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.
Delany’s Babel-17 is a very sophisticated space opera written in the mid-1960s. The protagonist is a linguistic savant and intergalactic celebrity poet, and the plot is focused on military espionage and a mysterious new language. The number of unlikely anachronisms (such as tape spools to hold data) are surprisingly few. There is not much explanation for the fundamentals of the “stasis shift” technology that makes interstellar travel possible, but its ancillary operations are fascinating in that they use “discorporate” people (i.e. technologically-sustained intelligences of the dead) to help parse and represent much vaster energy spectra than human senses can perceive. The story also presents a caste society, with some castes participating in extreme “cosmetisurgery” and marital “tripling.” Philosophically, Babel-17 epitomizes a linguistic turn in science fiction, according to which the powers and limitations of societies and individuals both are grounded in the characteristics of their language.
The novella Empire Star is here bound tête-bêche with Babel-17 (as the author had originally hoped), and the former is in fact a metafiction putatively written by a lover of the protagonist of the latter. The smaller page-count of Empire Star does not make it less interesting or significant: in keeping with its name (and the cover design of the Vintage edition), it has a lapidary quality. “The multiplex reader has by now discovered that the story is much longer than she thinks, cyclic and self-illuminating.” (89) And in these respects, it anticipates, as much as do the psychedelic linguisticisms of Babel-17, the work that Delany was to accomplish in his spectacular Dhalgren a decade later.
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.
These parallel worlds are a knotty problem, he realized. I wonder how many exist. Dozens? With a different human sub-species dominant on each? Weird idea. He shivered. God, how unpleasant . . . like concentric rings of hell, each with its own particular brand of torment.
Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later, her war, her taking on a symbol and a reality that outweighed her. Now my insurance rates will go up, she realized as she climbed from her car. In this world you pay for tilting with evil in cold, hard cash.
“Think not that we have acted toward you in a spirit of persecution,” said the nun. “The mysteries which have alarmed you will be explained at a future period, when your soul is prepared by penance, self-mortification, and prayer to receive the necessary revelation. In the meantime, ask no questions, forget the world, and resolve to embrace a life devoted to the service of Heaven.”