there’s a worm of truth at the heart of every fictional apple
“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.