Tag Archives: Charles Stross

The Labyrinth Index

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Labyrinth Index by Charles Stross.

Stross The Labyrinth Index

“We fight on so that something that remembers being human might survive.” (199)

The ninth of the Laundry Files novels allegedly begins a new plot arc, and it does conspicuously shift focus to characters that have previously been more peripheral to the series. But its enjoyment is still highly dependent on prior familiarity with the concepts and broad narrative that Stross has worked up in the previous volumes. Some exposition in the opening chapter is pitched just about right for returning junkies like me, who haven’t had a fix since The Delirium Brief was published a year earlier, but it’s not sufficient to ramp up real appreciation for the setting and character motivations here.

Without serious spoilering, since all of this is clear in the opening chapter, I can say that this book delivered two unexpected features right off. First, the narrating character switches to Mhari Murphy, who was introduced in the very first book, but has never before occupied the role of storyteller-diarist. Second, most of The Labyrinth Index takes place in the United States. I doubt Charles Stross has read The Last Days of Christ the Vampire (and I’m not sure whatever became of my copy, read back in the 1980s), but there are some interesting points of conceptual contact between the two books.

As a commentary on the current state of American politics, the Stross novel is a bit oblique. In the contemporary Laundryverse USA under conditions of ongoing Nazgul-based coup, it is magically forbidden to think of the American Presidency, whereas in the “real” Trumplandia it is required that we think about it all the time. In any case, he still manages to highlight the extent to which the Imperial Presidency of the 21st century has all of the power and most of the institutional and cultural vices of an actual monarchy.

It was no surprise that I wolfed this book down in a couple of days. The story is consistent with the level of increased gloom established in the immediately previous volume, and it is dedicated to the author’s father, who seems to have died while it was being written. The bleakness is not completely unrelenting, though. As usual, there is some real wit in the writing, and in the end the state of affairs is not markedly worse than the beginning. Indeed, under some definitions of the word, the book would qualify as a “comedy.”

Overtime

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Overtime by Charles Stross.

I would say this free short story on the Tor.com site is the least of all the Laundry Files stories I’ve read, truly a mere “stocking stuffer” compared with the gifts Stross usually delivers in the novels of this series. Still, it’s a nice little holiday card, and converting Santa into Cthrampus is a neat trick. If my daughter were a little younger, I’d be tempted to menace her with warnings about the Filler of Stockings. No, it’s best that she’s older–old enough to get the joke, even.

..[spoilers]……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

The Atrocity Archives

The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross is the first book in the ongoing Laundry Files series, for which there’s also several short stories to be found not listed with the series. I read this in conjunction with The Atrocity Archives audiobook, read by Gideon Emery.

This is the first time I’ve read anything by Charles Stross, and I’m slightly in shock by how awesome the first story in the book was. The book contains two separate stories, and the first, “The Atrocity Archives”, for which the volume is named, is a just smashed full of a perfect storm of geeky and nerdy nostalgia for my late 90s self, deeply mixing references to technology, Illuminatus!-style paranoia, magic, and eldritch otherworldly Cosmicism horror. The second story, “The Concrete Jungle”, was good, but not quite as awesome.

Wow. What a start! I’m still blown away by how I hadn’t read this before given how perfectly related the first story feels to so many of my interests, both when it was first published and even still. Then again, maybe the 2006 publication date was a little late to catch me in my 90s Internet-professional phase and too early to elicit the hyper-nostalgia I felt while reading it now. Well, I may have missed it then, but I’ve read it now, by damn.

I made 49 highlights.

Originally posted on my personal blog at The Atrocity Archives

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]

Sympathy for the Devil

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Sympathy for the Devil edited by Tim Pratt.

Tim Pratt Sympathy for the Devil

I found this book by chance at the public library, being interested in a few of the included authors. It’s one of those monster theme collections, gathering thirty-six stories in which “the Devil” features as a principal character, from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first. (Longfellow’s translation of the thirty-sixth canto of Dante’s Inferno is the oldest item, and concludes the book.) Six stories I had read prior to their appearance here. “Thank you, Satan!” quoth the editor, introducing his first effort at anthology. Despite the title, most of these stories don’t portray the Devil as sympathetic.

