clearly haven't read the right book!


Judaism died out around 200BCE, and neither Jesus nor Mohammed came along to syncretize monotheistic beliefs with mainstream imperial culture.

I'd been wondering where Uchronia got there information about the books. Have they seen the original proposal? I don't recall any mention of the Macabee's revolt failing in the books as written. Though if it had they would be completely forgotten in the Gruinmarkt's world, and only Miriam would know of them (and, possibly, clan members who'd been educated in her world).


Well, now I feel a bit more enlightened about the difference between fantasy and SF, but it's clearly a matter for debate. (I wondered about Ursula le Guin's Earthsea books: the first three are all about restoring the balance, mending the ring, and if not restoring the rightful King then at least strengthening him, while the later ones throw it all into confusion: female mages, no more Archmage, the whole cosmology turned inside out. So the first three could be called fantasy and the others SF, though set in the same world and with the same technology/ magic...)

As to "modern LoTR" presumably you could have a few elves/ hobbits/ ents/ orcs etc remaining in remote places, or archaeologists digging up Isengard, or various nasties from Mordor emerging from the deep places where they hid themselves but I don't see how it could "be" LoTR.


Post-tech LOTR has already been done, I'm afraid. Google on Shannara...

I'd argue that in Middle Earth, things started perfect and declined from there. The first sword was the most perfect, the first dragon was the nastiest, the first tree the most glorious...

This shows that Tolkein was NOT an engineer. When has the prototype even been the best? However, this is the behavior of a created world, to gradually run down and break.

That's "normal" for Middle Earth, and that's the normal the heroes return to. The One Ring offered the possibility of trashing things faster than normal, and once it and all who had touched it were taken out of play to the Gray Havens, the world returned to its long, slow decline.

Still, there's a profoundly anti-progressive theme running through Middle Earth.

In religious terms, while I agree that Middle Earth has RC elements in it (elves=angels, orcs=fallen angels, Gandalf=Archangel Michael, etc). However it owes its overall doom and gloom more to Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythology. There isn't a cataclysmic Ragnarok at the end. In fact, the battles of the Silmarillion are probably more cataclysmic than anything in LOTR. In a sense, LOTR is sort of a post-ragnarok setting, when the gods have left Middle Earth for Heaven in the west, and made it impossible to get to them alive (if you're human or hobbit. Elf/angels can still make it there).

There's even an element of Cornish folklore in it, in the idea that beings shrink as they age, so the giants of old are the tiny pixies of now, worn down by time.


I find the idea of viewing LotR through a SFnal lens thought-provoking. The idea that it is the future echoes what Terry Brooks did with the Shannara series (with dwarves, trolls etc. being new races of humans in a post-apocalyptic era). But what intrigues me more is that idea in LotR First Age magic being the equivalent of Technology (cf Clarke's Third Law).

I'll have to go away and think about it. Thanks.


Quite often an engineering prototype will be better-built than the production units that follow where cheaper materials are used, corners cut, things found unnecessary for the device's purpose trimmed off. It won't necessarily be a better item as in fit-for-purpose but generally it will have had more care and attention lavished on its making.

There's then usually a bathtub curve where the following iterations of the device are gradually improved, the cost of manufacture reduced, performance enhanced etc. and it will reach a peak of perfection just in time to become obsolete and be scrapped. See piston aircraft engines in WWII as an example of this curve in action.


I think the theme of decline is not just anti- industrial, it's something that was endemic in European culture from the ancient world onwards (and maybe still is?) The Golden Age. The Garden of Eden. The wisdom of the ancients. It may even be very human - things were better in my younger days, the Good Old Days and so on. So it's quite unsurprising to see Tolkien set things up that way, and yes, the First Age was more intense, the Edain were better and longer lived than the Numenorians who were more powerful than Gondor: Morgoth was worse than Sauron... indeed I think for me one very obvious flaw with Middle Earth is how run down it all is - hardly any of it is inhabited apart from the Shire, Rohan and Mordor.

I should really learn to take this stuff less seriously.


LotR as future of earth sounds only half as amusing as the future of LotR. And why should men be the only remaining race in that future (one could even think about the success of dwarifsh (or orcish?) technology over humans ... but again, sounds like thinly vailed Habermas ... hmm). So, to put it the other way round: in what future of Middle Earth would the underground map come true, and what people, fashions, technologies, cultures and conflicts will happen there? (With our LotR as far-past background, some remaining myths, orcs waiting in the underground station talking about how their workplace starts to resemble Mordor as figure of speech etc.).


LotR may be consistent with a RC world-view but it wasn't so overt that it detracted from the story (at least for me), and Tolkien himself vehemently denied that it was allegorical. In general, the beliefs & politics of a writer colours their writing which I'm all for, so long as it doesn't turn into a lecture.


In LOTR, there's this interesting theme of degeneracy as opposed to progress, and I suspect it reflects the 1920s and 30s political climate as much as anything else. The idea of degenerate, aging empires also shows up in places like Burrough's Barsoom (and the lost empires of Tarzan), and in Robert E Howard's works. And...well that would involve Godwin's Law, so I won't go into German cultural developments of the 20s and 30s.

I'm not saying that these authors were influencing each other. Rather, they were all reacting to what was "in the air" when these works were being created.

What was in the air was the death of old empires, and the potential rise of vicious new ones.

Interestingly, this is very different from the progressivism of SF in the 50s, and from the SF Armageddon scenarios of the Cold War era.

The most important thing is that tastes change, so the fact that LOTR defined fantasy for its time, doesn't mean it couldn't be recycled into SF now.

Personally, I think writing that book would be suicidal, but I could easily posit a world running down after the singularity, with a diminishing resource base, slowly dying, magical forests, and horribly powerful artifacts, although with Superior Beings. Not that this territory hasn't already been mined by Moorcock, Wolfe, and others, but it could be done.


