Vector Review

The Critical Journal of the British Science Fiction Association

Charles Stross — The Atrocity Archives
Golden Gryphon, Urbana, 2004, 273 pp., $24.95, h/b,
ISBN 1930-846-258

Here's a pub quiz question: What was Charles Stross' first published novel? Anyone answering Singularity Sky is wrong; in fact it was a mad, cross-genre romp of a story that combined Office Space-style bureaucracy, Lovecraftian horrors, 21st-century geekdom and the style and plot mechanics of a Len Deighton-esque spy thriller. It was serialised in the pages of Spectrum SF in late 2001 and early 2002; it was called The Atrocity Archive; and it was an awful lot of fun. Now Golden Gryphon have brought out a cunningly pluralised book, The Atrocity Archives, that contains not only the original novel but several tempting extras as well.

To deal with the original first, however: Bob Howard works for The Laundry, an extremely secret branch of British Intelligence that's in the front line of the war against nameless terrors. It's been around since the aftermath of World War Two, when Alan Turing's work on "Phase Conjugate Grammars for Extradimensional Summoning" proved the link between mathematics and the occult once and for all. Suddenly certain computations became high-risk propositions — or as Bob puts it: "The many-angled ones, as they say, live at the bottom of the Mandelbrot set, except when a suitable incantation in the platonic realm of mathematics — computerised or otherwise — draws them forth." (p16)

Not that Bob sees much action himself. No, he's mostly your average tech-support dude, trapped in the lower levels of a civil service culture straight out of Dilbert's nightmares, and cohabiting with a couple of equally geeky Laundrymen by the names of Pinky and Brain. That he gets upgraded to field duty is mostly the result of some quick thinking on a training course that goes a little ka-ka, at which point before you can say "Nyarlathotep" he's embroiled in a sticky situation involving a beautiful professor and the extra-dimensional remains of the Third Reich.

How far you consider Stross' crosswiring of magic and monsters a work of insane genius — instead of, say, merely insane — will probably depend on your geek quotient. If, for instance, you find exchanges such as "Am I making myself clear?" "Yes, for very bureaucratic values of clear" (p14) entertaining; or if you've ever used Inappropriate Capitalisation to make a point; or if you grin when you see over-elaborately euphemistic but very particular descriptions such as "An indeterminate but nonzero number of semifull vodka glasses later . . ." (p32) — well, then you've probably already got a sense of the idiom Stross is working in here.

Personally, I love it, from the cynical, dry tone of the narration to the esoteric references to hacker lore. I know I must be missing some of the jokes — I'm just not the right kind of geek to get them all — but there are still enough hits to make this a hugely enjoyable read.

So as far as I'm concerned, a hardcover edition of The Atrocity Archive was always going to be a must-buy; that it comes with the aforementioned extras is merely the icing on the cake. The book opens with a typically insightful introduction from Ken MacLeod, and closes with an essay from Stross that looks at the different inspirations for the novel's backstory and development. Best of all, though, is a follow-up novella that confronts the Laundry with a thoroughly 21st-century menace.

"The Concrete Jungle" is set a short while after The Atrocity Archive. Bob's job would now best be described as something like 30% tech support, 70% spook, which means that — lucky him! — he's the guy who gets called out when the higher-ups want someone to count the number of concrete cows in Milton Keynes at four in the morning. This initial investigation is interspersed with a number of classified files from The Laundry's archives that describe the progress, over the course of the 20th century, of increasingly classified research into gorgonism. Here, that means a sort of quantum-mechanical medical condition in which sufferers gain the ability to turn a certain percentage of carbon atoms in anything they look at into highly charged silicon ions . . . a process which, if the recipient of the gaze is alive, is usually terminal. How exactly this becomes a national security issue is a very neat twist that I don't want to spoil; but suffice to say that it involves other common Strossian concerns, notably the impact of networks and of non-open software standards. It all adds up to a novella that is at least as much fun as, and arguably more thought-provoking than, the earlier story.

Combined with Golden Gryphon's typically high production standards (good paper quality, binding, and cover art), this is an extremely classy package — and a welcome reminder that whilst Stross may currently be best known for his information-dense space opera, it's far from the only string to his bow.

— Niall Harrison, Vector #238, November/December 2004


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