Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Strossful Week

I finally got around to reading Charles Stross' The Atrocity Archives, and I am kicking myself for not having read the book earlier. The book, the first in Stross' "Laundry" series, is an unholy mash-up of the spy thriller, Lovecraftian horror, and computer programming culture... a combination that could have been awful in the hands of a self-important author. Stross' obvious love of his inspirational source material is tempered by a wicked sense of humor- the book is an affectionate piss-take on the spy and horror genres.

The protagonist of the short-novel The Atrocity Archives is Robert Howard (yeah, this is a precedent setter), an IT professional for an absurdly bureaucratic branch of the English Secret Service that deals with occult threats. In the milieu that Stross creates, certain esoteric mathematical formulae can breach the walls between universes and allow "Eldritch Horrors from Beyond" into our world. Having been pressed into service after being nabbed for a potentially earth-shattering prank, Howard is now a cog in the Civil Service. The novel begins with Howard's first foray into fieldwork. After a lengthy introduction to Stross' setting, the narrative picks up speed and becomes a roller-coaster of a plot involving Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, a beautiful philosopher who knows too much, Nazi revenants, and even worse horrors. There are moments of horror- a trip to the eponymous archives to determine the nature of the threat facing the protagonist is a gruesome riff on the "Nazi Occultism" meme. Stross serves up some startling plot twists, as hunters and hunted switch roles. Throughout, there are funny allusions to other works of fiction, cartoons, and hacker culture, and a prevailing theme of the ridiculousness of office culture- the "paper clip audit" is dreaded as much as the "Soul Sucking Horrors".

The climax of the novel involves a military expedition through an interdimensional gate to a starkly hostile parallel universe- the whole makes me wish I had been sitting at the table while Charles Stross was behind the screen, rolling dice by the handful.

The book also includes a shorter coda, a novella involving another threat to the peace and sanity of the good people of Earth. While not the tour de force of The Atrocity Archives (who can top Nazi necromancers, and the things that make them look like a bunch of naughty schoolboys?), The Concrete Jungle is a tight thriller which deals with intra-agency conflict, and its unforeseen consequences.

The afterword to The Atrocity Archives is just as good as the two "stories" in the book. Stross comments on the Cold War horror fiction of Len Deighton and the early-20th Century espionage thrillers of H.P. Lovecraft (you read that right). He also goes on to note the similarity of his concept (although the execution is radically different) to that of Tim Powers' Declare (he was told not to read it until he'd finished, or his creative process would have been derailed) and to the CoC supplement Delta Green (which he claims has tempted him to pick up the dice again).

How good is this novel? It was good enough that I hot-footed it over to the local bookstore to pick up the sequel, The Jennifer Morgue, which gleefully skewers the conventions of the James Bond novels and movies. It's another delightful read, and the recognition of the tropes being skewered is a great deal of fun. For a nice introduction to Stross' Lovecraftian espionage tales, I'd recommend A Colder War, which is not really connected to his "Laundry" series, but has similar thematic elements.

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