Len Deighton was not an author of spy thrillers but of horror, because all Cold War–era spy thrillers rely on the existential horror of nuclear annihilation to supply a frisson of terror that raises the stakes of the games their otherwise mundane characters play. And in contrast, H. P. Lovecraft was not an author of horror stories—or not entirely—for many of his preoccupations, from the obsessive collection of secret information to the infiltration and mapping of territories controlled by the alien, are at heart the obsessions of the thriller writer.
This volume contains a brief novel (Stross’s first to be published) and its longish short story sequel. Of the two, I preferred the first with its more leisurely pacing. Also, there was a major plot-twist in the short story that I was able to spot about thirty pages in advance. The meat of both is a very artful hybrid of exo-horror and spy-thriller, with a sardonic take on postmodern bureaucracy and a generous helping of hacker culture. The characters are well-drawn and their context is a UK occult intelligence organization called the Laundry. I found myself often resorting to the appendix which decoded the alphabet soup of (mostly non-fictional) abbreviations, acronyms, and organizations; and I laughed out loud when I had to look up TLA and find it explicated as “Three Letter Acronym.” Other features I appreciated: misfiring demonic evocations, inside references to weird literature, a romantic dinner in Amsterdam, and cow jokes.
As it turns out, the book is far from unique, not even counting Stross’ own sequels. In his afterword, he points to Tim Powers’s Declare and the gaming supplement Delta Green as evidence that the early 21st century was steam engine time for this sort of story. (The Torchwood television series was late to the party, and thus quite possibly inspired by Stross’s own work–a thought that would probably be unwelcome to him, since he has repeatedly expressed in his blog his contempt for recent SF television generally, and Russell T. Davies’ work in particular.)
There’s no need to discuss Stross’s sources or literary influences here, because he does so himself with verve and candor in the aforementioned afterword. He also shares some interesting thoughts about the construction of spies and hackers as fictional protagonists. At all events, this book was a lot of fun, and I expect to read more of Stross’s stories about the Laundry.
The title should tip off readers of the earlier Laundry Files books by Charles Stross that this newest installment is something different. Unlike the nine volumes to precede it, Dead Lies Dreaming does not seem to be named after a document. [ . . . . . . . . . Spoiler (Hover over to see) . . . . . . . . . . ] The story transpires in just the setting established in the last couple of Laundry novels The Delirium Brief and The Labyrinth Index. This twenty-first-century England ruled by the New Management (i.e. the Black Pharaoh and his minions) is only a little different from our “real” world. They have sorcery and superpowers while we have novel coronavirus, but the economics and politics of the thing look familiar enough. Given the theories of time travel and onieromancy set forth in the book, the Laundry universe may simply be a dream of ours, or ours a dream of theirs.
Dead Lies Dreaming is not narrated by a character identified with the UK occult intelligence bureau the Laundry; in fact, Stross drops the first-person approach altogether, in favor of a conventional third-person omniscient voice. This choice allows him to jump around among several principal focus characters, and readers might be forgiven for wondering which if any of them is the protagonist. He picks up and develops a couple of themes that he had first established in The Annihilation Score. The philosophy of public policing is a concern for the ex-cop and newly-minted magical “thief taker” Wendy Deere. And the emergence of vernacular superpowers is explored in the capers of Imp and his gang.
There are many allusions to the earlier Laundry series, of course, and to the ritual literature of H.P. Lovecraft, but also significantly to Peter Pan and to A Christmas Carol. Like previous Laundry books, this one was released on Hallowe’en, and the bulk of initial readers are thus digging into our copies during the winter holiday season. Stross cleverly capitalizes on this fact in the book’s opening sentences:
Imp froze as he rounded the corner onto Regent Street, and saw four elven warriors shackling a Santa to a stainless-steel cross outside Hamleys Toy Shop. “Now that’s not something you see every day,” Doc drawled shakily. His fake bravado didn’t fool anyone.
Readers of previous Laundry books will quickly understand the genuine plot points established here in what a novice reader might take for mere sadistic surrealism. The engagement of the later parts of the novel with Victoriana in “some eldritch continuum of crapsack dipshittery stalked by the ghosts of maniacal serial killers and adorable Dickensian street urchins” (321) solidifies the black cheer of Xmas in the shadow of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN.
In my review of The Delirium Brief, I remarked, “I doubt that the Laundry’s world can survive more than two additional installments on the current trajectory.” Right on schedule, the series has pivoted from a diachronic advancement of Lovecraftian Armageddon to a more synchronic recounting of episodes and adventures in a given period of peak weird. I do miss the Laundry operatives, but I still enjoyed this “Tale of the New Management,” and I will continue to follow the series.
This is my fault for being the departmental computer guy: when the machines break, I wave my dead chicken and write voodoo words on their keyboards until they work again.
Charles Stross, The Atrocity Archives
“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.”
this ain’t that kind of movie, and I’m no Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Charles Stross, The Atrocity Archives
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.
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 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
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]
WE ARE NOT ALONE, THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE, yadda yadda yadda.
Charles Stross, The Atrocity Archives