This is true, Robert, when we're talking about real prototyping. So in that regard my statement was inaccurate.

However, the first sword in middle Earth was the best sword, period.

In the Real World, swords and armor have gone through a real Red Queen race (in the evolutionary sense), with swords "competing" against other weapons and ultimately being superseded by guns for large-scale warfare, and relegated to low tech wars and genocides (think Rwanda). It's scary to think that the deadliest sword today (in terms of numbers killed per design) is probably the panga-style machete. A katana it's not, but there are a lot of them, and Rwanda was a bloody place. That's evolution in sword design for you.

This kind of evolution is the opposite of what happens in Middle Earth, and I think many fantasies of the 20th Century are implicitly or explicitly anti-evolutionary.

That trope is crumbling a bit, fortunately. It's always good to see goblins evolve, especially when they keep getting selected by surviving all those battles with the Good Guyz.


I don't think I disagree, but what I was trying (Obviously, clumsily.) to get across was that what the Elvish smiths were up to in Valinor, Gondolin and Eregion was not magic, but technology. Ancient Middle Earth, in common with the historic ancient world, was plagued with artisans who kept secrets, restricting the spread of knowledge and letting the little folks think it was magic. And the swords were forged in Gondolin, at least 5000 years along. To me, the story is not so much a perfect world declining as a grievously flawed creation, with a series of inadequate solutions tried with mostly less than satisfactory results.


yodasears @32: By that definition, doesn't that mean that Phillip K Dick is horror too?


bellinghman @41: Sadly that won't happen: LotR is Fantasy.

This is despite allynh's attempt to deny its belonging to that branch.

These are not my definitions, these are from Clute, Malzburg, etc... I'm waiting for Clute to finally publish his explanation of Fantastika rather than him simply hint about it. Here is Malzberg:

Breakfast in the Ruins

Go to chapter 5 of the free sample, "The Number of the Beast".


Explained that way, that's pretty reasonable. I got wrapped up in all that stuff about the elves having a different "doom" than humans, etc.

Still, I think Tolkien cared more about the romance of an idealized "sword" than about the nitty-gritty of how warfare evolved in Middle Earth, and of course, the one made first would be best, in a world of ideals like that.

As for technology vs. magic, I'm not sure whether there's much of a distinction in Middle Earth. The interesting thing is that the most technologically sophisticated beings were Sauron and Saruman, and neither of them were human.


Hi Allynh,

Thanks! I just followed your link, and here's what it says in Chapter 5, Number of the Beast, about Malzburg's thoughts on science fiction:

"Science fiction, at the center, holds that the encroachment of technological or social change will make the future different and that it will feel different to those within it. That is the base of the science fiction vision, but the more important part comes as corollary: the effects of a changed technology upon us will be more profound than change brought about by psychological or social pressure."

I don't think this supports the idea that LOTR is science fiction.


JRRT used encryption algorithms, now broken.

what is FRODO, or something closely related, converted to or from Base 36, using 5-letter words from J. E. A Tyler's "The Tolkien Companion"?

a solution, the first name of FRODO's father:

Base-33 JGHCO Base-34 HADIW Base-35 FEDOY Base-36 DROGO

another solution, the "lady of the shield-arm": Base-33 KQMAH Base-34 IFSWN Base-35 GFJJM Base-36 EOWYN

and at last, another solution, a translation of the Elf-sword Orcrist is BEATER or:

Base-33 GAHWO Base-34 EGDWF Base-35 CVDWT Base-36 BITER



I think my point is that LOTR is whatever genre that you want it to be. Here's, in the spirit of those old Mad Magazine "If writer X wrote Classic Y" parodies, the opening stanza of [I wont give more without Mr. Stross's request]:

Vachel Lindsay’s “Lord of the Rings” (if Vachel Lindsay wrote J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy in the style of the poem “The Congo”) by Jonathan Vos Post Copyright © 2004 by Magic Dragon Multimedia


FAT black Orcs in a wine-barrel room,
Uruk-hai kings, with feet unstable,
Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table,

Pounded on the table,
Beat an empty barrel with the flat side of a sword,
Hard as they were able,
Dark Dark LORD,
With the handle of an axe, and the flat side of a sword, Enemies Gored, Dark Dark LORD. THEN I had religion, THEN I had a vision. I could not turn from their revel in derision.


I was going to suggest that LOTR was a (whatever the literary equivalent is of) a road movie and a bromance.

I would love to know what analysis you all come up with for the Narnia and Perelandra works of CS Lewis.


The Malzberg quote is LOTR. Each change, each Age, the world becomes less and less. The magic goes away, everybody knows it, everybody feels it; it is the heart of the story, mentioned over and over. The light goes out in the world, bit by bit, until Tolkein found himself in the trenches of WWI.

When the people up thread ask what the sequel to LOTR would be if set in the 20th century, it would be WWI and trench warfare. Tolkein's memories of the trenches and watching the best and brightest of his age ground up all around him is what LOTR was about. That's why when asked if Saron was a metaphor for Hitler, he could clearly say, no.

World War I

One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.

That's why so many of the so called High Fantasy novels that try to emulate LOTR utterly fail. LOTR is not High Fantasy. Remember, what a book is and what the marketing genre it is published under are rarely the same. It's the Story that matters.


Pat @72: I would love to know what analysis you all come up with for the Narnia and Perelandra works of CS Lewis.

Narnia is Horror.

The Entity Aslan uses the children to power his realm. Watch the movie Silent Hill for a similar example. When I watch the movies, I see no real difference between them.


