The Washington Post Book World Review

Secret Agent 666

Anticipation ran high when Charles Stross's first novel began to be serialized in the pages of the British magazine Spectrum SF in 2001. Stross had already stunned the field with several hyper-inventive short stories of an amped-up, cyberpunkish nature. Surely his first longer work would be more of the same. But Stross was too canny a creator to go for that easy angle. The book turned out to be a bizarre yet effective yoking of the spy and horror genres. Now widely available for the first time as a handsome hardcover, The Atrocity Archives (Golden Gryphon, $24.95) has been supplemented with an original novella — "The Concrete Jungle" — and a perceptive essay in which Stross explains the origins of his hybrid and the natural affinity the two genres have for each other.

Bob Howard is a "darkside hacker" who works for a secret British agency known as the Laundry. Since 1953, when computer theorist Alan Turing cracked the mathematical code leading to other dimensions, the Laundry has been on the front lines guarding against supernatural incursions. Promoted to the dangerous job of field agent, Howard eventually finds himself going through an extra-dimensional portal in Amsterdam to battle entities who consider the Earth a tasty meal. In "The Concrete Jungle," our reluctant spy has to deal with an internal traitor who threatens to turn every CCTV camera in Britain into the equivalent of a petrifying Medusa.

Like his peer Cory Doctorow, Stross has an ironic Generation X sensibility conditioned, in his case, by time spent in the simultaneously thrilling and boring world of information technology. In The Atrocity Archives, Stross's genius lies in devoting fully as much time to the bureaucratic shenanigans of the Laundry as he does to its thaumaturgic mission. What with all the persnickety time-charts and useless meetings Howard has to deal with, it's a wonder the world gets saved at all.

— Paul Di Filippo, The Washington Post Book World, Sunday, July 11, 2004; Page BW10


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