Recent circumstances (which I won’t go into) have given me an excuse to catch up on my massive backlog of unread books, and I decided to use this time to embark on a massive re-read of Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series as a lead-up to the upcoming Delirium Brief.
The Laundry Files series scratches one of my sff itches – the kind of “magic as sufficiently advanced technology” explication that enables the fusion of science fiction and fantasy into a thematically and logically consistent whole. It also scratches another itch – Lovecraftian horror as transplanted into the era of the modern intelligence agency, SAS teams, and the security state. What happens when tentacled alien gods from beyond spacetime become a DEFCON-raising security threat to be apprehended by occult tools and a vast government bureaucracy? Combine all those elements together, plus a dash of farcical humor at the expense of staid bureaucracy and fast-paced, reference-laden, information-dense prose and you get The Laundry Files series.
The Atrocity Archives is the debut novel in this series. It’s, by Stross’ admission, heavily inspired by the style of Len Deighton, a Cold War-era spy thriller writer who writes books that feature the venality and bureaucratic nature of the spy agency – the spook as civil servant (and saddled with the concomitant paperwork that comes with that label). It introduces the Laundry, a super-secret spy agency sworn to combat occult threats on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government – but as a bureaucratic agency, it has to contend with budget cuts, paperclip audits and endless paperwork. It’s a juxtaposition that produces considerable comic frisson and is the basis for much of the surreal humor that undergirds much of the book and the series.
Our put-upon first person protagonist is Bob Howard, resident IT geek, tech support, and aspiring field operative, who only got the job because he developed a computational algorithm that almost summoned powerful occult entities to level the city of Birmingham and had therefore had to be co-opted into the Agency to secure his silence and services. The conceit of the series: Bob has to contend with manifold tentacular horrors, but also with the equally soul-sucking tedium of bureaucracy and office politics.
Stross seems to have each book in the series focus on a particular element of the occult as popularly understood – in Atrocity Archives, it’s Lovecraftian apocalyptia as understood through cosmology and the multiverse, coupled with occult Nazis who try to wield the entities of the vasty deep as weapons to win the Second World War.
Lest one thinks that the book is nothing more than a light-hearted send-up of the thematic conceit, Atrocity Archives is capable of plumbing the depths of horror, of exposing the reader to a real sense of existential dread at the death of entire universes. Stross, even this early on in his career, is capable of producing that bleak sense of overpowering terror as well or perhaps even better than Lovecraft could. And the fact that he mediates that terror through the use of officious sounding technobabble and bureaucratese, to imply a systematized government apparatus to deal with occult threats, gives that Lovecraftian dread a sense of verisimilitude.
Certainly the characters can seem to be Strossian mouthpieces, and there might be Mary-Sue elements to Bob’s personality (as self-described, which Stross, in later books, attributes to the unreliable narrator effect), and the prose might be bursting at the seams with cute-smartass references that showcase Bob’s – and Stross’ – tech and culture savvy, but the novel is a heady mixture of laughs and chills, brimming with ideas and intelligence even if a little overbearing and geek-pandering.
The Atrocity Archives is Stross at his early-career best, and is a great start to the Laundry Files series, and the following books will see the conceits of this book expand into an ever-more-compelling alternate universe.
I give this book 4/5 Nazi torture instruments