In The Atrocity Archives (reviewed here in June 2006), Stross presumed that mathematics, topology, physics, and computers all had the power to open portals and let the eldritch horrors of Lovecraft, et al., through. Naturally, there are government agencies whose business it is to prevent disaster, either by stopping meddlers (sometimes by recruiting them) or by cleaning up the mess after the meddling. One of their employees is Bob Howard, once a graduate student whose work became meddling, now a computer geek whose usual job at the Laundry was keeping the computers running smoothly until they needed him for something more active.
Since Archives was great fun, I was happy to see The Jennifer Morgue in the mail. It's the sequel, and this time Stross has chosen to send up the greatest of all British spies — James Bond himself. The tale begins with a look back in time, to when the drilling ship Glomar Explorer was trying to raise a Russian submarine but was stopped by the tentacular denizens of the abyss who objected to the intrusion on their territory in defiance of the treaty. Before long, Bob Howard is discovering he has been teamed with the deadly Ramona Random, human-Deep Blue hybrid, and is expected to infiltrate the schemes of Ellis Billington, who operates from a yacht that used to be a battleship and is planning to raise a device belonging to ancient chthonic (magma-dwelling) enemies of the Deep Blue folk. Remember that the Earth has more seabed than dry land, and underlying both is much, much more space for the chthonics. Humans are a footnote. If the other guys just get peeved, we are a smear on the pavement. The Laundry really wants to keep that from happening.
But Billington holds all the cards. He even has a spell generator that creates a Bondian eigenplot (like an eigenvector, an eigenplot is invariant under transformation). There is a villain, a scheme, a Bondian hero, a Good Bond Babe, and a Bad Bond Babe, and the more everyone acts their parts, the stronger the spell grows. The trouble is that Bob is pretty clueless, and everyone seems to be trying very hard to keep him clueless. Is he supposed to be the Bond? He fumbles his way through the obligatory baccarat scene, but it's not long before he's safely locked up. So is Ramona. Or is he one of the Babes? And where's Mo, his girlfriend? Well, she has just exited a Laundry training course and found out what is happening. She's pissed, she has her magic violin, and she's on her way to help.
It gets complicated, but it's all a lot of fun. I highly recommend it, and it doesn't hurt a bit that Stross tosses in a short story, "Pimpf," in which Bob hunts for meddlers in the virtual worlds of computer games, and an essay on "The Golden Age of Spying," in which he links the Bond myth to the Cold War era, in which international espionage was very active and people badly needed a feel-good version of current events and apocalyptic anxieties. Today, he says, espionage uses fewer secret agents and more electrons, and though we dodged Armageddon, SPECTRE actually won.
That makes a good line, but I'm not sure he's right. We certainly have plenty of corrupt captains of industry, but we also seem to be bringing many of them (think of Enron) down.
— Tom Easton, "The Reference Library," Analog
"The Reference Library" copyright © 2007, Tom Easton