Premise: during World War II, secret research into occult science proceeded much along the lines of atomic bomb or cryptography research. Alan Turing “cracked the code” that permitted interaction with beings in parallel universes – demons and Lovecraftian horrors, pretty much. Some of these beings are very interested in humans (for not-so-nice reasons) and certain demonological tricks can quickly go south, even in the hands of trained scientists. So, the research has been kept a strict secret protected by an MI5-like entity called The Laundry; anyone in the public who happens to stumble upon the (horrific) truth is forcibly drafted into Laundry service.
1st story: Well, the Nazis also were researching such things, and some remnant actually escaped to one of these other universes. A massive energy-guzzling entity in that universe kind of fouled up their plans though and is now trying to break through to our tasty, energy-rich universe…
2nd story: There’s some secret hijacking of closed circuit TV systems which melds in some medusa-like qualities, turning cameras into deadly weapons.
Kind of some crazy stuff, but entertaining enough for a cross-country flight!
In the afterword, Stross mentioned an early reviewer asking if he had ever read “Declare” by Tim Powers. Stross hadn’t. I have; and there are some surface similarities — Cold War spy stuff tangled up with Lovecraftian horrors and the like — but I don’t think too similar beyond premise. Reminded me of when I read “Declare” (years before this blog started) and also the reason I read it – because one of another Tim Powers book, “The Anubis Gates” which I still think is one of my most favorite stories of all time. Just wanted to mention that!
Miriam was found as a baby next to her murdered mother. She knew nothing of her birth family until much later. Turns out she is from, and can travel back and forth to, a parallel universe. The geography is the same and the history has some vague similarities, but it is much different. The alternate world is stuck in the middle ages. The Clan, a mob-style organization, controls import/export between the worlds — there are only a select few in the Family who possess the genetic trait that allows world-walking. They are fabulously wealthy by selling our technology on the medieval side, and smuggling drugs on our side. There are some very complicated politics going on that I (and Miriam too!) don’t fully grasp; unfortunately for Miriam the likely outcome is a violent end since several factions want her out of the picture, as she had been for 30+ years. She is the heir to a major line of the Family. Also we discover there is a THIRD world that nobody knows about; they have been sending assassins after Miriam too. It’s almost comical that there are so many people gunning for her that we can’t tell who is behind what scheme.
This is definitely the start of a trilogy (or more); many strings are started and none wound up in the end. Miriam needs to evade assassination and figure out what’s going on; also she is determined to bootstrap the medieval economy of the other world by finding some more legitimate way for the Clan to use their powers for good and still come out on top.
Kind of a cool scenario. I wish I could world-walk. But not if people would kill me because of it, I guess.
Has a lot of interesting pieces, but not very well developed as a whole.
The historical premise is that the Eschaton, a God-like AI civilization, scattered humanity across the galaxy several hundred years ago. Their only commandment is to not violate causality (ie don’t do time travel), presumably to protect them from someone going back and deleting the Eschaton from history. The New Republic, composed of ethnic Russians and pretty much modeled on pre-Soviet Imperial Russia, is under attack by the Festival, a mysterious entity besieging one of the Republic’s remote colony worlds. A fleet is dispatched with a sneaky plan to go into the future several thousand years, learn about the Festival, then go back in time to just before the Festival arrived at the colony. This plan is sure to attract the attention of “Big E,” so Rachel the UN weapons inspector and Martin the engineer are determined to stop it, lest the Eschaton over-react and supernova humanity out of existence.
That’s piece one. Lots of “military SF” bits with scenes on the bridge, “fire torpedo 1!” and all that.
Second piece is what the Festival really is – an automated information collection and trading machine. It gives the people of the planet whatever they want in exchange for “entertainment” or information. Naturally this wrecks the economy and the whole social structure of the New Republic on the world. Some weird stuff goes on too, like the former governor who is granted his wish to be young and have a life of adventure – unfortunately adventure is dangerous, with zombie clowns wielding nanobot-disintegration pies and the like. And there’s a Soviet-style worker’s revolution trying to break out until the people realize they don’t need any government when their every wish is granted immediately by the Festival.
Piece three is the romance between Rachel and Martin. Both are tired and weary of long lives extended by advanced medical techniques, but believe in what they are doing.
As I said earlier, these pieces didn’t quite gel very well for me. I never really got into the story, even though the premise seemed pretty interesting.
The idea of the Eschaton scattering humanity reminded me of “Riverworld.” Only in that book, the scattering is after death.
In this “technological singularity” example of science fiction, post-humanity has all of its physical needs taken care of by a network of A- and T-gates. A-gates (A for assembler) can restructure matter into anything on demand. T-gates (T for transport?) provide instantaneous,wormhole driven teleportation between points. Energy needs are satisfied via T-gates drawing energy directly from stars. Computer technology is also similarly advanced. If someone gets tired of their body, they go to the nearest A-gate, make a digital copy of their mind, then instruct the gate to create a new, different body for them and download their consciousness into it. People frequently make back-up copies of their minds, just in case they get accidentally killed. Pretty much everyone is immortal. They can also make multiple copies of themselves, useful if they need to be in two places at the same time, for instance.
This wild future fantasy just sets the stage for the book. The plot took a while for me to get going (mainly because I couldn’t figure out what the heck was going on – the future described in the above paragraph isn’t as clearly explained in so many words), but when it did it was kind of interesting. Besides the bizarre future setting, part of the reason for confusion early on in the book is that Robin, the main character, has just gone through memory-redaction surgery and can’t remember clearly who he is or what he’s supposed to be doing; he just has some vague impressions. His background, as well as the events of a civil war in which a computer virus infected the gate network, is revealed throughout the book via flashbacks.
The glasshouse is an experimental recreation of a “dark ages” era society (circa 1950-2040, ha-ha), meant to explore and identify the history (lost in the aforementioned civil war) of events that has led to the current technological singularity state of things. Once the protagonist gets into the glasshouse, this setting is refreshing from the preceding introductory chapters because it at least gives a familiar framework to the reader. Anyway, not all is as it seems in the experimental society…sinister forces are at work! (Of course.) I don’t want to spoil the plot; suffice it to say there are a number of twists along the way.
All in all a pretty good read, once I got into it. Some of the “adult content” scenes were a little too graphicly described for my tastes, but that’s my only complaint.