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The Hidden Family
Charles Stross
Tor hardcover £17.99

review by Jonathan McCalmont

Charles Stross is a clever man. He is so clever in fact that clearly he's a mad scientist. I say this because while every dog has his day, Charlie Stross is having an absolute blinder of a year. The only reasonable explanation for Stross' ongoing rampage through the world of science fiction is that he has built a day-extracting machine and is preying on the local canine population like some kind of pulp Cruella Deville. We all laugh now and explain it away by invoking such nebulous woolly concepts as 'talent' and 'hard work' but mark my words... one of these days it'll be his face on the front of The Daily Mail and an interview with a neighbour who always wondered why his bins were full of dog collars.

However, before he is taken out by an RSPCA death-squad, let us take a moment to reflect upon The Hidden Family, sequel to The Family Trade and the second in the 'Merchant Princes' series.

Following the attempt on her life, Miriam goes underground in our world. Using a locket she found on the body of one of the assassins, she discovers that her would-be killers not only did not come from Earth but also did not come from the world of her newly discovered family either. Instead, they came from an America that is now the seat of a British Empire forced to flee the British Isles because of a French invasion. This world seems stuck in a version of our late 19th century technologically as well as politically as their most hated political criminals, such as Karl Marx, do nothing more than argue for universal suffrage and the rights of women. Miriam dodges the secret police and sets up a company importing 20th century technology. This makes her money and, more importantly, a power-base from which she can defend herself against her family's desire to see her married off or declared incompetent. In addition to the hidden branch of the family, Miriam also uncovers a traitor within the family organisation whose flight not only leads to the family's operations in our world being threatened but also the death of one of the main characters from the first novel.

My spies tell me that The Hidden Family is in fact the second half of The Family Trade but the publishers decided to split it in half. This explains both why the first book of this series ended so abruptly and why this book's conclusion seems to serve to tie up most outstanding plot points and pave the way for a number of future developments.

As with the first book in the series, this volume is a joy to behold. Stross again shows how effortlessly he can balance the demands of plot, characterisation and 'big ideas'. His characters are great fun to read, particularly Miriam's rebellious wheelchair-bound mother and the Pawn Broker clearly inspired by Conrad's Secret Agent. Miriam no longer lapses into Sam Spade dialogue and Stross has even added depth to a number of supporting characters. This glut of character development comes from the more sedate pace at which the plot unfurls. Where The Family Trade barely left you time to think about what was happening, The Hidden Family allows the characters time to breathe and even allows Stross to indulge in a little world building as Miriam struggles to come to grips with the new world she has discovered. However, as convincing as they might be the characterisation and plots are Trojan horses for Stross' far more subversive intensions because the Merchant Princes is deeply political.

The Hidden Family is political in two ways. The first is that the book is an exploration of Stross' theories about the nature of society and political economics. The second is that the book is a shot across the bows of the genre establishment.

Stross believes that individual freedoms and economic freedoms are bound together and just as individuals yearn to be free, so does money. Where the book novel in the series limited itself to rather dry and abstract discussions of politics and developing world economics, The Hidden Family engages with your political beliefs by showing you examples of what Stross is talking about. Miriam's money is made by ignoring copyright and importing ideas from our world and allowing another world to benefit from them. There are clear real-world parallels here with allowing African states to produce anti-viral drugs without having to pay huge licensing fees and the value of an intellectual commons (Stross issued his latest novel Accelerando under a Creative Commons licence). However, Stross' main point is made much more bluntly when one of his characters replies to the charge that capitalism and economic growth destroy indigenous ways of life by asking whether the way of life of a serf is really worth protecting because they'd trade their life for that of the lowest paid western employee in a heartbeat. Regardless of your personal politics, these are big important questions and Stross is right to ask them.

The second way in which Stross is political is that he chooses to explore these ideas in the genre of fantasy rather than his more traditional genre of literary sci-fi. Stross follows China Miéville in reminding us that fantasy need not be a creative ghetto where the same old ideas get used repeatedly churning out millions of words worth of drivel about elves and prophecies. Fantasy can be as vibrant and challenging as science fiction and it can do so without being turgid or preachy. Stross may well deal with big political ideas but his lucid and accessible writing style means that you're so engrossed in the great plot and characters that it's only when you close the book that you realise that you've just been subjected to some pretty high-brow politics.

Despite the fact that I love this book, if I had to find fault with it I'd point to the fact that the final act at the family meeting plays out too well in Miriam's favour, so where before the family was hostile and suspicious, it now seems to eat out of the palm of her hand. The result is that the plot points that revolved around Miriam's frictions with her family seemed to be wrapped up a little too easily. Characters such as her uncle instantly lose their menace and mystery as they virtually cheer Miriam's actions. I hope that this is only my impression and that there is more to Miriam's family than validation as the plot has a large component of political thriller about it and in real politics, there is never a truly safe constituency. However, even if the ending does come across as a little too rosy in some ways, it is a minor problem and one of taste as while Miriam might lose the threat from her immediate family it is dramatically replaced with a new threat in the form of the traitor.

The Hidden Family is a worthy successor to The Family Trade and shows why 2005 has been Charlie Stross' year. By the standards of contemporary literary sci-fi, it is fantastic but by the standards of contemporary fantasy, it is simply breathtaking.
The Hidden Family

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