Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Reviewing the Archives WARNING SPOILERS!!!

Last month, I stated that I would post a review of The Atrocity Archives Charles Stross, and I shall!

The Atrocity Archives, as I described in my earlier post, can be likened to a "a mash-up of Lovecraft's "mythos", Cold War espionage thrillers, and Office Space". The book's premise is that esoteric mathematical formulae may be used to punch holes in the barriers between different universes, sometimes allowing nasty entities to enter our own:

I could wibble on about Crowley and Dee and mystics down the ages but, basically, most self-styled magicians know shit. The fact of the matter is that most traditional magic doesn't work. In fact, it would all be irrelevant, were it not for the Turing theorem- named after Alan Turing, who you'll have heard of if you know anything about computers.


The theorem is a hack on discrete number theory that simulatneously disproves the Church-Turing hypothesis (Wave if you understood that) and worse, permits NP-complete problems to be converted in to P-complete ones. This has several consequences, starting with screwing over most cryptography algorithms - translation: all your bank account [sic] belong to us -- and ending with the ability to computationally generate a Dho-Nha geometry curve in real time.

This latter item is just slightly less dangerous than allowing nerds with laptops to wave a magic wand and turn them into hydrogen bombs at will. Because, you see, everything you know about the way this universe works is correct- except for the little problem that this isn't the only universe we need to worry about. Information can leak between one universe and another. And in a vanishingly small number of other universes there are things that listen, and talk back...

The Laundry is the fictional (?) governmental agency of the U.K. which deals with such "reality incursions" (much like the Men in Black of UFOlogy, comics, and film). The protagonist, Robert Howard (heh), is a relatively new agent of The Laundry, being conscripted after he "worked out the geometry curve iteration method for invoking Nyarlathotep and nearly wiped out Birmingham by accident." Howard is gifted, but brash, and often insubordinate- chafing under the restrictions of agency bureaucracy, and eager to make the transition to fieldwork. The narrative begins with his initial foray into the field, and paints a distinctly unglamorous image of the work- Howard stands in the rain outside a nondescript corporate park, waiting for an opportunity to enter an office undetected to scrub some data from a desktop computer.

The narrative, after a view of Howard's unconventional home life, then delves into office politics and the minutiae of bureaucracy, as Howard navigates the Byzantine regulations of the civil service, and eventually receives training in the more esoteric aspects of fieldwork, including "certification of weaponry expertise, unconventional, level two". After these blackly humorous sequences, the espionage narrative starts.

Howard's first international assignment involves an attempt to extract a Miskatonic University educated philosophy professor from the U.S., an endeavor which rapidly degenerates ("goes pear-shaped" in Stross' lexicon), leading to a roller-coaster ride of a plot involving Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, Nazi necromancers, tentacled horrors, a visit to the museum of evil of the novel's title, and an eerie incursion through a hole punched between universes to a dying world. Stross ably builds suspense as Howard tries to piece together the reality of the situation into which he is thrown, as the circumstances in which he finds himself quickly degenerate into a nightmare. The novel is, in some sense, a bildungsroman, as the brilliant smartass Howard matures into a careful, loyal agent acting in defense of all that is human and humane.

The Atrocity Archives is chock full of Easter eggy goodness- Stross cites the espionage novels of Len Deighton and the stories of the Old Gent of Providence as influences. The villains of the novel are somewhat reminiscent of the baddies in Illuminatus!. One particular description in the book calls to mind Jack Vance's The Face. The intersection of computing and the occult reminded me of Eco's Foucault's Pendulum and my favorite bit of internet "conspiracy" kookery. The overall theme of the book, supernatural espionage, is similar to that of Tim Powers' Declare (Stross mentions that a friend of his told him not to read the book, because it would have derailed his creative process).

While familiarity with these works would definitely heighten one's enjoyment of the book (the Lovecraft is probably essential groundwork, though), the book stands on its own merits. Stross shares with the late, lamented John Bellairs (one of my favorite authors) a knack for leavening his horror narratives with humor. This particular bit demonstrates Stross' irreverent wit (although the shade of the martyred Alan Turing, victim of bigotry, looms over the entire novel) and skewering of genre conventions:

“Once a year (REDACTED-SPOILER) drags (REDACTED-SPOILER) out to Pride so he can maintain his security clearance.’

