Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross

The Atrocity ArchivesDo you enjoy spy novels a la Len Deighton?  What about eldritch Lovecraftian horror?  James Bond thrillers, you say?  Well now, you can have all three, plus plenty of Pythonesque satire, in one easy-to-read volume!  But wait, there's more - real historical events, with strange, alternate explanations, and multidimensional mathematics, combined with advanced computational demonology, all at no additional cost!

Welcome to the freaky, fantabulous world of Charles Stross.  Welcome to The Laundry.  Meet new hire Bob Howard - just an ordinary cubicle mole, with an unusual gift for some rather arcane applications of higher mathematics.  After very nearly laying waste to a considerable section of Central London, Bob has been recruited into England's most secret service, The Laundry. 

This wheezy, decrepit organization is composed of equal parts Victorian stuffiness, Cold War Paranoia, and Thatcher-Era bureaucracy, and its mission is combating the forces of Evil.  Not communists, or terrorists, but real, genuine Evil - demons, gorgons, succubi, and especially the many-tentacled Elder Gods who wait on the other side of existence, desperate to reclaim their dominion over the Earth and its unknowing inhabitants.

The job is not without its perks;  Bob has flexible hours and a company PDA that can cast highly destructive spells.  But he also has to endure vicious competition, nasty superiors, and a rigidly restrictive expense account.  (Failure to account properly for all expenses can result in a trip to the Auditors - and very limited future employment as a zombie.)

Bob's latest mission is to investigate an American physics professor, who has stumbled onto a method to open a gate to the other side - a very large gate.  Before he can say "Yog-Sothoth", Bob is up to his neck in Middle East intrigue, old Nazi incantology, and the possibility of an extradimensional ice giant sucking all the energy out of the known universe.  Plus a little bit of adventurous romance.

Stross's writing is brilliantly funny, combining lots of esoteric (and somehow plausible) information, with fast-paced action, Bondian gadgets, and an all-too-believable hero, who spends most of his time completely over his head.  What makes the trip especially fun is the internal consistency of Howard's world - a secret history of 20th Century politics, war and magical intervention - and the combination of grotesque supernatural horror with the banality of ordinary Government employment.
Stross followed this book with an equally enjoyable sequel, an expansive pastiche of Ian Fleming's James Bond called The Jennifer Morgue, as well as a couple of shorter Bob Howard stories.  All are clever, funny, knowledgeable, and well-integrated stories, and entirely outside the author's usual realm of hard science fiction.  I'm hoping for another tale of The Laundry (hopefully novel-length) very, very soon.  Preferably before the end of the world.

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