The Apocalypse Codex takes the series to new cultural milieus.
Codex, while a continuation of the Sleeper-in-the-Pyramid plot thread introduced in The Fuller Memorandum, is a different beast. The series takes us to a new battleground – the United States. While previous books in the series have taken place in the relatively secular and cloistered United Kingdom, Codex is able to draw upon a vast cultural fabric of religiosity and mass religion, which a far more prevalent in a place like the continental United States.
The narrative introduces us to two new characters, Persephone Hazard and her companion Johnny McTavish, contractors that work outside the formal bureaucratic remit of the Laundry. Stross has stated that Codex is a deliberate homage to the Modesty Blaise novels by Peter O’Donnell (with Hazard as the Blaise stand-in). The pastiche is lost on me, but the idea of a self-actualised female adventurer of means resonates, having been adopted to varying degrees from Lara Croft to Nancy Drew. Hazard and McTavish are interesting additions to the Laundry world, their presence indicative again of Stross trying to expand the scope of the narrative universe that he is finding himself spending more time in.
Codex, I must confess, embodies a particular form of terror for me – the idea that mass religious movements of the megachurch variety could be fronts for any number of apocalyptic designs. For such religions, their faith and doctrine are memetic viruses, traveling from host to host in ever cascading ripples, exponentiating. Codex is a nightmare vision of that process as physicalised by the use of isopod-like alien mind-destroying parasites cleverly disguised as communion wafers.
And also, of course, the brand of eschatology espoused by millenarian sects gives them an incentive structure to actively bring about their envisioned apocalypse – after all, if you truly believed that the Second Coming would lead to the salvation of man and the formation of a heavenly kingdom, wouldn’t you want to see it hastened, and, doctrine permitting, hasten the process? Dogmas that espouse certain brands of eschatology and proclaim that it is possible for human agency to speed it along are the perfect templates for occultic villains – especially if they think they are doing it for the greater good.
Stross (taking Bob Howard’s point of view) doesn’t have many kind words to say about such sects, and his discomfort with them bleeds through as a kind of allegorical commentary on mass religiosity in reality. I don’t know if it’s necessarily nice to allegorically compare megachurches to an apocalyptic cult with woman abductees forced to become baby-making machines in a twisted extreme of quiverfull philosophy, or the use of mind-controlling isopods to make faith-zombies, but it’s certainly a wonderful recipe for occult horror.
The series also gives us a bit more on the American occultic spy agency, the Black Chamber. These delightfully horrific fellows were introduced in Jennifer Morgue as an agency only barely less evil (in tactics) than the forces they were arrayed against, and given that the crisis in Codex is one that impacts American national security, they are seen operating in fuller force in all their ethics-free, sociopathic glee. Portraying the American occult agency as a bunch of psychopaths has some contemporary sociopolitical heft – American intelligence agencies, both internal and external, are not the most trusted of institutions in the American experience, what with their wiretapping, their MKUltra mind control programs, and their hidden flying saucers in Area 51. The Black Chamber is just a parody of those tropes in occult form.
All in all, a good addition to the ever-expanding Laundry universe.
I give this book: 4/5 telepathic fake tattoo stickers