there’s a worm of truth at the heart of every fictional apple
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.
Bob Bricken has posted a review of the new Zero Hour series, which features a fictional group of nominal Rosicrucians as the protagonists at “New series Zero Hour is stupid, insane, and massively entertaining“:
“The show begins, like all great shows, talking about how divine the number 12 is (“it’s both the beginning and the end of time!” crows the narrator, indicating belief in a clock-based theology far weirder than Deism). We then open into a secret clock-making room inside a 1938 Berlin church, where a priest demands 12 clockmakers hurry their clockmaking. The priest and another guy have a quick conversation about the world ending and the dead rising, and then visit a hospital where they visit an Evil Nazi Baby (“born of no womb!”) with all-white eyes.
Let me stop there for a second, to point out that this is the first two minutes of Zero Hour.
Cut to: A meeting of the Rosicrucians! They’re worried about the Nazis getting ahold of the hilariously unnamed “thing” beneath the cathedral (and its clockmaking center), which will of course mean the end of mankind. So some of the Rosicrucians drag a large wooden “thing” of a water of a tunnel below the church – it appears to be the size of a coffin for two, although I have no idea if that’s what it is – and flee, while the Nazis break into the church, kill everyone they see, and start shooting all the pictures and statues of Jesus and Mary. The priest manages to mutter “Not even God can help now; it’s up to the Twelve!” before expiring.”
“I fully admit I’m not a Rosicrucian, and I have little to no experience in vast, religious apocalyptic conspiracies. But I’d like to think that if some random kids knocked on my door, I would manage to keep my mouth shut about said giant vast, religious apocalyptic conspiracy to a bunch of complete strangers. I probably wouldn’t give them the job of saving the world, either. Norbert might as well have gone to a Bavarian 7-11 and chosen a couple of customers at random.” [via]