The Atrocity Archives
By Charles Stross
Published by Golden Gryphon (2004) / Ace Books 2006 (US)
Published by Orbit July 2007 (UK)
ISBN: 1841495697 and 978-1841495699
Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit
OK, we’re a little late on this one in the UK. Following on from (and possibly connected to) the recent success of Accelerando and Glasshouse, Charlie’s unique blend of genres that is The Atrocity Archives finally appears here after being available in the US for a couple of years or more. (And to add to that, the sequel, The Jennifer Morgue, is already out in the US and out later in the UK later this year.)
So, we’ve waited long enough: without further delay, to business. The book introduces the character of Bob Howard, secret undercover agent for a more-secret-than-secret black ops section of the UK government called The Laundry. Their job, and so therefore by default is Bob’s, is to covertly defend the real world from the forces of darkness and evil that are forever attempting to breakthrough to our world and cause global devastation and the death of all Mankind.
Fun, then? Well, no, not always. For those with thoughts of Bob telling the reader of exciting secret ‘jobs’, fast moving cars and faster women, it might be wise to stop there. In reality (if that was possible here), Bob’s life is a bizarre mixture of terror, geekness and administrational drudgery. More Harry Palmer than James Bond, Bob’s life typically involves filling forms out in triplicate, management meetings, attending seminars on how to attract or deflect demons and other such menial tasks. Not quite what he expected. Often at odds with the hierarchical management, Bob finds himself in trouble when he kills a possessed co-worker (and coincidentally saves six other coworkers.) Suspended with full pay whilst the enquiry takes place, and sent on a training course, Bob eventually becomes trained to active status when he manages to uncover connections between Saddam Hussein, the US and UK Governments and remnants of The Third Reich. With Professor ‘Mo’ (Dominique) O’Brien, Bob visits the Atrocity Archives in Amsterdam to discover things best left in the book. Suffice it to say that there is a Lovecraftian link.
It is a book of two halves though (connivingly sandwiched between an introduction by Ken MacLeod and an nicely complicated afterword by Stross himself). In the second part of the book we get the Hugo Award winning story, The Concrete Jungle. Set about a year after Bob’s visit to the Atrocity Archives, it involves camera surveillance, gorgons and concrete cows in Milton Keynes (which have to be read really to be understood.)
Charlie seems to be creating himself a niche for alternate histories (see also Missile Gap, 2006) and this one works as well as, if not better, than most. Like Len Deighton before him, Charlie has captured the mundanity of espionage office work but updated it by using his background in computer science to give his story that essential element of ‘it-could-be’.
What makes this book particularly workable is that a lot of the technobabble here is grounded in seemingly possible science. The reason for all this magic otherworldlyness is plain basic matter-of-fact mathematics. In fact, according to Stross, the reason for the Laundry is partly to cover up the fact that an understanding of the Turing-Lovecraft Theorem can lead you where you don’t really want to go. It may be paranoiac pseudoscience but stylistically it works. Charlie throws around names such as Turing, Teller, Linde, Mandelbrot, Planck and Hilbert (yes, I had to check some of them up!) with as much confidence as a copy of New Scientist, and manages to make their use here convincing.
Around the mathematical boggle is a weird world of the strange that is disarmingly engaging. Charlie grounds the story in references to the real world to make it convincing. Bob is surrounded by uber-intelligent Heath Robinsons determined to save the world, and whom on their work Bob’s soul depends. When they’re not stopping the demons they’re making inventions from stereo speakers and microwaves or pushing scientific boundaries. For example, there’s a scene where a character who lives in Bob’s house tries to create an omelette without breaking eggs, just for the fun of it.
To counterbalance the humour (always important, comedians will tell you) there are some genuinely awful moments of horror: creatures of the dark, demonic possession, instruments of torture. What is perhaps most scary is that some of the things that repulse most are explained here in such a natural way that they could be true. If only some of the things Charlie mentions as examples of man’s inhumanity to man are vaguely true, then the meaning of the term atrocity can be found here.
On a lighter note, the book is also full of that characteristic ‘stuff’ that the well informed genre fan will be delighted by. There’s lots of little genre touches that keep the aficionado interested: the nondescript house Bob lives in is called Chateau Cthulhu, there’s the appearance of a little known village called Dunwich (guarded by the Department’s friends from the deep), not to mention objects and sites such as the Necronomicon and good old Miskatonic University thrown around with convincing matter-of-factness.
In summary, Charlie manages in this book to amalgamate genre and ‘real’ references so fast and so quickly that you may not initially get them all, suffused these references with a startling degree of pseudoscience panache and simultaneously gives a tone of writing for fun here. This is a welcome addition to Stross’ back catalogue and an easy place to start, should you have ever been wanting to know what the fuss was about but been too timorous to try more recent books. Not as complex as Accelerando and Glasshouse, nevertheless it’s great entertainment, if somewhat grim in places, and deserves a read from those willing to take the ride.
Mark Yon / Hobbit, July 2007
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