Locus Magazine Review

The Jennifer Morgue, Charles Stross (Golden Gryphon 1-930-84645-2, $25.95, 340pp, hc) November 2006. Cover by Steve Montiglio.

Charles Stross is a versatile writer, working in at least three major idioms: ambitious, densely phrased hard SF concerning the Vingean Singu­larity and its consequences (Singularity Sky, Accelerando, Glasshouse), alternate history SF garbed as Zelaznyesque fantasy (the Merchant Princes novels), and Lovecraftian horror laced with Cold War and contemporary high-tech espionage ("A Colder War," The Atrocity Archives). He handles all three very ably, but for my money he is at his best when indulging that third bracket, where Arkham meets MI6. The resulting combination of chilling Cthul­hoid monstrosities, Kafka-inspired spy agency bureaucracy, and flippant hacker humor is ir­resistible, Lovecraft's Mythos filtered through rambunctious gonzo language and plotting that is edge-of-the-seat and slapstick-intensive all at once; such work may indeed be (as one of my Locus colleagues has remarked) "brilliant fluff," but most emphasis belongs on the brilliance. So don't look for especial profundity in The Jen­nifer Morgue, the new sequel to The Atrocity Archives, but do expect to be entertained, ex­tremely, brilliantly.

The Bob Howard series, as these tales are known, supposes that a certain Alan Turing hypothesis proved true, and that as a corol­lary "gibbering, brain-eating" entities from other dimensions can be invoked and repelled by means of mathematical magic, although at acute danger to the adept's life and sanity. After both sides tried to exploit this knowledge in World War Two, the techniques involved became the preserve of the world's secret services, kept from the public and informing the course of the Cold War; with the USSR gone, the covert operations continue, with a differing focus: dealing with a scenario known as Nightmare Green, a time in the near future when all supernatural hell will break loose upon the Earth. And even ignoring that apocalyptic eventuality, other dire Cases require resolution. One such is code-named Azorion Blue Hades, and Bob Howard — wise-cracking, whining, lateral-thinking operative of "The Laundry," the British occult intelligence branch — has already been assigned to the task, without his knowledge, as The Jennifer Morgue begins. Bob is the perfect narrator for most of what follows, lending a fine edge of farce to even the most ghoulish circumstance; his opening description of his journey to an inter-services liaison meeting in Germany, driving in a tiny budget car assigned him by stingy superiors along an autobahn filled with huge fast vehicles, is hilarious, and the meeting itself is a triumph of black humor, demonic possession converting the other participants into zombies but Bob's wry competence saving the day — somewhat. Bob is aware that something very big and perilous is presenting itself, and he realizes soon enough that his boss at The Laundry, the skeletal, quasi-immortal Angleton, is making him the point man in the crisis; that crisis, to Bob's huge dismay, has two larger dimensions, which Stross lays on with gleeful mastery.

First there is the fact that, in Lovecraft's universe, not all the weird cyclopean aliens languish elsewhere in the multiverse; some are present on Earth, in the deeps of the sea and the ground itself. As Angleton explains, humans are fragile competitors to these ancient species, existing on sufferance and bound by treaty not to interfere in the oceanic abysses; unfortunately, a mad software billionaire named Ellis Billington intends to violate the agreements, fetching a derelict extraterrestrial tunneling craft and its slumbering pilot from the bottom of the Caribbean, riling at least one bunch of chthonic dwell­ers in the process, perhaps two. Humankind's survival is at stake. Second, the narrative of Bob's mission seems governed by a tropism towards the James Bond formula contrived by Ian Fleming; it is as if the compulsively informal Bob, never in possession of a stiff upper lip or sure gun hand, can only succeed in thwarting Billington if he behaves like Bond, looks like Bond, solves problems like Bond. The events in Germany were like the introductory sequence of a Bond movie; Bob finds himself partnered with a beautiful American blonde, headed for a Caribbean island resort where casinos and other Bondian attractions beckon, lured into precari­ous situations by the stock figures of the insane tycoon, tycoon's brutal sidekick, and femme fatale assassin ("Johanna Todt"), and working in uneasy co-operation with American agents (not from the CIA, admittedly — no Felix Leiter here — but instead from the far more ominous "Black Chamber"). So although Bob despises Bond as a homicidal upper class twit with little sense and conscience, he must play the part assigned (or apparently assigned) him. Billington has magically rigged the contest that way, and Stross, who parodied Len Deighton in The Atrocity Archives, now has the opportunity to haul Fleming's escapist yarns over the coals. He does so with ebullience.

Thus, Lovecraft is subverted by Fleming and Fleming by Lovecraft; the over-earnest nightmares of the one become encrusted with the swaggering lubricities of the other, in a pop-lit send-up of unique ingenuity and force. As Bil­lington strives to emulate Ernst Stavro Blofeld, complete with luxury yacht, hordes of black-bereted hoodlums, and scheme for world conquest, Bob and the blonde, Ramona Random (they are psychically linked), duly fall into his hands, receive gloating lectures from Billington, and, given unlikely freedom of movement aboard the yacht (so like Bond!) undertake to sabotage his plan. Of course, Angleton is modifying the nar­rative from without, deploying to that end Mo, Bob's girlfriend from back home in England, who plays a violin straight out of Lovecraft's "The Music of Erich Zann" . . . nothing can be as it appears, not even Fleming's inflexible archetypes of masculine wish-fulfillment. The revisionist climax is superbly choreographed, parody blurring into seriousness at just the right moments, and the customary Bondian closing segment, a last gasp by the villains, achieves surprising psychological depth.

The Jennifer Morgue is Stross's most en­tertaining novel to date, and a metafiction of distinction. The Golden Gryphon edition also includes an exceptionally interesting Afterword exploring some of the concepts in the novel (the "interview" with Ernst Stavro Blofeld is clas­sic), and the Bob Howard novelette "Pimpf," which first appeared earlier this year in Baen's Universe. That story isn't bad, but not the equal of the volume's astonishing main attraction.

— Nick Gevers, Locus, November 2006


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