When I read this outline, the thing that jumps out at me is ... in the Merchant Princes books as published, Miriam has much less agency than she did in the outline. In the published books the Gruinmarkt's civil war and the fall of New Britain's monarchy are wholly the natural consequences of the situations in the respective worlds as Miriam finds them; she makes no real contribution to either one. By the time she does acquire real influence in the Clan, the Clan as a whole has already lost its power in both America and the Gruinmarkt, and all she can really do is guide their retreat. The Miriam of the outline is a plausible Dark Lord of the Saruman mold. In the published series her resemblance to any Dark Lords vanishes; the role she does take is the Prophet, who preaches in a time of moral chaos, attracts a following, and leads them into the wilderness to save them. And the Prophet is normally a heroic role.

Was this the shift in direction forced on you by the need to break "The Body Corporate" into several volumes for publication?

76: 74 - An interesting argument (and not one I have time to pursue in depth just now). Were you aware that the Narnia (and Perelandra) chronicles are normally described as "Christian alegory" when you advanced that?

But frustratingly you can't buy the ebooks if you live in the UK - sales are restricted to customers in the US and Canada


in the Merchant Princes books as published, Miriam has much less agency than she did in the outline.

Yep. As I was going along I developed quite a violent allergy to the Ayn Rand style competent industrialist hero(ine) who sets the world to right (and makes shedloads of money on the side) just by having a clear understand of The Way The World Works™.

(In other words, I don't subscribe to the Great Man theory of history. History is made, for the most part, by lots of little people going about their ways, with the occasional turbulent/nonlinear catastrophe point where a handful of individuals may exert disproportionate influence -- but seldom know what the hell is going on.)

Back in the late 90s, I concluded that I actually hate the pre-enlightenment conservativism inherent in high fantasy (such as "The Lord of the Rings" -- and don't get me started on the Christian propaganda that is Narna), and that if I ever wrote a fantasy trilogy I'd start with the structure of the "poor but honest son of kind peasant folks who discovers his destiny", revealing in book #2 that the destiny in question is to become the Dark Lord and Modernizer who drags Middle Earth kicking and screaming into the Iron Age. (Except it's been done, and better, by folks who know a lot more about sword-smithing and mediaeval logistics than I do, so why bother?)

NB: Two books I would strongly recommend to fantasy fans:

a) "The Magicians" by Lev Grossman -- starts out as a literary take on Harry Potter, then turns sideways into a literary take on Narnia, savagely vivisecting both of them along the way (and Grossman is a far better writer than Rowling and, arguably, Lewis).

b) For a comic pratfall, "Grunts" by Mary Gentle -- starts out as "Lord of the Rings" from the orcs' point of view, then takes a left turn into weirdville. Hysterically funny, if you've read too much high fantasy and always wanted to know how a Strategic Air Command War Elephant would fly ...


Books 4-6 of the Merchant Princes aren't even published in the UK -- blame a publishing cock-up.

(I shall not expand on that, because it's not impossible that they'll come out over here eventually ...)

NB: I buy American-only region-locked ebooks from mzn's Kndl* store using a gmail account I set up for that purpose, linked to an account with a US address, and paid for using *mz*n gift vouchers. I then use a python script called MobiDeDRM to strip the DRM off them (this only works for ebooks I've bought and have the registered device ID for), transcode them to epub, and read them on my iPad using Stanza.

It's not hard, if you have a CS degree, a willingness to tinker with a UNIX command line, and no scruples. (Insert anti-DRM rant here to taste.)

80: 78 Note (B) - I keep saying this, but strongly seconded. 79 Para 4 - Consider it done, and one about how both national and multi-national content providers need to realise that that the marketplace has gone global without waiting for them added!

Part of the reason for Wilderland and the sheer un-inhabitedness of Middle Earth is that Tolkien was channeling old Anglo/Germanic/Gothic/Norse/Finnish material. In the Dark Ages, there were vast areas of wilderness. The Great Forests of his myths actually existed for a time. Also, Middle Earth is post two world changing catastrophes: the Sundering of Belierand and the Fall of Numenor, not to mention the notion that the world may have gone from being flat to being round at the end of one of the Elder Ages as well. (I mean how does that even begin to get modelled as a survivable catastrophe; did Space/Time change?) There have also been some fairly large conflcits even in the Third Age. It is funny when one stops to think about it that the LOTR while being so epic in all senses of the word is just a dim coda of epics we cannot begin to wrap our soft human brains around. So it is also no surprise that people from other parts of the world might eventually show up trying to colonize the empty space. Damn, I am doing what I said we should not: acting as if Middle Earth needs "realistic" analysis. Just repeat to myself: it's just a novel, I should really just relax.

82: 80: 78 Note (B) - I keep saying this, but strongly seconded.

Make that thirded.

Don't really like the rest of her stuff, but "Grunts" is just perfect!


The thing about books is that the dead-tree iteration of the format comes with DRM and region-encoding built in, by virtue of the physical media -- books are a pain in the ass to duplicate (unless you have a hugely expensive copying-and-binding machine), and as they're distributed on pallets by ship you can restrict sales by geographical region trivially easily -- the odd leaked carton of 20 copies doesn't matter, and if somebody starts importing and reselling in bulk you tell your lawyers to send them a nastygram. And as far as the customer is concerned, what they don't see in the shops isn't on sale. (And if they buy mail-order direct from a foreign reseller, that's entirely legal. The contractual restriction is on selling out of region, not purchasing.)

But ebooks are another matter.

Disclaimer: I'm conflicted on region encoding for ebooks, because, er, I get more money if I sell UK and commonwealth rights separately from North American rights. Simples, eh? (If you sell world English language rights your publisher will squeeze you on the advance. And they'll still fuck up the region restrictions, based on experience ...)


I think you can tie Tolkien to Lovecraft if you think about Gandalf's comments on the depths of Moria. Further, Ungoliant and some other marginal material make one wonder if Middle Earth fits into the Christian Good/Evil categories as well as some might think. Sure, Illuvatar created a bunch of stuff with his mind or shaped it from his backing band (who recursively are also probably shapes from his mind) but there seems to be real Chaos in his creation, as well as more human sized evil. Did this come directly from Morgoth's part of the vision (who again must in a way be part of Illuvatar) or is there icky weird material that seeps in from beyond Illuvatar?

