The short “Down on the Farm” is perhaps the weakest of Stross’ Laundry stories I’ve read, but it’s solid fun for all that. It certainly has its moments. The principal faults were redundant exposition for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the earlier stories, and a finish that seemed a little rushed and unenlightening.
“The Laundry operations manual is notably short on advice for how to comport oneself when being held prisoner aboard a mad billionaire necromancer’s yacht, other than the usual stern admonition to keep receipts for all expenses incurred in the line of duty.” (167)
The Jennifer Morgue is one of Stross’ hacker-gique occult espionage books about Bob Howard, agent of Capital Laundry Services. (The initials of the organization are never written as such, so it took me until the middle of this second volume to get that BASIC joke!) Like its predecessor The Atrocity Archives, it is a terrific romp. Where Stross drew his literary spy inspiration from Len Deighton in the first book, this time around sees him looking to Ian Fleming and the Bond movies. Given the more “exoteric” — okay, crassly pop-cultural — status of the Bond material, Stross elects to make his nods to it more overt, metafictional even. Protagonist Bob is put in a position to exploit his memories of “the ritual Bond movie every Christmas afternoon on ITV since the age of two” (187), since he is fighting a supernatural opponent who is using the Bond plot formula as a magical mechanism. Stross manages to pack sardonic hilarity, genuinely stomach-churning horror, and sentimental uplift into this single novel. Oh, and weird sex.
As with the first book, this one contains the titular novel, a bonus short story, and an essay reflecting on the espionage-adventure genre. The story “PIMPF” is a completely office-bound yarn, contrasting with the exotic travel and international entanglements of the novel, and it is funny in the nerdiest possible way. The essay didn’t seem as insightful as its counterpart in the first volume. Having chosen to place special attention on Bond villains, it seems to me that Stross erred terribly in neglecting to observe that Le Chiffre (from Casino Royale) was allegedly based on noted occultist Aleister Crowley, with whom Fleming was acquainted from their mutual employment by British intelligence services.
“Eve wasn’t the big sis he’d grown up with, back when they were a perfectly normal family with a dad who was an oneiromancer and a mum who wrote code that tore holes in reality.” (60)
Quantum of Nightmares is the second of the Tales of the New Management set in the superpowers-and-sorcery 21st-century dystopia built in the Cthulhvian espionage series The Laundry Files. It picks up very directly from the conclusion of Dead Lies Dreaming. Where the first New Management book used Peter Pan as a key point of reference for both the Lost Boys supervillain crew and thief-taker Wendy Deere, this sequel similarly exploits Mary Poppins. I think the title’s metrical mirroring of “Spoonful of Sugar” is no coincidence.
The satirical elements of the book are as searing as those of any of its predecessors, and they center on “innovative” human resources and supply chain techniques at a FlavrsMart supermarket branch. Within the plot of the story, the commercial dehumanization is unsurprisingly not unrelated to an eldritch cult. (The motivation for parallel, if less extreme, phenomena in the “real” world remains a frustrating enigma. Probably an eldritch cult.)
These books have many and diverse dramatis personae, and the third-person narration shifts among them as viewpoint characters often and rapidly. After two volumes, though, and accounting for the foreshadowing in the latter, the larger plot hangs on Eve Starkey, corporate climber and hereditary sorceress.
The return to the characters and situations of the previous book helped both of them for me as a reader. While they don’t (yet?) have the heft of the old Laundry story arcs, the Starkey antics under the regime of the Black Pharaoh have now acquired some real coherence.
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