I’m not sure how I missed this.
It’s called The Merchant Princes series, by author Charles Stross. He’s been nominated for the Hugo 12 times and won it twice.
The short story: there are parallel Americas/earths, which differ from our own after historical events went differently there (critical juncture theory, anyone?). In one world, a few people have figured out how to move back and forth and they use the power early on to become crime lords, and basically run America like an impoverished rentier state.
One of the protagonists is a development economist (I kid you not) who wants to industrialize the rentier state.
While this doesn’t sound like a recipe for a pageturner, the first book is pretty good, even if the prose and dialogue are a bit clunky. It was getting old by the second book, but it’s the kind of series I would eat up in a few days if I didn’t have two kids and a backlog of paper drafts. (If you hate most sci fi/fantasy, you will not like this, even if you are a development economist)
Here is Stross on the political economy of his worlds.
And here is a genius Onion article on historical fiction, aptly title: Novelist Has Whole Shitty World Plotted Out“:
According to Milligan, he spent seven months conducting in-depth historical research in order to conjure, as if out of thin air, the fictional and entirely bullshit universe of Connor’s Cove, Massachusetts, including its utterly uninspired lighthouse, the predictably dark underbelly lurking beneath its quaint exterior, and its painfully trite main thoroughfare known as Chance Street.
“As an author, my job is to use my gift for detail to construct a sense of place so real that readers will almost feel as though they can step inside of it and walk around,” said Milligan, who spent weeks mapping out the entire genealogy of the fictional founders of Connor’s Cove, from their completely uninteresting origins all the way to their somehow even more mind-numbingly dull present-day progeny.
Hat tips to Suresh Naidu on the series, Henry Farrell on the Stross article, and Guy Walters for the Onion pointer.