The Annihilation Score, is, unfortunately, a somewhat unsatisfying entry in the brave new world of the Laundry series.
Score is the first novel not told from the perspective of Bob Howard, Laundry IT geek turned seasoned-despite-himself field operative. Instead, it focuses on Mo, a fellow Laundry wetworks specialist and Bob’s wife. Mo is a seasoned veteran in her own right – she wields a powerful occult weapon, a violin shaped out of human bones and powered by their agony, recovered by the British in World War II, with a mind and malignance of its own.
In previous books, her own adventures were somewhat of a side-show to Bob’s own crises-of-the-week, but the stuff she got up to was just as, if not grimmer than, Bob’s. And their decade-long marriage is on the rocks because of the pressures of maintaining a life of normalcy while being the carriers of vast and horrific thaumaturgic prowess. Oh, and their respective occult powers are possibly lethal to each other, causing them to have to live apart.
The issue with Score is that it’s just not as fun to read as the other Laundry books. It has a psychologically grim outlook – depicting Mo entering the throes of a work-induced nervous breakdown, beginning an affair behind Bob’s back, and trying her best to tamp down on the new emerging threat of the book – i.e. people developing superpowers as the walls of reality thin and CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN approaches.
The way Stross writes Mo isn’t the way he writes Bob – to his credit, he’s self-aware enough to try to give Mo a unique voice, while acknowledging that the years of cohabitation with Bob have given her the propensity to acknowledge some of his verbal tics when employing them for effect. But Mo, despite everything, comes off as not the most likeable of characters. It’s an uncomfortable admission to make because it invites the idea that strong female characters that exhibit dominant traits are given short shrift by readers who expect more conformity to gender stereotypes.
But Mo gets up to stuff like going on dates with superpowered police officers, and comparing Bob unfavorably to them in some departments, and after you’ve been in Bob’s headspace for a while, it can seem disquieting and uncomfortable. Should we judge Mo poorly for indulging in marital indiscretions? Or should we be sympathetic and buy her (seemingly self-serving) narrative for her actions?
But Mo’s characterisation isn’t actually why I felt dissatisfied with Score. Score is not just a less fun book due to its narrative perspective, it its premise – superheroes – is also just not in keeping with the strictures of the Laundry universe.
Just as Rhesus Chart was about vampires, Score focuses on superheroes. People are developing magical powers and the cultural lens of the superhero is being applied by the general public to apprehend the phenomenon. But Stross doesn’t really explain the mechanisms of action by which some of these superpowers manifest – superheroes who can defy the physical laws of the incumbent universe, or who grow horns and fur – the established rules of the Laundry universe don’t explain how those kinds of abilities can manifest out of the whole multiverse-premise. Hitherto most of the occult stuff could be explained, but superheroes just don’t really fit, either thematically or logically, in the Laundry universe, at least, not in the way their powers were explicated.
Score is also a lot more about bureaucracy than it is about battling occult horrors. Much of the book deals with Mo working with a team to set up and run a Transhuman Policy Directive, a police unit tasked, ostensibly, with providing a role model for superheroes and clamp down on vigilantes. This is bureaucracy as it is, played straight – without Bob’s usual snark or odd turns of phrase to assert the absurdity of it all.
And the threat – the Big Bad – that Mo faces in Score is far more of an abstraction – her personal demons, her mind-controlling violin that makes her dream of dancing, a cartoonish villain called Dr Freudstein (and the entity that he represents), the vague threat of a superpowered humanity, predatory politicians – adds up to a narrative arc that is at turns unfocused as it is frustratingly meandering.
And when it comes to the denouement and the big narrative revelation, I was left nonplussed at the convolutedness of the villain plot and the relative triviality of its machinations, compared to the world-destroying stakes of previous offerings.
So, Score – a book about superheroes, bureaucracy, and mental breakdown – one that somehow doesn’t quite fit into the Laundryverse.
I give this book: 3 out of 5 prom tickets