Long story short: you can tie Tolkien to horror, to history, to myth, to pure fantasy, to SF in a very backhanded way, to ecological understanding. It is a very flexible and deep work; like Herodotos, part of his appeal is that the narrative is only unitary on the surface; it's really a hodge podge of disparate elements, some of which are fascinating and some of which are less so.

I heartily agree with Allynh's comments. How so many critics miss that Frodo's march to Mordor is about JRRT's wartime experiences and his literal alienation from his own past is beyond me. The same set of people then piously intone that it is obvious that it is an allegory about WWII. They never actually map that allegory. Why? Because it does not exist. And if you think it does, try diagramming it and get back to me. (Ironically, the end of the Hobbit is much closer to an allegory for WWII, though still not particularly close; the only problem is that it was written before 1939.)

Final note: if Tolkien is so clueless on gender, why does he have an entire epic song about the absence of women (figured as Entwives) in his narrative? Answer: people who hate Tolkien, really really hate all the singing and just skip over those parts.


I'm with you on the business about LOTR being JRRT's first world war coping mechanism.

(Do I need to add that I sneer disbelievingly at the folks who think JRRT -- a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature and poetry -- was focussed on nuts and bolts science fiction? It's as bonkers as suggesting that Shakespeare's plays and poems were actually written by Elizabeth Tudor.


The "old swords are better" trope (like much else in LOTR) is derived directly from the Early Mediaeval (what we used to call "Dark Age") literature which was Tolkien's academic focus: there really was a time when old (Roman) weaponry was better than what you could get new, at least out on the Germanic fringes of Europe.

It's a considerable oversimplification to see LOTR as being about a world "in decline": the heights get lower (no more figures of the stature of Feanor, or Earendil, or Elendil, and pretty soon none like Aragorn) but the depths get higher: no more Morgoths or Saurons or Sarumans. There's a lot of elegaic sadness about the Elves leaving but also a recognition that they weren't particularly "safe" to have around, from a human perspective, at least.

Unlike Lewis, who really did read SF (not just the Wellsian type which he skewers in Out of the Silent Planet -- another steal from the mediaevals, this time Bernardis Sylvestris) Tolkien's main influences were almost all non-contemporary, and certainly not in the SF category, and set early (Lewis growled re Tolkien that "you might as well try to influence a Bandersnatch").

It's also worth noting that Tolkien's overall view of kingship wasn't high -- in the real world he was not a strong monarchist, and in Middle-Earth monarchy is as much or more associated with the Numenorean screw-ups and the Gondorian and Arnorian civil wars as it is with the few successes.


I think it's a very poor idea to say, "I don't believe in the X theory of history." It's always possible to cherry pick an event that will prove you wrong. There are a multitude of historical theories, and one of them will fit any event you care to mention. Take for example The First Battle of Marne - the human decisions made by Sir John French, Joffre, De Bertholet, Moltke, Lanrazec and Von Kluck all made this major battle happen the way it did, and the First Battle of Marne fits the Great Man theory perfectly. But you can also fit that same battle with a "technical progress" narrative - Marne was, for example, the very first battle scouted by air - and the two POVs aren't exclusive.

On the other hand, if you look at any of the later battles of World War One, the Great Man theory doesn't work at all. There's a sort of reflexive bashing at the enemy, and some of the worst generalship anyone has ever encountered. The rest of World War I makes a lot more sense from some kind of materially-based viewpoint.

I try to keep a "kit" of historical narratives available and fit any given bit of history with the right one.


There's a river in France called the Ourcq. And there was also a Battle of the Ourcq River which was part of the Battle of Marne. There may even be a town with that name. (I thought I saw it on a map once, but I'm not sure.) I wonder if Tolkien was stationed anywhere nearby... Needless to say the psychology of such a thing would be obvious.


Grunts. Definitely one of my favorite books. If anyone hasn't read it, go buy it right effing now.


JRRT asserted that "Orc" (in Middle Earth) was derived from (his personal familiarity with) the Old English word Orc, which translates roughly as Demon. Basically, he liked the sound and reckoned it was appropriate.


have read Grunts about halfway through and then it became the first book I ever gave away via bookcrossing.

Not sure exactly why that was, I just seemed .. repetitive and boring, I guess. I mean yeah, the first few iterations of "badass orcs to badass Marines-like stuff" were funny but somehow then nothing new happened. Maybe I stopped at exactly the place before interesting things would have started to happen, who knows.


got to admit ,if im reading tolkien s.m.stirling . anyone who puts a damn song in the book, it gets skipped. for instance in the ongoing adventures of Contemporary Urban Scum does it matter to anyone what the hell they are playing over-loud on the car stereo? no


Hello? Did you read the earlier statement? "... quite a violent allergy to the Ayn Rand style competent industrialist hero(ine) who sets the world to right (and makes shedloads of money on the side) just by having a clear understand of The Way The World Works™."

Ayn Rand was big on the idea of the Great Man (or woman), the visionary leader who through sheer excellence could move mountains. My point is, history isn't predicated on them. Certainly, some people have a disproportionate impact on events -- but if you could remove them from the past, if you could re-run time without them, events would still play out: probably with someone else getting the credit for occupying the role of pivotal figure. The pivotal figures of history are fungible (although depending on your choice of actor you may get a different outcome).

My original outline positioned Miriam as a Randian heroine (minus the ideology) and I decided I really didn't want that (because most of the time the world doesn't work that way -- if you push, it pushes back).

Possibly it's a symptom of having written the last of six books when I was seven or eight years older than when I wrote the outline and the first volume. Authors aren't changeless and if I ever plan a long series in future I'm going to leave lots of wiggle room for me to change my mind about where I'm going along the way.


