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).