‘I see.” She relaxes a little but looks puzzled. “I thought the secret services sacked you for being homosexual?”

“They used to, said it made you a security risk. Which was silly, because it was the practice of firing homosexuals that made them vulnerable to blackmail in the first place. So these days they just insist on openness- the theory is you can only be blackmailed if you’re hiding something. Which is why (REDACTED-SPOILER) gets the day off for Gay Pride to maintain his security clearance.”

The Atrocity Archives is accompanied by an additional novella, The Concrete Jungle, and (perhaps the best part of the book) an afterword, in which Mr. Stross discusses Cold War espionage tales as horror fiction, and Lovecraftian horror tales as espionage fiction (most of HPL's stories involve investigations of one sort or another).


M. Bouffant said...

Stop that. You'll go blind, & become Bx5.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

I can't help it- I gots big clumsy fingers, which tend to hit "return" at times.

Smut Clyde said...

"goes pear-shaped"

Perfectly cromulent English idiom. Interchangeable with "turns to custard" and "goes tits-up".

I have no idea why the Brits have so many synonyms for "fails spectacularly" in their language.

77south said...

I thought that 'goes pear-shaped' was a reference to the way a woman's shape changes as she puts on weight. I apologize if this observation which took me so long to puzzle out was obvious to everyone else.

Mandos said...

I actually just read The Jennifer Morgue in audiobook form and the free short stories online, and am now reading The Fuller Memorandum in print and The Atrocity Archives in audiobook.

They are really truly amazing and as a CS geek I absolutely love these stories and the theory detail in them, as well as the whole concept of the Laundry bureaucracy and the idea that every country has one of these. His take on the American Black Chamber in The Jennifer Morgue is particularly awesome.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I have no idea why the Brits have so many synonyms for "fails spectacularly" in their language.

The real question is why the USA!USA!USA! doesn't have more.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

I'll put up a review of The Jennifer Morgue soon. I prefer paperbacks (I'm a cheapskate and I prefer more compact books), so I can wait for The Fuller Memorandum.

Interchangeable with "turns to custard" and "goes tits-up".

I've heard "goes tits-up".

The real question is why the USA!USA!USA! doesn't have more.

Eight years of Bush!

OBS said...

I had to stop reading your review because the book sounds so good I didn't want to ruin it with the spoiler. Thanks, I'll pick it up. I need something new as I'm just about done with the last book in my Phillip K. Dick marathon.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Check out the free "web book" A Colder War for a preview. If you like that, you'll like The Atrocity Archives. The link is in my earlier post.

Smut Clyde said...

The briefing papers that the narrator reads are so on-the-nail in their style that I half-wonder whether Stross has mates in Cheltenham who gave him some feedback.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Smut, are you an international superspy?

"Waitress, give me a black pudding, sauteed, not fried!"

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

D'oh, yesterday I should have responded to:

Perfectly cromulent English idiom.


Someday, I wish to learn this English language of which you speak.

Mandos said...

A favorite bit of The Concrete Jungle (don't think that it's a spoiler):
"Oh, for crying out loud." Andy rolls his eyes, then says very rapidly. "By the abjuration of Dee and the name of Claude Dansey I hereby exercise subsection D paragraph sixteen clause twelve and bind you to service from now and forevermore. Right, that's it. You're drafted, and may whatever deity you believe in have mercy on your soul."

"Hey. Wait." She takes a step back. "What's going on?" There's a faint stink of burning sulphur in the air.

"You've just talked yourself into the Laundry," I say, shaking my head. "Just try to remember I tried to keep you out of this."

I've been reading The Fuller Memorandum as a hardcover---but from the library. I can't wait for The Apocalypse Codex (?).

If you haven't tried them already, I think you might like Elisabeth Bear's "Jacob's Ladder" trilogy (Dust, Chill, Grail). Nanobot-infested Arthurian neo-feudalists politicking on a broken-down generation starship lost in space.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

If you haven't tried them already, I think you might like Elisabeth Bear's "Jacob's Ladder" trilogy (Dust, Chill, Grail). Nanobot-infested Arthurian neo-feudalists politicking on a broken-down generation starship lost in space.

Wow, that sounds a lot like a Metamorphosis Alpha campaign writeup!

Thanks for the recommendation!