‘‘I am in the process of bringing out a trilogy over these next three years from Tor. It’s the Empire Games trilogy, which is set in The Mer­chant Princes universe. Book one, Empire Games, comes out in January 2017. Book two, Dark State, is scheduled for January 2018, and book three, Invisible Sun, is scheduled for January 2019. You can read it as a series reboot, or a different series, or as books 7-9 of the original series. I describe it to people as my big fat post-Edward Snowden surveillance state techno thriller in parallel universes. Many of the characters are fol­lowed through, but they’re 17 years older, and there are a bunch of new characters as well.

‘‘The earlier Merchant Princes trilogy ended with the President being assassinated in the White House in 2003, and nuclear weapons stolen from the US’s inactive inventory by narco-terrorists from a parallel universe. You might imagine just how paranoid the surveillance state became after that. The new book, Empire Games, opens with the introduction of a new character, and we follow her through a day in the life of America in 2020, at a trade show, with police checkpoints and drones everywhere. A national genome database, a mandatory ID card system, random check­points to do a spot check of your genes to verify you are who it says you are on your card, and any number of minor, nasty, intrusive little elements. CCTV cameras on every sidewalk of every city to try and spot intruders from parallel timelines popping into existence. Think ‘Police State USA,’ only far worse than it has been implemented today, simply because there’s a real threat and it’s gone nuclear. It makes 9/11 look like a storm in a teacup. To some extent, I was brainstorming that scenario in the first book of the trilogy, and as one of the characters remarks in book two, ‘The 21st century is a really bad time to be a paranoid schizophrenic.’ I go into this to quite a degree. There’s a lot of spy tradecraft in the Empire Games trilogy because some of the protagonists are actually spies.

‘‘There’s a huge element of snark in the new trilogy, too, because it’s about surveillance states and their failure modes. Communications are getting easier and easier, big data leaks are getting easier, and the side effect is the illusion of competence is being ripped away. We’re no longer under any illusions about government agencies or their political masters being insightful, wise, or better at what they’re doing than everybody around them. To a large extent, the NSA is to be blamed for their own woes. They militated heavily in the 1970s and ’80s to keep encryption classified as munitions and to ban end-to-end encryption from TCP/IP, the protocol the Internet runs over. If they hadn’t done that, and if they’d allowed a truly secure Internet to emerge, it would be an awful lot harder for the leaks we’ve become used to in recent years to take place. However, the NSA has two jobs. One of those jobs is to spy on everybody else, and the other is to attend to the nation’s own internal security. Those two jobs are definitely in conflict. They’ve inadvertently, in the long term, prioritized surveillance of everybody else rather than security, because it’s easier to prove that you’ve gotten inside somebody else’s computer systems and know what they’re doing, than it is to prove your own sys­tems are secure. This is true for GCHQ, which is the British Mini-Me to the NSA’s Dr. Evil. They’re part of an organization called the Five Eyes. The Five Eyes – it’s like something out of a Bond movie, except they’re real. They’re this vast, world-spanning network of intelligence agencies who spy on everybody. The NSA is basically the leading partner in it. It’s also Australia, New Zealand, Britain, and a couple of other agencies in tug. They’ve fundamentally lost sight of the security side of things, and the result is more and more leaks. It can be very difficult to secure a system that was designed to be penetrable from the start.

‘‘This series was originally meant to come out in 2015. It’s been de­layed for a couple of years, and I’m kind of aghast at the degree to which Snowden leaks, and Chelsea Manning’s leaks from the Iraq war, haven’t been reflected in long form fiction. Nobody seems to be paying much attention to those things. Science fiction doesn’t often deal with the near future very effectively. The exceptions are notable. Walter Jon Williams, with his trilogy that included Deep State and This is Not a Game, was remarkably prescient in some ways. He had the prescience to put the Arab Spring in a book 12 months before it broke out. Long form SF is a terrible medium for timely, trenchant social commentary.

‘‘What makes something work as near-future SF is that the author has to be paying attention to the background. There’s an awful lot of stories that CNN, Fox, NBC, just don’t carry – or the BBC for that matter. You have to read widely around the technological trends, and the climatological issues. At this stage, denying climate change is futile and stupid. What are the consequences? One of the things making news headlines in Europe is the refugee crisis emerging from the Syrian civil war, but we tend to forget that the Syrian civil war broke out in the wake of a virtually once-in-a-century drought, and famine, which in turn was partially a result of Turkish damming of rivers leading to Kurdistan, which in turn has to do with the Kurdish separatists in Iraq after the Iraq invasion. A lot of this stuff is interconnected, and it interacts with climate change, so you get unforeseen side effects, such as a massive refugee crisis with a civil war some years later. The Arab Spring in general happened when the price of grain in the Middle East more or less tripled, in the wake of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, because speculators who’d been investing in credit-default swaps realized they needed somewhere safe to put their money, and switched to futures of the products people need. The price of grains is a classic one for speculators. Ken MacLeod remarked that ‘history is the secret weapon of the science fiction writer.’ He’s absolutely not wrong on that. The first Merchant Princes series was about development traps, with a society that has access to modern technology but is totally unable to socially advance their own quasi-Medieval world. The Empire Games trilogy is another timeline, where they succeed in getting out of a development trap, in much the same way that South Korea went from being a very backwards place in the 1950s to being economically the equal of Japan in the mid-’90s. What makes the difference here? What are the political patterns you get that recur? If you have a republic that’s established in a revolution, you usually get a massive political crisis 20 to 30 years after the revolution, when you have a succession moment, with a change in the leadership. The original revolutionary leaders retire, or are dying of old age, and a new generation comes along. Iran very nearly had such a moment in the first decade of this century. There was a thing called the Green Revolution, and it was put down very brutally by the deep state, but for a while Iran was going to have a democratic revolution. It’s no coincidence that this was 30 years after the Iranian revolution. These revolutions have echoes. There is oscillation. 1815, the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, which was a side effect of the French revolution, led in turn to 1848, the year of revolutions all across Europe. We’ve seen events like it in 1919, and in the Arab Spring, and the collapse of the Communist bloc, but we tend to forget it.”

Read the complete interview in the September 2016 issue of Locus Magazine. Interview design and author photo by Francesca Myman.