scifi blog — The Laundry Files

The Atrocity Archive, The Jennifer Morgue, The Fuller Memorandum & The Apocalypse Codex
Charles Stross

Charlie Stross’s four Laundry novels are a cross between spy thriller, horror thriller, computer thriller, with some sci–fi special sauce. They each can stand alone. The lead character, Bob Howard, is a hacker in the proper meaning of the word, to a script–kiddy what a script–kiddy is to his pet cockroach. Howard understands what he’s doing, he’s creative, but he’s not a wizard, he’s an adept. He also came close to levelling Wolverhampton from ignorance before the Laundry recruited him. The Laundry is one of a brethren of British secret agencies, specialising in controlling things from other universes that want to come and eat us.

You see, the Laundry series is a homage to HP Lovecraft that seems to have run out of control. You do not need to have read Lovecraft to enjoy the novels, but you won’t get all the references. Indeed, the first book in the series, the Atrocity Archives, has a massive plot hole that Stross could not have created by mistake. SPOILER ALERT: skip to the next paragraph if you’ve not read the book. A monster is full … oi, I meant that Spoiler Alert! Move on if you’ve not read the book. Ok? Anyway … a monster is full from having eaten all the energy in a universe, yet it needs the energy from one of our H–Bombs to be able to be nasty to us. It’s rather like saying all the energy in the sun is nothing compared to that of a burp. It’s such a big hole that I’m pretty convinced it’s a reference to Lovecraft. But I’ve not read Herbert’s books, mostly because I tried & found them unreadable, so I don’t know. Still, when reading sci–fi, you often have to let something sneak past you otherwise you don’t get to enjoy the book. Mind you, I wasn’t expecting a cross between a fart and a hurricane.

The second book, the Jennifer Morgue, adapts the Fleming genre. The next two return to Lovecraft, I think. The pastiche style is rather fun, and adds to the pleasure of reading the books. Stross makes his characters human, not superhuman: they fuck up, they win by luck (but they survive; it is a novel), they grow, they need time to recover from witnessing and taking part in horrible events. So he doesn’t quite follow the pastiche, which strengthens the novels.

I want to discuss the setting, but this requires me to get out of the water to stand on the high board. An essential element of much science fiction are aliens. Most aliens are dull, boring and pretty badly done, something lazy like the nasty man next door but with an extra nostril. Some are very well done, such as Vernor Vinge’s aliens in The Deepness In The Sky. The real problem is that so much sci–fi presumes alien civilisations are at a similar level to our own. The universe is 14 billion years old but all civilisations started in the last 3000 years? Really? Really?! It’s an utter load of bollocks, & many novels have to find an excuse to allow it to happen after all. Most are dismal, such as there was a big powerful race that seeded the galaxy then ran away. Some solutions are clever, such as Vinge and Banks, for example, but they still depend on some kind of super powerful civilisation recycling mechanism that simply kicks the problem upstairs rather than addresses it.

There are two main types of novels that avoid the problem. The first describes the universe that I fear is probably accurate, that there are no other technological civilisations out there within range, whatever range is. The second can be called the Lovecraft solution, that, yes they do indeed exist, and that they are so far beyond us that we are incapable of understanding them, or even recognising them. We are cockroaches in their kitchen. The Lovecraft twist is that they find us tasty. Well, it is horror! Stross uses the world of computer geeks and other contemporary audiences with pockets to bring it into the 21st century. And it works.

The science fiction in the series is like science fiction in many supposedly science fiction works: all fiction and no science. Having said that, at least Stross makes the effort. Perhaps it’s me, but I don’t for one moment believe the basic premise that information is more than organisation. But it does serve to hook the modern world to the Lovecraft horror, and bring in that nice audience with money, from Stross’s home planet, IT geekdom.

Horror, of course, is not sci–fi. It serves to play on human fears. We no longer have other animals of the night with the desire and ability to turn us into dinner, so horror has reinvented them. Of course, the reinventions are ridiculous, which is probably why Stross is unable to keep a little bit of sarcasm and rather a lot of humour out of the tale, even though he does successfully maintain fear in his characters. The stories wouldn’t work otherwise.

Talking about the humour, the first novel has a few laugh out loud moments. These moments reduce as the series continues, much like many other sequences of novels, as the same plot points have to be replayed to maintain series continuity. This series, though, has not reached its natural end, and I believe Stross, with some careful literary prestidigitation, could reinvigorate the humour and bring back the laugh out loud. But that’s something not too many authors achieve.

Anyway, overall, believable human characters battle other believable human characters with unbelievable nightmare monsters scoffing in the background. The novels are fun and I’d certainly recommending trying the series out. Pick up the Atrocity Archive and see if it works for you. It did for me.

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