Oops, I am only now realizing as I sit down to write this review that I read Empire Games, the first book in this trilogy, but not Dark State, the second. When Invisible Sun came out earlier this year, I was just so excited to get back to this story that I forgot to check if I was caught up! Turns out I was not. So, if you are wondering if you can read this book without reading the one prior … the answer is yes.
Charles Stross brings this trilogy to a conclusion with a bang—several hundred nuclear bangs, I should say. In one timeline very similar to ours, NSA spooks hunt a refugee from another timeline. She’s a princess, or at least could be, and politically valuable to all the players in this game. Meanwhile, in her home timeline, Miriam Burgeson (née Beckstein) and her daughter, Rita Douglas, do a delicate dance during the mourning period for the First Man. If either steps awry, it might possibly spell the end of this experiment in democracy. Finally, in a timeline where humanity is extinct but a mysterious Dome encloses a gate to yet another parallel timeline, the invasion of a swarm of machine intelligences threatens to spill out across all the timelines we might care about.
My experience with Stross has rather mirrored the trajectory of his own writing career. I used to be very much into far-future, posthuman science fiction that posited nigh-omnipotent artificial intelligences and such. After I had my fill of such stories, however, I started to get bored. I dip my toe back into that subgenre here and there, but I have also appreciated Stross’s urban fantasy and near-future science fiction, including this series and its prequel series. I was a little hard on Empire Games, and honestly, Invisible Sun didn’t offer up anything else new in comparison.
But it got the job done, if you know what I mean.
There’s just something very enchanting about how Stross writes, something that makes me want to keep reading and devour the book as quickly as possible. Yes, the book lacks the focus of a clear protagonist—who should I be rooting for, everyone? Yes, the book is about 78% exposition—but really, what do you expect from Stross at this point? I’m not here for an engrossing story so much as for this incredible thought experiment: what if some people could travel to parallel universes, and what if in the deep past some of their ancestors came into conflict with an unfathomable intelligence that then also acquired that ability? It’s heady stuff.
Something I did enjoy a lot more about Invisible Sun, though, was the commentary on the fragility of democracy. The republic for which Miriam fights is about a decade old and it is already experiencing its first succession crisis. Thanks to the omniscient narrator, we get to see things from all sides—including the Commonwealth Guard leaders who plot the coup and install a junta. I appreciate how Stross draws parallels with events in the twentieth century for which I wasn’t alive, and how he demonstrates that even when one has the best of intentions, sometimes coincidences or missed connections mean that everything goes pear shaped.
This is why I’m not quite willing to stop reading Stross’s books despite the fact that sometimes the plots themselves are a little thin on the ground: he still makes me think. Invisible Sun offers up commentary on democracy, surveillance states, statecraft, spycraft, and of course, the importance of family. It has plenty of weaknesses yet also quite a few strengths, and I can’t deny that I devoured the book, so I can’t complain too heavily about it!
In the end, this won’t win you over if you are new to this series. The original trilogy really holds up better in my mind. I appreciate how Stross has indicated that this story is done, but that he might revisit this multiverse one day. I think that’s a good call. For now, if you are curious about these books, go pick up The Bloodline Feud and prepare to be very entertained.