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 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.
(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.)
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.