Fri
May 3 2013 11:00am

Charles Stross on the Merchant Princes Series: How I Built A World

Charles Stross Merchant Princes Worldbuilding

I have a confession to make: I hate clichés. This is a problem, because a cliché is a good idea that has been re-used so often that it outstays its welcome.

Also, being a Brit of a certain outlook, I do not view monarchism or aristocracy with any degree of nostalgic fondness. The divine right of kings is a post-hoc justification for hereditary dictatorship (current poster-child: Kim Jong-Un) and the feudal age was one of total militarization of society, of petty lords with the right to hang any serf whose face they didn’t like, and of wars ravaging the land every generation.

Finally: I’m lazy and cynical, I get bored easily, and I have a warped sense of humour. Which is how I came up with this series. I grabbed hold of a bunch of clichés and rammed them together until I achieved fusion. And that’s how The Bloodline Feud starts.

Charles Stross on the Merchant Princes Series Worldbuilding

Cliché #1: science fiction about people who can travel between different time-lines. The 500 kilo gorilla in this sub-genre is undoubtedly Roger Zelazny’s Amber series (if you count it as SF: I’d say the main protagonist’s outlook qualifies it as such), but honourable runners-up are numerous: Harry Turtledove, John Barnes, add to the list at your leisure. The ability to walk between worlds seems like a wonderful talent that can bring all sorts of benefits: but what if it wasn’t? What if you ran into all the same problems with earning a living, maintaining your personal safety and security, and staying out of trouble that you had in your home time-line? In fact, what if it made everything worse? It seemed to me that this was fertile territory to explore, so I stripped my world-walkers’ ability back to basics and put some onerous limitations on it. It’s not a get out of jail free card. And for added amusement, I decided to give them another handicap: a cultural one.

The world-walkers of the Clan come from a world where the river of history burst its banks and took a different course, around 200-250 years BCE. The details are unclear, lost in the mist of unrecorded wars that ravaged the middle east in the wake of Alexander the Great’s mad dash for empire—but by the time the Romans began to march, the Maccabean revolt against the Greek occupiers of the crescent from the Nile to Damascus has been brutally suppressed. With no Judean monotheists, no Sadducees and no Essene mystery cults, there was no Christianity, and no Islam: no transfer of Zoroastrian beliefs to the west, nor the Cult of Isis blending with Mithraism. And, crucially, no monasteries and no preservation of classical texts through the dark ages. When Rome fell, the fall was total—and the climb back from darkness took longer. By 1700, the quasi-medieval civilization of western Europe had begun to colonize the eastern seaboard of North America; but in their time line there was no reformation, no renaissance, no enlightenment, and no industrial revolution. In fact, by 1900, the eastern seaboard was a quilt-work of balkanized kingdoms bearing a vague resemblance to those of 16th century northern Europe.

The Clan started out as a single itinerant tinker who could world-walk to another, not totally dissimilar world. Some of the natives of that world had strange sticks that could spit thunder, and spoke a tongue called “English,” but 1760s New England wasn’t vastly or obviously dissimilar to the world the Founder came from. His main motive for world-walking seems to have been to avoid bandits; in any event, he became moderately wealthy and left many descendants, who subsequently fell upon hard times. Then, by way of a cousin-marriage, the world-walking ability re-appeared: it seemed to be what we would call a recessive trait. The ability to dodge highwaymen and bandits and tax collectors came in handy; the merchants began to profit again, and presently armed themselves with musketry.

And then the 19th century arrived. And with it, the trans-continental telegraph and the railroad. By the time we meet them at the dawn of the 21st century the Clan of five families who by careful arrangement can produce offspring who world-walk have become, in their home world, richer than Croesus. But all this wealth comes at a cost, and envious eyes are watching them just as a business journalist in Boston loses her job and discovers a family heirloom that topples her straight into a cliché that can only end badly in real life: the orphan who discovers she’s the long lost daughter of a noble house, and the subject of all their expectations.

* * * * *

This post was originally published on Torbooks.co.uk. The Bloodline Feud was published last month in the UK by Tor UK/Pan Macmillan and The Traders’ War is out this month. The Revolution Trade is then out in June. See here for both blurbs. Additionally, an all-new Merchant Princes series will be along in due course, with info on that here.


Charles Stross has worked as a pharmacist, software engineer and freelance journalist, but now writes full-time. To date, Stross has won two Hugo awards and been nominated twelve times. He has also won the Locus Award for Best Novel, the Locus Award for Best Novella and has been shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke and Nebula Awards.

12 comments
Paul Weimer
1. PrinceJvstin
I was, as I was reading the series, trying to work out just where the divergence was. I pinned it down, mentally, to somewhere around the 1st Century CE, but wasn't certain. So I needed to look a little further back.Interesting.
Tae
2. Tae
So how's that whole US publication thing coming? Cause I'd still like a digital copy of the rereleases. Seems pretty foolish to advertise a series you aren't even selling stateside.
Liz Bourke
3. hawkwing-lb
I missed reading most of these when they first came out. I'll have to acquire copies now (and pencil in time to read them when I run out of thesis, I suspect... )
Michael Grosberg
4. Michael_GR
I just finished The Family Trade (the first part of The Bloodline Feud). It is obviously just half a book (Stross said the omnibus versions are how the books were meant to be published). It was odd that there were only two alternate timelines - our own and the GruinMarkt timeline. Why two and not five or a million or an infinity? Before I continue I'd like to know if there's more than one alternate world at some point or an explanatin of why there are only two.
Tae
5. slybrarian
Michael_GR, your question does get answered and indeed becomes a very important part of the plot.
Tae
6. Nicholas Winter
There are at leat three timelines and you need to read very carefully to determine where one of those timelines differs from ours. ( I'm avoiding spoilers here.)
Tae
7. Nicholas Winter
Tae: You can purchase the trade paper edition of The Bloodline Feud via Amazon UK.

Tor US which is a different division of the company that own both companies and it makes its own editorial decisions on which books it publishes in both paper and digital formats.
Tae
8. Chromosome Coyote
Larry Niven wrote a blistering critique on the Multi-Time-Line stories sub-genre once; I'm blowed if I can remember its title. Fred Hoyle wrote a novel of multiple time-lines being arbitrarily crushed together, titled "October the First is Too Late". Greg Bear wrote City at the End of Time which blended some rather Moorcockian writing and concepts with the Multi-Time-Line sub-genre; Michael Moorcock is of course the author who's turned it into his entire oevre's underpinnings ...

My own introduction to the sub-genre came in the form of Andre Norton's Crosstime series. And yes, it would be interesting to cross time lines - for me, as a tourist to see worlds where the Norman Conquest hadn't succeeded, where some other pivotal events had not happened, perhaps going into some timeline where non-bird dinosaurs had not died out, and had acquired intelligence, or one where some bodyform abandoned after the Cambrian Explosion had persisted and prevailed ...
Colin Bell
9. SchuylerH
A further addition to the subgenre is H. Beam Piper's "Paratime" series, including the novel Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen.
Tae
10. chaosprime
Having the ability start with an itinerant tinker is a nice hat tip to Amber. :)
Tae
11. James Moar
Larry Niven wrote a blistering critique on the Multi-Time-Line stories sub-genre once; I'm blowed if I can remember its title.

His short story All the Myriad Ways, you mean?

The Merchant Princes characters aren't in a position to be affected by the psychological issues raised there until fairly late in the story, though....
Tae
12. Ace Hamilton
Philip Jose Farmer's World of Tiers series should be mentioned too. It was a big influence for Zelazny.

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