The Delirium Brief

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Delirium Brief: A Laundry Files Novel by Charles Stross

This book confirms the transformation of the Laundry Files from a series of novels into a set of book-length episodes within a multi-volume work. I would not recommend either this latest or the previous book (The Nightmare Stacks) as a point of entry to the series, and as a free-standing novel, I expect it would fail. However, as an extension of what has come before, it is extremely effective. It picks up threads left lying in every one of the previous seven volumes and their interstitial novellas, and weaves them into a truly horrifying fabric. To switch metaphors, it is very successful at leveraging the reader’s investment in the curious cast of characters that Charles Stross has developed over the course of the series.

The inconclusive finish of the previous volume involved the forced disclosure of the super-secret occult intelligence agency nicknamed “The Laundry,” as a result of northern England being invaded by an army of elves. The stakes in The Delirium Brief are certainly higher for the Laundry, and perhaps for England as a whole, while incidental remarks throughout the book suggest that in the US and elsewhere in the world, events are spiraling toward global magical catastrophe. I know at least one more book is projected for this series, and it certainly needs it, with precious little closure in this one. But I doubt that the Laundry’s world can survive more than two additional installments on the current trajectory.

The sardonic office humor of the earliest Laundry stories has grown in scope, to the point where what were pithy observations about bureaucratic organizational culture have grown into satirical critiques of neoliberalized Western polity. At one point, narrator “Bob Howard” disingenuously says he’s “not bitter or anything” about the corrupt privatization of government agencies and functions in general, since “The worst case … is that parcels don’t get delivered, buildings burn down … Stuff breaks, people die, maybe there’s a small nuclear war, boo hoo.” This flippancy is by way of stressing the comparative gravity of such corruption impacting the operation of “the Laundry or an equivalent agency” (121).

Bob has some relief in this episode, in that there is some progress in rehabilitating his hexed-and-vexed marriage to fellow Laundry employee Dominique O’Brien. However, the theme of instrumental dehumanization and compromised morals that has dogged all the protagonists throughout the series gets turned up to eleven here, and by the book’s end, while the reader may still like the characters, it’s no longer clear than any of them especially like themselves.

Despite (and sometimes because of) the grim context, there are many funny moments in The Delirium Brief. The combination of my interested familiarity with the Laundry Files and Stross’s zippy contemporary prose made this book read at a breakneck pace. The amazing thing is that it really doesn’t introduce any new threats or concepts. It’s just working out interactions and consequences from what has come before, and if you’ve enjoyed the earlier books, this one is necessary. [via]