Charles Stross’s story “Snowball’s Chance” was a major attraction, and did not disappoint, other than its clumsy misquotation of the Law of Thelema. I suppose any 21st-century Big Book of Beelzebub is likely to include some content touching on the Great Beast who heralded the New Aeon. Nick Mamatas’s fictional protagonist in “Summon, Bind, Banish” may be a full (i.e. Ninth Degree) initiate of O.T.O., but Mamatas himself obviously isn’t. His pretended exposure of the Order’s sovereign secret is overshadowed by the way that he vilifies Crowley with an impressionistic biography of mostly-true episodes.

Elizabeth M. Glover’s “MetaPhysics” was cornball, but some of these pieces were genuinely funny. In particular I was delighted with the one-act comedy “Faustfeathers” by John Kessel, which casts Groucho Marx as the paradigmatic sorcerer. Jeffrey Ford’s “On the Road to New Egypt” was a key inducement to my reading the book, and turned out to be hilarious.

Some of the creepiest stories were the most questionably related to the book’s espoused theme, and these were often among the ones I had already read, such as China Miéville’s “Details,” “The Professor’s Teddy Bear” by Theodore Sturgeon, and “The God of Dark Laughter” by Michael Chabon. Probably the most horrific story in the book that was new to me on this reading was “The Goat Cutter” by Jay Lake. The most surreal story was either “Lull” by Kelly Link or “The Heidelberg Cylinder” by Jonathan Carroll, and both of these get high marks from me.

Older selections included Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” (still excellent), Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Bottle Imp” (how had I missed this one before?), and Mark Twain’s “Sold to the Devil” (justly neglected by a mass readership). “Big names” likely to appeal to genre fans include Stephen King (“The Man in the Black Suit”) and Neil Gaiman (“The Price” and “We Can Get Them for You Wholesale”).

The book is a fairly mixed bag on the whole, as one might expect with such a large number of stories and such a narrow criterion for inclusion. Still, it was definitely worth the bother. [via]

The Nightmare Stacks

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross.

Stross The Nightmare Stacks

At the outset, the Laundry Files series by Charles Stross consisted of a latter-day mash-up of two well-defined genres: Cold War espionage and Lovecraftian weird horror. And for several volumes it continued thus. As the focus has shifted off of the original protagonist Bob Howard, elements of other genres have been introduced. For example, the vampires of more traditional gothic horror were the crux of the last book Bob narrated, The Rhesus Chart. When Bob’s wife Mo took over as the narrator for The Annihilation Score, the caped superhero genre contributed to the central plot. In this seventh book, narrator duties have passed to junior recruit Alex Schwartz, and it is the high fantasy genre that gets tapped for its oddness. A chief character in this book is in point of fact the King of Elfland’s daughter (in quiet homage to Dunsany among many others), so that Alex/Alveric’s romancing of the unearthly “princess/assassin of the Unseelie Court” sits in a rich inter-textual tradition, complete with frequent references to the works of Tolkien and a Laundry operative named the Dungeon Master (or DM).

The return of vicar Pete in a more conspicuous role was something I already expected, and it’s a neat fit somehow to make him Alex’s mentor. However, I did not imagine that Pete would turn out to be [Spoiler! Hover over to see . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]

Despite foreshadowings regarding bureaucratic fallout, as well as family and public comeuppances, this book is entirely bereft of denouement. It gallops to the climax and then stops. I guess that’s a little more forgivable for the seventh entry in a series, inasmuch as readers can expect to get some resolution of loose ends in the now-assured further installment.

