Locus Magazine

Review of "The Atrocity Archive"



The Atrocity Archive, Charles Stross (serialized in Spectrum SF, November 2001–November 2002)

While [China] Miéville works miracles for British fantasy, Charles Stross does the same for British Hard SF. There is something of a convergence between the two: Miéville's steampunk world of ironclad dreadnoughts and systematized magic is wll inside the realm of science fantasy, and Stross's first published novel, The Atrocity Archive, expertly marries higher mathematics with the Cthulhu Mythos, in effect propelling itself into the same hybrid subgenre. This is cross-pollination at its most fecund; Stross's trademark hyperkinetic data-overload functions especially well with Lovecraftian monstrosities present to add menace to the geeks' gabfest. Solve an esoteric theorem, and Shub-Niggurath may pay you a call: this is the premise of The Atrocity Archive. HPL's brooding pantheon actually exists, in dimensions causally remote from ours yet accessible with the right invocation-cum-equation; and the secret history of the Twentieth Century has been that of the great powers' intelligence agencies dabbling in lethal magic, to the extent that contemporary reality is a lot flimsier than we assume. . . . Building on "A Colder War," his superb short story of a few years ago, Stross has written a supernatural thriller of extraordinary conceptual magnetism, in the same league as Tim Powers's not dissimilar Declare.

The Atrocity Archive is in some ways an entirely conventional spy yarn. The protagonist, Bob Howard (connections with Lovecraft's colleague, the creator of Conan, not necessarily coincidental), is a familiar figure: uneasily employed by a British government agency so secret that it makes MI6 seem an open book, error-prone but always ultimately competent, insubordinate, wisecracking, prone to inspired improvisation of a kind to alarm bureaucratic superiors: this much is stock. So is Howard's breezy present-tense narration, packed with jokes of his trade and irreverent asides. So, for that matter, is his slowly budding romance with Mo, a beautiful lady scientist in distress; and the usual suspects of the espionage genre, renascent Nazis and thralls of Saddam Hussein, are amply in evidence. But such generic elements are earmarked by Stross for intensive enrichment: Fleming's gadgeteers and Le Carré's world-weary Cold War veterans, fondly parodied in The Atrocity Archive, never faced challenges remotely this searching. A single technical misstep and creatures from another plane may possess you; a morbid relic such as a Hand of Glory can function as a deadly weapon; Stross's Nazis are no mere ODESSA holdovers, but SS fanatics whose notion of winning World War Two made Fimbulwinter an actuality. Add further unspeakable horrors — a chilling reinterpretation of the import of the Holocaust, the triumph of nerdish mathematical expertise over the traditional manly sleights of the spy game — and a virtuoso exercise in pop lit revisionism is complete. Spec fic possesses and reinvigorates spy fic. Truly exhilarating.

The climactic scenes of The Atrocity Archive — battles in the snow beneath a galaxy of dying red suns — form one of the most compelling and intellectually engaging narrative sequences in the SF canon, the logics of demonology and physics in astonishing tandem. Sequels are possible; they surely must come; but for the time being, the priority should simply be to see The Atrocity Archive published in proper book form after the limited availability of its serialization in Spectrum SF.

— Nick Gevers, Locus, August 2002



 

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