It's a matter of cultural context. Tolkien lived vicariously in a past where everything was recounted by bards. An Icelandic saga is full of every character's geneology. The Greek chorus was mainly supposed to be an auditory experience rather than expository narrative. Network TV has decided we need a music video in all of our dramas. If you are not used to it, it may grate on you. Or you may think it's the coolest thing ever. I certainly don't want to hear "ships of the desert" anytime someone wants to say camel.


Hi Charlie,

While I'm also violently allergic to Ayn Rand, leaders do matter.

You're in Black Swan territory when you deal with Great Men and Women. They're like the NYSE. Most of the time, it can be modeled as a random walk in something that looks like a normal curve. Then there's Black Friday, which was off-the-charts Bad News, and shows that the stock market's extreme events really don't follow a normal distribution.

Problem is, you remove Black Friday and the five other most extreme days from the NYSE average, and you remove a majority of the indexes change. That's why Taleb hammers on the stupidity of using normal stats to predict the stock market. The normal model works on all but the most important days, which means that, in the long run, it's dangerously misleading.

When it comes right down to it, politics matters, and leaders do have an effect. US and Mexico are a great example,and so are Canada and the US. They're followed very different political histories, and look at the results.

Then there's Black Friday, which was off-the-charts Bad News, and shows that the stock market's extreme events really don't follow a normal distribution.

<Bzzzzzzz> Statistics fail: the normal distribution allows events arbitrarily far from the mean, it merely says that as events get further away they get more unlikely (indeed, the normal distribution is defined as a function for calculating how unlikely such events are).

"Normal distribution" is, like "normal orbit" or "normal orientation", a phrase with a very specific technical meaning, and which therefore needs to be used carefully.

To address your main point, though: you appear to be arguing that if Washington hadn't agreed to command the continental army, that army would never have obtained the gunpowder it needed to raise the siege of Boston. Yes, he was the man on the spot and did what was necessary, but isn't it just possible that another man appointed to the post would have realised that being short of powder was a problem, and that the lightly guarded British depots presented a good solution?

If someone other than Mikhail Gorbachev had been made General Secretary (and thus leader) of the USSR, would the Soviet Union still be with us? I think not. Perhaps some details of the collapse would have been different, but the tens of millions of people who contributed in small ways all added up to far more than any one individual. Leaders can help shape things, whether by streamlining the flow or by fighting it, but they don't create history by themselves.

(As for Mexico: that country's problems are often related to the presence of a larger, richer, more powerful, neighbour to the north which continually interferes in Mexico's affairs and does its best to keep the country poor so that it supplies both a good source of cheap labour and a sink for locally-unwanted produce.)


I think one should distinguish between the contingency of history, on the one hand, and Great Men, on the other.

There are probably circumstances where large-scale outcomes are very contingent on small differences, i.e. "for want of a nail" scenarios. (For example, it's pretty clear that the weather is chaotic, affected by the proverbial butterflies, and plenty of historical outcomes have depended on the weather.) Human decisions can be contingencies as much as anything is.

That isn't to say that it'd be possible for an Ayn Rand-style uber-competent type to cause any particular outcome, though! And a lot of historical outcomes are probably a lot more like "climate" than "weather", where the small contingencies don't affect the big picture much if at all.


paws4thot @76: #74 - An interesting argument (and not one I have time to pursue in depth just now). Were you aware that the Narnia (and Perelandra) chronicles are normally described as "Christian alegory" when you advanced that?

That connection seems to only exist in Evangelical America. I've never understood how since the stories are filed with pagan entities and gods, nothing Christian about it. Google the phrase satanic narnia and you will see the number of sites taking Narnia apart as being satanic.

Charlie @85: (Do I need to add that I sneer disbelievingly at the folks who think JRRT -- a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature and poetry -- was focussed on nuts and bolts science fiction? It's as bonkers as suggesting that Shakespeare's plays and poems were actually written by Elizabeth Tudor.)

The definitions of SF/F/H that Clute and others talk about is about the underlying structure, not the surface glitter like elves, dragons, or nuts and bolts. Pick three of the Hardest Nuts & Bolts SF you can think of then look at the underlying structure to determine what those books really are.

  • Fantasy is restoring the balance.

  • SF is constant, relentless, change.

  • Horror is seeing what lies beneath the false reality.

The Malzberg definition of SF captures the heart of SF over the past two hundred years. The concept of the relentless machine grinding forward into the future, never letting anything stay the same, is key.

I found the Clute article that talks about his view.


I'm still waiting for the actual book that he keeps talking about that will combine the ideas he started in The Encyclopedia of SF, then danced around in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and started to discuss in The Darkening Garden. I'll know next year when I see what Clute's Pardon This Intrusion from BEECON is all about.


I very much appreciate Mr.Stross clearly explaining what he thinks of the Christian component of Tolkien and Lewis (and presumably Charles Williams as well). The World War I autobiographical aspects of LOTR are well documented. I very much smile at his Miriam/Ayn Rand point, with a pinch of Heinlein. Who wrote some of the best ever World War II Naval fiction but setting it Space (somewhere between Hilbert Space and Hornblower Space).

I stand by my claim that LOTR can be interpreted as ANY genre (including a users manual for Palantir, Mithral Faraday cages, star-topology Ring networks, and retrofitted Swords).