I did enjoy this one very much, laughing out loud at it repeatedly, despite the frequently macabre events described—all of which is par for the course in this series. I’m not sure how well it would hold up as a point of entry, but with the benefit of all the foregoing books, I found this one to be among my favorites so far. Like the others, the fast pace of the action makes it a compelling read, and the character chemistry was quite endearing from my perspective. [via]

The Annihilation Score

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Annihilation Score: A Laundry Files Novel by Charles Stross.

In my review of the previous Laundry Files novel I accurately speculated that “further volumes will see the role of narrator passed to some junior character.” I did not, however, expect that character to be Dominique “Mo” O’Brien, the wife of the protagonist of the first five volumes. Mo is Bob’s “junior” in the Laundry by a short while, although she is older than him and more intellectually accomplished. This book takes place during their “trial separation,” while their respective sorceries are behaving incompatibly. At first, I wondered if author Stross would sufficiently distinguish Mo’s narrative voice from Bob’s, given the peculiar combination of the Laundry environment: civil service, espionage, and soul-shearing horrors from outside of our universe; but he did succeed.

Where the comedic element of other Laundry books was largely supplied by Bob’s geeky sense of humor, this one managed to offer a wealth of absurd circumstances, centering as it did on an epidemic of superpowers, and the social consequences of villains and vigilantes in “pervert suits.” Unsurprisingly in a book narrated by Mo, the other chief concern was her escalating conflict with the diabolical enchanted violin which has been her professional tool and curse since the first stories of the series.

A key theme of the book is the differences between intelligence work and policing, with much attention paid to the formation of a police culture. Although the book is set in 21st-century England, this American reader could not help but reflect on the currency of the topic relative to our current spate of news about abusive and murderous police behavior. The public dialogue in the US could probably benefit from a conscious consideration of the “Peelian Principles” which have been foundational to the British Commonwealth’s conception of domestic policing since the early 19th century.

Stross is not quite as sharp here in his references to 20th-century occultism as he was in, say, The Fuller Memorandum. In particular, he invests both Aleister Crowley and Austin Osman Spare with musical abilities that the men did not possess. But these are throw-away allusions not intrinsic to the plot.

With this sixth novel (and at least two more projected), have the Laundry Files earned the right to be compared to Harry Potter? Both are supernatural sagas in self-consciously British institutional settings. Rather than Voldemort, Stross presents us with CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, an incipient “magical singularity” or thaumaturgical armageddon that is a growing threat throughout the series. When The Atrocity Archive was published, I think the idea of a screen version would have seemed pretty far-fetched. Now, I suppose that the BBC should be recycling half of the creative team from Torchwood into work on an episodic Laundry series.

The Rhesus Chart

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross.

Charles Stross The Rhesus Chart

“Some people aspire to necromancy; others have necromancy thrust upon them; me, I just didn’t scream and run away fast enough when it kicked down my office door. I’m slow that way.” (127)

“Slow” or not, this fifth volume of the Laundry Files series sees IT geek-cum-sorcerer “Bob Howard” going through more changes than any of the others to date. It kills off long-standing characters, cripples Bob’s marriage, and advances his role within Capital Laundry Services (the deep black British intelligence agency concerned with occult phenomena) to the point where I wonder if further volumes will see the role of narrator passed to some junior character. And while much of the outcome — as foreshadowed in the first chapter — is terribly negative (though far short of what regular readers will know as CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN), the book is full of the sardonic joking that suffused the previous volumes.

The nature of Bob’s principal antagonist in The Rhesus Chart is unusually traditional. Although the story still presumes computational demonology of Cthulhoid consequences, it’s vampires that are the problem this time. These vampires are re-imagined according to the rules of the Laundry universe, and they happily fall nowhere near Twilight vampires in their features and motives. As in the prior installments, a book that is presented as Bob’s classified “journal” in his voice also includes interspersed third-person accounts of events that he could only become aware of later, through informed speculation. And, as before, such a strain on the narrative form doesn’t interfere with the fun of reading it.

I’m left with the same downside as I was at the end of the previous volume: I read these books much faster than Stross can write them, and I’m ready for the next one now. [via]