Thursday, August 1, 2019

The Atrocity Archives

The Atrocity Archives
by Charles Stross
Recommended Ages: 13+

Originally serialized in a science fiction magazine, this mash-up of sci-fi, horror and spy thriller is the first book in a series called "The Laundry Files." It's worth noting that the author dedicated it to Neal Stephenson, Len Deighton and H.P. Lovecraft, and that it comes with a foreword (by another author) and an afterword by Stross explaining the book's place in literary history. However, with allowances for some references perhaps being over one's head, the novel (together with the accompanying Hugo Award winning novella The Concrete Jungle) speaks for itself. It's a novel novel, exploring the comic, cosmic and creepy possibilities of a world slightly off from ours, in which certain mathematical operations and computer subroutines are loaded with magical potential to open our universe to invasion by horrid things that live beyond the outer darkness.

Call them what you will – demons, aliens, Elder Gods, whatever – you don't want them possessing you or your friends, or sucking all the energy out of the world, or turning live cows into concrete ones. Various countries have their own lines of defense (or defence) against this kind of thing. In the U.K.'s case, it's a covert holdout of the World War II-era SOE that employs agents like Bob Howard – a dorky version of James Bond, who spends 40 percent of his time fixing his co-workers' computers, 50 percent attending mind-numbing meetings and punitively boring training seminars, and the other 10 percent looking existential horrors in the eye.

In his novel-sized debut, for example, Bob travels to California for his first stab at being a field operative. It's supposed to be a simple matter of asking a British scientist why she can't seem to leave the U.S. Before he closes the case, however, he must stop a group of Iraqi occultists from sacrificing the attractive boffin to open a rift in spacetime and whistling up a threat to all humanity. In spite of being an average guy (apart from his weapons rating with Hands of Glory and basilisk guns), everything finally depends on Bob surviving a trip to a version of earth where the atmosphere is gone, the heat death of the universe is almost complete, and an atom bomb is about to go off.

In The Concrete Jungle, Bob follows up his first success with an investigation of a phenomenon concealed by so many code names and levels of classification that at one point he is forced to put a tongue-twisting geas on his police liaison. To try to put it as simply as possible, somebody has highjacked the nation's closed-circuit TV cameras with a software app developed for the day brain-eating creatures arrive from outer space. All the app does is turn whatever the camera is looking at into stone – or rather, it turns part of it into stone, and cooks the rest of it at a temperature akin to the surface of the sun. Following this kind of clue trail is dangerous when Big Brother is watching everything you do, but that's why Bob Howard makes – well, whatever number of bucks a civil service IT guy usually makes. And also, if he goes outside his budget or forgets to file a flex-time request, there will literally be hell to pay.

These stories work on a lot of levels. On their own terms, they are funny, sexy, scary and packed with intrigue. On the level of getting what makes the reader tick and messing with that, it exploits all the insecurities of today's middle-of-the-crowd urban office drudge. Like the one about being paid next to nothing while the world is expected of you. Like the one that tempts you, if you dare, to post on your cubicle wall the cartoon captioned, "The meetings will continue until productivity improves." Like the sense that at some higher echelon of society, the true nature of reality is known but that knowledge is being withheld from you – perhaps for your own good. Like the all too experience-based suspicion that whoever thinks they are doing us favors by pulling our puppet-strings from behind the scenes, doesn't actually know or even necessarily care what is best for us.

If they fumble it and things get out of control, who will save our bacon? Maybe it would be comforting to think that somebody like Bob Howard will be there, to pop his head out of an obscure cubicle and save the world. Maybe the opportunity to laugh, a bit anxiously, at that concept is just the medicine we need.

Other Laundry Files titles include the novels The Jennifer Morgue, The Fuller Memorandum, The Apocalypse Codex, The Rhesus Chart, The Annihilation Score, The Nightmare Stacks, The Delirium Brief and The Labyrinth Index, plus such novellas or short stories as Pimpf, Overtime, Down on the Farm and Equoid. Stross, who lives in Scotland and has work experience as a pharmacist and a software designer, is also the three-time Hugo-winning author of the Singularity Sky trilogy, the Merchant Princes sextet, three Halting State books, two Freyaverse books, three Empire Games books (counting Invisible Sun, due for release in March 2020), Ghost Engine, Glasshouse, Missile Gap, Scratch Monkey, The Rapture of the Nerds (with Cory Doctorow), and more.

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