For example (if I may be allowed 2 footnoted paragraphs):

Raymond Chandler's "Lord of the Rings" By Jonathan Vos Post Copyright © 2002,2003 by Emerald City Publishing

Down these mean roads that go ever on [1] in Middle-earth a wizard must go, who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero, he is everything. A complete wizard, an Istari, with the monicker Mithrandir, and yet an unusual wizard. He is a very lonely wizard, though he is the friend of all Free Peoples, and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. [2]

My name is Gandalf. Gandalf the Grey. To most of the folks in the West, I seem to be “just a wizard,” a vain, fussy old conjuror with a long beard and bushy eyebrows, whose chief asset is my uncommon skill with fireworks. [3] But trouble is my business. [4] Men of the South sometimes think I’m nothing but a pest, a homeless vagabond, a meddler in the affairs of men, and a herald of ill-news. [3] But there was darkness in Middle-earth, and it was much worse than the simple art of murder. [5]

1 “The Road Goes Ever On”, song by J.R.R. Tolkien, text © George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1961, and © J.R.R. Tolkien 1967, music © Donald Swan, 1967; The Road Goes Ever On, Houghton Mifflin, 1967

2 From Raymond Chander’s description of Philip Marlowe: "Down these mean streets a man must go, who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero, he is everything. A complete man, and a common man and yet an unusual man. He is a very lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks -- that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham and a contempt for pettiness. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live, without becoming too dull to be worth living in."

3 J.E.A. Tyler, The Tolkien Companion, Pan Books/St. Martins Press, 1976, p.192

4 Raymond Chander, "Trouble Is My Business" Dime Detective Magazine, August 1939, prototype of Marlowe named John Dalmas

5 Raymond Chander, The Simple Art of Murder, 1950


Statistics fail: the normal distribution allows events arbitrarily far from the mean, it merely says that as events get further away they get more unlikely (indeed, the normal distribution is defined as a function for calculating how unlikely such events are).

Ooooooh, you must be an Investor. Good thing you don't have my money.

The probably of an event of the magnitude of the shift on the big five stock days was (according to a normal curve, which I do understand) something like a once per millenium event. They've happened five times this century.

The normal curve is crap for calculating extreme events. Because of the way the normal curve is properly estimated, you'd have to wait until the next ice age to get enough data to model the curve correctly, assuming everything remained constant for those millenia.

Things like the stock market, floods, earthquakes and a large number of other important phenomena do not follow a normal probability curve. They probably follow another power law, but we're never going to have enough data to calculate what that curve is, because they are so rare.

What this means, specifically, is that we have no accurate way of knowing when the next extreme event will occur, what it's magnitude will be, or what its effects will be.

So what do you do, if you are say, an investor with clients? Pretend that the financial market follows normal statistics and go schmooze new clients. As I noted above, this works well enough in normal situations. Unfortunately, it means you have no clue what the next crisis will look like. Since that crisis will reshape your world, you are, effectively, blind.

That's the real stats. Go read and learn.

paws4thot @76: #74 - An interesting argument (and not one I have time to pursue in depth just now). Were you aware that the Narnia (and Perelandra) chronicles are normally described as "Christian alegory" when you advanced that? That connection seems to only exist in Evangelical America. I've never understood how since the stories are filed with pagan entities and gods, nothing Christian about it. Google the phrase satanic narnia and you will see the number of sites taking Narnia apart as being satanic.

Um, the idea of Narnia as Christian allegory exists well outside Evangelical America, and first appears within about five minutes of the time they were written.

To quote C.S. Lewis on the subject of his intent: If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity in the same way in which Giant Despair [a character in The Pilgrim's Progress] represents despair, he would be an allegorical figure. In reality however he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, 'What might Christ become like, if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?'

His argument is that this makes Narnia "Suppositional" rather than "Allegorical"; any medieval theologian would have agreed with him, but the term allegorical now largely covers both categories in common usage. JRR Tolkien was in no doubt that Narnia was allegory (and castigated his friend for writing allegory, which he regarded as inherently poor).


Narnia was filled with pagan gods and entities in the same way that Christianity is filled with pagan gods and entities from Brigid to the Vestal Virgins. It is the nature of the beast that it tries to absorb and smother all of the competition like a carnivorous jelly.


The difference is, Evangelical America devoutly believes that Narnia is Christian allegory. They will say with shining eyes, and indrawn breath of awe, "Isn't Narnia wonderful. Aslan is Christ!" Where anywhere else the story is dismissed as bad allegory.

You can imagine how appalled I get when I meet people indoctrinated like that--the fervent intensity in their gaze at the perceived numinous--knowing what I do about the story. It's a scene straight out of a Laundry novel.


Hi Charlie,

I agree with you entirely on the hatred of Objectivist thought. (I'll forbear making my usual joke about Libertarians.) Ayn Rand's POV was simply poisonous.

That being said, it's just plain silly to reject any given theory of history out of hand. Hitler was probably fungible. Napoleon, on the other hand, was not.

That being said, I'll leave the subject alone.


"Keith Laumer's Imperium exists in a web of worlds embedded in a 2-dimensional grid." With sequences of events across time as well as through time. The showing of a film demonstrating this was in the magazine version of Worlds of the Imperium. Snipped out of the book version. Finally restored by Baen Books.


@ 84 Tying JRRT to WWI is often done, but what isn't noticed much (to me it sticks out like a sore thumb) is that Frodo isn't the real hero, it's Samwise. And Sam is so obviously the poor bloody Tommy-in-the-trenches it can hurt to read it, sometimes.

@86 Monarchy ... because humans were "fallen", fallible. As were the elves, in Middle-Earth at least. Even Galadriel is in enforced exile, and is only allowed back to Valinor, because of her rejection of the Ring.

@ 88 No JRRT didn't go to France until much later, since the "new army" wasn't really deployed until 1916.

@100 et al Statistics. There is not only the "normal" distribution" for common events, there is the Poisson distribution for uncommon events, and people seem to be forgetting this. However, it seems that XKCD hasn't.

107: 101 - Pretty much what I was going to say on the subject. I didn't say that I necessarily agreed with the viewpoint (I have issues with the idea of "Christ incarnate" popping up every few years when "there's trouble at t'mill" for one thing), but just that it was interesting to see someone proposing a so radically reversed argument on the subject. 83 - Charlie, I'm not suggesting that it's advisable to import several pallets of, say TMP 4..6 to the UK. OTOH I've been buying US published books on retail import in shops since about 1979, and even without attempting to overcome region encoding or DRM software (beyond maybe doing a region-free hack on a DVD player) or buying "foreign region" titles, people are increasingly aware of delays in release of poorer value (usually fewer "extras") R2 titles compared with the R1 releases.

