Ben Babcock's Reviews > The Hidden Family

The Hidden Family by Charles Stross
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Aug 01, 2012

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bookshelves: alternate-history, fantasy, own, 2014-read
Read on August 10, 2014

I rediscovered this while sorting out my overflow bin of books to read. I hesitated, because since buying it years ago, I’ve learned that the series has been re-edited and republished in doorstopper form, apparently to its benefit as a story. Still, it was there, and I wanted something not too heavy to read.

The Hidden Family picks up right where The Family Trade left off (literally, because they used to be one book). Whereas I was impressed with The Family Trade, I’m less enamoured of The Hidden Family. In his quest to create an otherworldly economic thriller, Stross seems to let the details get the better of him (or at least, of us the readers). What should be a white-knuckled race against the clock to find evidence for a hidden family of world-walkers before they can make another attempt on Miriam’s life proves, instead, to be a tedious and not all that suspenseful chronicle of Miriam applying for patents in a new world.

I love the various economic and cultural musings that Stross injects into the book. Miriam brings Brilliana over to our world when she runs, and the two of them and Paulette form a fantastic trio. After Paulette initiates Brill into the way our world works, Miriam discusses with Brill the idea of bringing more than just resources from our world back to her world—she wants to actually improve the technology and landscape of Brill’s world. But then she expresses some angst over the spectre of colonialism—and Brill flips out, because she is tired of not having indoor plumbing and of watching women die in childbirth. This is a none-too-subtle dig at proliferation of feudal/medieval settings in fantasy despite the fact that such a setting was a shit place to live for the majority of the population. The idea that the past was better because it was “a simpler time” is nonsense. We might have a screwed up world now, but at least we have antibiotics (for now).

Similarly, Stross shows off a more nuanced understanding of mercantilism versus twentieth-century capitalism and import/export and patenting than most of us could shake a stick at. I certainly won’t pretend that I followed it all. But basically, somehow in the course of her career as a tech journalist, Miriam has learned all about economics, patent law, import and export, and how to design car brakes. Which is exactly what you need to know when you find yourself with the ability to travel to world that is similar to your own but stuck in a 1920s era of technology. Whereas the Clan is stuck in the mode of transporting raw materials between worlds, Miriam decides to go a step further, bringing ideas into world three and getting a return on her investment.

It’s an interesting evolutionary step. I don’t buy that Miriam would be the first one to come up with it. If the Clan has been operating for as long as it has in both worlds, surely someone would have seen the potential before now? Then again, maybe the very way in which the Clan has become a power in its own right in its world makes it harder for it to influence the development of that world through the introduction of new inventions.

At an intelluctual level, The Hidden Family is stimulating. Stross has set up a really cool political dynamic, with a missing/lost family operating in a heretofore unknown world. Miriam is an engaging protagonist, extremely capable and cool, but also prone to moments of self-doubt and introspection. So it’s all the more disappointing that Stross doesn’t back this up with a better plot.

All the building blocks are there. I’m fascinated my Miriam’s exploration of world three and the threat looming of its police apparatus cracking down on her new business. I just wanted more of a sense of urgency and danger than I got. This hidden family doesn’t seem like all that much of a threat now that we know about them, and Miriam deals with their goons like they are amateur burglars. Similarly, she cuts through the backstabbing boardroom intrigue of the Clan’s big summit without much difficulty. The only thing to really trip her up is what happens with Roland at the end, and that is a blink-and-you-missed-it thing—literally, I zoned out for half a page and then suddenly had to backtrack to see if it really happened.

I’ve got The Clan Corporate, but I don’t think I’ll bother. I’ll pick up the revised, recombined trilogy of the series at some point in the future, and hopefully I’ll have better luck with that.

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