(Empire Games is officially published on Thursday in the UK; see previous blog entry for how/where to buy it.)
Whenever you tell someone that you've written a book, they almost inevitably have questions. And if they're a reader, usually the first words off their tongue are some variation on "what's it about?"
Any fictional narrative is a multi-layered structure, and "what's it about" is a question that speaks to one specific layer—the most abstract level, the numinous thing we call theme. Theme trumps genre as a high-level construct; it's all about the intent behind the work, insofar as a work of fiction is an attempt at communication. When you ask what the theme of a story is, you're asking for a synopsis stripped of all context. If your theme is "coming of age" you can write that story as romance, as SF, as horror—it transcends and overlaps with all these fields. So: what is the theme of Empire Games: or, more broadly, what is the Empire Games trilogy talking about?
In picking up the setting of the Merchant Princes series for a new season, I tackled a multiverse depicting a number of parallel universes that differ from our own. Let's strip out the characters, whose actions define the moral theory of the story, and look at what the setting—the frame around the picture—is trying to say. (Because settings provide context, and thereby dictate the kinds of story you can tell.)
Time line one glows in the dark. No change here; indeed, the only function it serves in this trilogy is as a horrible cautionary tale about how things can go wrong when an essentially pre-modern mind-set tries to grapple with the complexity of a modern world-order. Game over.
Time line two, the alternative United States of America in the 2020 that emerged from the first series, is a time line in which the USA received a really serious blow—president assassinated, and a two-for-the-price-of-one terrorist nuking— followed by an Outside Context Problem (multiverse travel) ... and yet, despite a level of police state bullshit as yet unexperienced in our world, sanity has gradually begun to reassert itself. There's an essentially rational, competent president in the White House—that time line's equivalent of Obama, having emerged one or two election cycles later than in our own history—whose first reaction to a new contact scenario is not to start a nuclear war but to initiate a covert diplomatic process. The wildest excesses of the US Deep State have focussed on carbon exploitation from parallel time lines, rather than using the tech to smuggle nukes into timeline two's Moscow. The US Constitution is still in force and there are still elections and there's still a notion of freedom of speech, even if everyone submits to a level of intrusive monitoring that would be anathema today ... but the police state trappings aren't there just because the author wanted a dystopia ruled by mustache-twirling black-hatted villains. An argument can be made that it's a pragmatic necessity, because the threat is not simply random fanatics with AR-15s or truck bombs who you can detect before they run wild: it's a postulated state-level actor with world-walkers and nuclear weapons—a demonstrated nuclear threat that is not amenable to deterrence because deterrence theory relies on the threat of predictable retalliation, and you can't deter the unknown.
In other words, the background for time line two depicts the normalization of fear (with an essentially more rational justification than the paranoia about terrorism in our universe—you're more likely to be struck by lightning twice in the USA today than you are to be killed by islamic terrorists), and an illustration of how people react to it. If the worst you have to worry about is a level of domestic surveillance equivalent to the GDR with internet access, then ... well, things could be worse.
(In book 2, "Dark State", we'll get a glimpse of how much worse they could be.)
Time line three is yet more complex; a descendant of the New British Empire depicted in the first series, as it evolved following the revolution of 2003. This, recall, is a universe where the revolutionary ideologies spawned by the Enlightenment were suppressed ruthlessly—no US War of Independence, no French revolution, no Russian revolution, no collapse of the Ancien Régime and the rule of monarchism, no birth of modernity ... until our protagonist Miriam inadvertently dumped a fortune in the lap of the quartermaster of an underground political party descended from the radical/puritan ethos of the Levelers and Diggers, right in the middle of a long-brewing fiscal crisis following a wartime defeat.
Seventeen years later ... well, it's a very young democracy, taking its first unstable steps. It's radical, too; in a time line dominated by monarchies, the New American Commonwealth is as revolutionary as Lenin and Trotsky were in our own history (and as feared). Their democracy hasn't been around long enough to become a habit or a tradition. They make mistakes, they experiment, they're unsophisticated and technologically well behind the United States of time line two, but they're trying (and sometimes failing) to do better in the face of existential threats at least as deadly as those facing the USA.
So the background for time line three depicts hopes for a better future and fears of regression into an authoritarian past: it's about the possibility of progress in a hitherto-static universe, in the face of uncertainty and paranoia about contact with another nuclear-armed superpower version of North America.
(Finally, there's time line four (the dome in the forest). But that's a card I intend to keep close to my chest until Dark State is published in January 2018.)
Now, if you're not used to dissecting works of fiction thematically, I may have mislead you into thinking it's just a fancy word for background. But that's not the case: I've been chewing on the scenery because if I say too much about how the theme is illustrated via the characters in the story, it'll act as a huge spoiler for the entire trilogy. (And it's too early for series-level spoilers!) But if you've already read Empire Games (the novel), you might want to ask yourself just what function Kurt (and his background) serves in the context of time line two, or what aspects of circa-2020 US culture Rita's ethnicity and sexuality shine a spotlight on ... and how these things feed into the themes I'm exploring (and how they contrast with the real non-fiction world we experience).