I can see why you have a vested interest on both sides of the fence; my issue is with publishers who seem to believe that the USA, "British Commonwealth", Europe and Asia exist as separate bubbles and don't even communicate with each other.


(This may come as a surprise to you, but I don't necessarily agree 100% with John Clute :)

Firstly, let's be clear: today, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror are not unitary stylistic forms -- they are, rather, marketing tools that are applied to books and tell store staff which shelves to put them on, the better for the buying public to find what they want. However, fantasy out-sells SF by 2:1. Thus, lots of items are mis-categorized for commercial reasons -- if you can plausibly disguise an author's work as being part of a more lucrative field, you can up-sell.

Secondly, his definitions. I generally agree with his take on Fantasy (restoring the balance) and SF (constant change) -- although per #1 there's plenty of fantasy marketed as SF (e.g. prime offender: "Star Wars") and some (a lot less) SF marketed as fantasy ("Merchant Princes") -- but the caveat is that SF is descended from ideological agitprop for a post-enlightenment modernist political agenda; that the age of machines will alter the human condition and the way we live must therefore change (and will change for the better). Fantasy generally (but not invariably) harks back to the Divine Right of Kings and the Great Chain of Being -- it's intrinsically pre- or anti-enlightenment. If nothing else, in urban fantasy we have the wider non-magical world which remains beyond the protagonists' concerns, the denizens of which are excluded from consideration while the citizens of the kingdom of magic duke it out using policies and tools familiar to Shakespeare.

(His choice of 1750 as a rupture date in the purpose of the fantastic is not an accident; remember, it's about a generation after the Scottish Enlightenment, with its philosophical sea-change in attitudes to religion, science, and morality, and a decade or two before the modernizing political debate in the New England colonies -- about the true function of governance in the post-monarchical world -- got under way.)

But most importantly, I disagree with his definition of horror. Horror isn't a genre with an outlook, it is a tone or an angle of inquiry which can be applied to a work of any other genre. You can write a mainstream novel and apply a glaze of horror to it; or a science fiction horror, or a fantasy horror, or a detective tale of horror, or a horrifying romance. Moreover, what constitutes horror is a variable relative to where the reader stands: some things that one reader (or author) would find horrifying, another would find mundane or even desirable -- miscegenation, for example, or Lovecraft's phobia of "inferior mongrel races", or the not-uncommon use of homophobia in pre-1980s fiction.


JvP: piss off.

(Crawling does not earn you course credits.)

(Neither does continuing the derailing -- and annoying -- discussion of Tolkein.)


Gene Wolfe wrote Shadow of the Torturer as a typical Hero's Journey to play with people's expectations. Hey, I am reading a High Fantasy here....WTF? He ran the tropes so well that a lot of people got sucked into it and took a while to see it was something quite different. On the other hand, a lot of people started it, accepted its style on its face and stopped reading after a few dozen pages. "Oh, another Orphan Boy Becomes King high fantasy romp, but a little tacky with all the torture."

The question is do we prioritize "art" over marketing. If people expect Merchant Princes to be a rip off of 1980's earthling steps into an alternate reality series, does the book hit the wall when it does not meet those? Or do people think better of it? I have to admit that I initially thought Family Trade was a 1980's Del Rey style yarn and said I can just read my old copies of Jack Chalker if I want that. Yet I still have not managed to get back to them even now that I know they did not go down that road, even though I am probably a part of your tiny potential audience (no insult intended to either of us there--we're just more selective,) and even though I have read other books by you before and since. The books' "time" (or at least one of their "times") has passed for me: new/shiny plus how much leisure time do I really have before I die and look newer/even shinier. So I can certainly appreciate how "marketing" or labelling is not just a crass commercial consideration but also a "valid" issue about reaching your readers.


Tolkien frequently said that his books were not about World War I. Tolkien was badly in denial. That being said, I will drop the subject.


Sorry, Mr. Stross. So many people were commenting about Tolkien, and you had replied about him and C. S. Lewis, that I wrongly assumed it was part of the thread, at least as to why your agent and/or editor were willing to make your Merchant Princes series look more like Fantasy to boost retail sales.

By that argument, isn't there value in appearing to crossover the Romance, which accounts for roughly 20% of all book titles sold in the USA? Romance Writers of America is approximately 10 times the size of Science Fiction Writers of America.

Your point is well taken that Mr. Clute's definitions (or the 30 or so on my Ultimate Science Fiction Web Guide, for Science Fiction on one hand, or Fantasy on the other) are moot, as the pragmatics are those of moving the product off the shelves. Samuel Delany has yet another take, opposing definitional efforts foundationally, as he expressed a few years ago in the New York Review of Science Fiction.

Genre matters for sales, true. The senior author of a textbook on "Computers and the Cybernetic Society" that I co-authored in grad school -- he earned over $200,000 in royalties as it went paperback and in translation, I got a flat $2,000 -- always resented his mother outselling his most popular book in their native Australia. Hers was a cookbook.

Do you have a working definition of Espionage Fiction? Of Thriller? That is, not academically, but to focus your reading and writing?


Hence the old story of the Mexican ambassador to the Court of St James. The monarch asked him "Senor, given how resource-wealthy your country is, and how your people are always willing to go the extra mile, what causes your state of economic gloom?" And the ambassador replied "Your highness, it is because every time we build a road, the Yankees steal it from us".


lets nuke Narnia


Aslan looked up as the horizon lit in an unexpected dawn. The first bombs detonated in a rapid ripple, a flickering false dawn. as the shockwaves raced towards the Greart lion he looked a bit peeved. ' Bugger'


Loved the Merchant Princes - was a little blown away and taken off-guard at the climax, but given the nature/reputation of and their recent regime, perhaps not as far-fetched as I'd like to believe.

Also couldn't believe how much unpleasantness you put M through, escalating at surprising levels in every book...

Would absolutely love to see a new series based on next-of-kin or next-generation. I find myself incredibly curious about the abundant mysteries remaining in that particular multiverse.

On Ender, for those who liked the first book, Card's 'shadow' series is a near-term post-history following the the other characters and what happens on earth afterward. His other books about Ender definitely have very little of what I found so enjoyable about the original novel.

On Tolkien - a-his entire Middle-Earthiverse evolved from bed-time stories he made up for his kids -

b-he's on record as saying one of his primary motivations was the desire to invent his own language (Elvish), as well as to invent a new British mythos since so little was known then (and still?) about the real pre-Catholic English folklore of the Druids, Celtics, etc. given he was a serious expert on language, mythology, folklore etc, he stole from everything - his basic good V evil may be parallel to his Catholic beliefs, but as mentioned Lewis/Narnia is on record as intentionally bible-derivative, while Tolkien is on record as hating any accusation that his work was in any way allegorical, intentionally or otherwise.

c- any book written about war by someone who fought in WWI and written during WWII is going to have fairly obvious parallels regardless of intent.


I agree with those who say the above sounds more interesting than the actual published result. I am an unashamed fantasy reader, so I got sucked in by the opening book. I also did not catch on that "our" Earth was not in fact the one we live in, but an alternate one, so some of the real, or thinly disguised real people, who did things that were, in some cases, contradicted in real life shortly after publication, upset me until I got my head round it. I really would like to read the continuation as outlined, although I'm not quite sure how it can be resurrected after the ending you gave us.


Actually Benoit Mandlebrot (as in mandlebrot set) makes a fairly strong case in his book The (Mis)Behaviour of Markets that the stock market does not follow a normal or Gaussian distribution but rather follows a power-law distribution. One technique he used was to show three graphs two of random data, one following a normal distribution and one following a power law distribution. The third graph showed actual stock market data. The normal distribution data was obviously different while the other two were virtually indistinguishable.


I'm aware of that; I've also seen a good argument for behaviour producing a pattern similar to 1/f-type distributions.

My point was that Heteromeles was asserting (in the original post I replied to) that one extreme event made it impossible for something to be a normal distribution, which is wrong. H's follow-up post is also bad stats, although it is much better. (Five once-per-millenium events in a century doesn't make something impossible, just very unlikely.) Anyone who thinks stock-market movements follow a normal distribution is almost certainly wrong; if daily movements do indeed follow a 1/f pattern then any attempt at predicting tomorrow's prices is doomed to failure and the whole endeavour is essentially so much random noise. (This fits distressingly well with my ingrained prejudices.)

Having posted this much, I'll add that I couldn't help noticing that H spent a lot of time shouting about the minor pedantry but completely failed to respond to the main point of that post about 'great figures' in history.

It's not hard, if you have a CS degree, a willingness to tinker with a UNIX command line, and no scruples.

That sounds like a tagline for one of your books.

(I definitely want to read that one)


John Scalzi just posted a screed on Ayn Rand. The best bit reads:

"...any child in the post-Atlas Shrugged world who can’t figure out how to run a smelter within ten minutes of being pushed through the birth canal will be left out for the coyotes."


The showing of a film demonstrating this was in the magazine version of Worlds of the Imperium.
Yep, I read that in the magazine when it first came out. I then spent years reading everything Laumer wrote looking for another sequence with that level of imagination and sheer sfnal poetry. Never happened again (and then a few years later he had a stroke and his writing changed totally). That's why I asked Charlie if he'd thought about that part of the Paratime McGuffin; I keep hoping someone else will come up with something as clever.


I almost tossed 'Grunts' away when I reached the point where an orc character says "Pass me another elf, this one has split.". If it had been closer to the beginning of the book, I probably would have.

124: 78 - This comment and your post explains much of why I liked this series at the start and grew progressively more dissatisfied with it as you've gone on, to the point where I don't know if I'll bother with book six.

I really liked the possibilities in the first book, but got very tired of watching Miriam getting smacked around by the world, to the point where I just couldn't stand it anymore. I don't require the hero to singlehandedly save everything/change society/whatever, but I don't like to see them constantly tossed around with no influence on their own fate either. Also, I came into the series expecting something other than a jargon-filled techno-spy thriller, and I'm afraid that's what it read like to me by the later books. I enjoy those when I expect them - I loved the Atrocity Archives and Saturn's Children, but I was looking for something different where and didn't get it.

I also nearly threw the book across the room when the fourth book revealed the source of the world-walking ability as modified mitochondria, because I'm a geneticist, and know that mitochondrial DNA is passed solely from mother to child, so you'd just made it impossible (or at least unbelievable) for the trait to ever be recessive, thus ruining a lot of the set-up for the Clan's structure and history.

From reading the pitch you have here, I think I'd have really enjoyed the series if you'd been able to write it as described there.


Brian, there's a whole bunch of the world-walking mechanism that isn't explained in the novels; it's not a mitochondrial mechanism at all, it's just a synthetic self-replicating organelle-like structure that resembles a mitochondrion because, hey, outer membrane and inner reticulated surface with large surface area and extra structures embedded in it, designed to survive in the intracellular environment. The cytologists looking at it point and say "looks like mitochondria" because that's their point of reference -- sort of like 1830s engineers looking at a modern diesel engine and saying, "well, it's got pistons, so we're missing the boiler and condenser but it probably came off some sort of weird steam engine". (The activation trait is out in the main genome and is, furthermore, broken in the Clan -- hence the recessive structure.)

But I digress ...



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