Friday, October 7, 2016

The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross (Bonus review inside!)

The Atrocity Archives
by Charles Stross

Charles Stross was born in Leeds England, in the year of our Lord 1964. His first written works were for the Dungeon and Dragons game where he invented the Githyanki, Githzerai, the Slaad, and the iconic(at least for me) Death Knight. These monsters were published in the White Dwarf magazine back before it became a Games Workshop shill. I won't go into these creatures or White Dwarf here but feel free to ask in the comments. Mr. Stross attended the University of Bradford got a degree in Pharmacy, and qualified as a pharmacist in 1987. He reentered the university to get a degree in computer science and started work as a programmer in 1990.   In 2000 he started writing and went full-time. He has since won the 2005, 2010, and 2014 Hugo awards; along with the Nebula award, the Locus award, and more. In short he is very well received. Mr. Stross currently lives in Edinburgh Scotland, and is a member of the Green Party. This places him firmly in the British tradition of howling left wing writers like Alan Moore and Michael Moorcock. Although given both of them are anarchists (with Mr. Moore refusing to vote at all), I'm going to say that Stross is frankly more reasonable than most men who can be placed in this tradition and that shows in his work. Generally he writes towards a view of being somewhat critical of society. I don't say that as a criticism, without critical voices a society cannot notice it's own flaws and change for the better. Writers and thinkers like Stross have an important role to play and even when I don't agree with them I'm not going to deny that role is needed. There is nothing in greater danger than a society that believes itself perfect and without the need to change. Well except maybe a toddler in a Lion’s Den but work with me here folks. Now, that doesn't mean I agree with all of Mr. Stross' criticisms. He once referred to the five eyes intelligence sharing organization (an alliance between the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom for sharing intelligence and to a certain extent organizing operations) a top-down parasite looking for justifications for its own existence. I rather disagree with that, as we need open eyes and ears in an unfriendly world. That said I do find his criticisms about how well... Beige our political systems are becoming to be somewhat spot on, or at least I did before this election.

The Laundry Files follow the career of the magnificently named Bob Howard (if you don't know why, read more Conan); an up and coming young man, who in spite of himself, proves an effective trouble shooter for the covert organization of British Intelligence known as the Laundry. The Laundry won't wash your shirts but they will do their best to save civilization from things beyond the universe and creatures beyond your ken, provided that our heroes aren't done in by office politics and complete the paperclip audit on time of course. Howard has to deal with entities that will possess you and eat your brains, Iraqi terrorists who are dabbling in forbidden magics, and the horrors of Matrix Management. Bluntly, after reading up on just what the hell Matrix Management is... I'll take the terrorist necromancers please. Seriously how is any work supposed to get done under Matrix Management? That's not an organizational method, that's a promise of open warfare in the office... but I'm off topic. Let me get back to the premise: basically there's good news and bad news. First the good news, magic is real. Now the bad news, magic is real and it's made of math! Use your math well (or badly as the case may be) and you may gain the attention of things that live beyond our universe and they may even do you favors! Or if you're really unlucky or just stupid, they'll come to visit. This results in things that we call bad. Additionally perform magic without the proper safeguards and your brain will literally turn into Swiss cheese. The best way to do it is to through a program on a computer. Basically, if you want to do magic safely? There's an App for that and you best use it young wo/man!

How do you combat this though? I mean magic is depressingly easy to do once you know how and ruinously dangerous. Basically in the Laundry system, we're looking at every citizen having a nuclear bomb in their pocket that most of them don't know how to arm correctly, let alone disarm. The solution the governments of the Laundry-verse have come up is absolute secrecy and control. If you find out about this stuff, men with secret clearances are going to come after you and things are going to get upsetting for you. That said they're not going to kill you (well they might if you prove yourself unreasonable, so if the nice man in suit and really conservative haircut offers you a job... take it). that's because frankly it's rather unseemly for a government to engage in regularly murdering of it's own citizens.  Worse, it's expensive to murder dozens (at least) of people each year and cover it up; even worst it's very likely to cause other people to start asking questions and some of them might find out what's going on starting the whole process all over again! No, no, no, this is a British Intelligence service after all, that means a limited budget and a desperate need to keep the good taxpayers alive long enough to keep the pension fund afloat. So instead the Laundry will bring you in from the cold and if need be let you count paperclips for 20 or 30 years until you retire. As. Long. As. You. Keep. Your. Mouth. Shut.

That's not good enough for Howard though. He wants to be part of the effort to save the world and as such is pushing to be reassigned from Laundry tech support to field duty. He has the talent to be a good field operative and just as importantly, the luck. The problem is he's a smart-ass kid who thinks that he has a right to know everything and often forgets the stakes of the game he's in. Fortunately for us (unfortunately for him) the men in the field office of the Laundry are willing to take him in hand, educate and train him and basically make sure life kicks the cockiness right out of him without killing him. I actually like Howard as a character. Yes, he reminds me of way too many PfC's who are all too sure they know waayyyy more about this war stuff then those stupid old men who have actually seen the elephant; but he's not malicious or self righteous about it. Just another damn boot is all and that's fine, it also helps that Howard is someone who wants to be a decent human being and can recognize his shortcomings and try to address them. This makes him infinitely more tolerable than many perfect characters or characters with one or two shortcomings that never actually bite them in the ass--and get bit in the ass he does. This is where our other lead Mo comes in.

Mo, short for Dominique, philosophy of mathematics professor who found herself trapped in the United States when her research took a turn for the mind controlling kind. Yeah, that's the kind of Universe that Mr. Stross is writing. Even philosophy professors can be dangerous and useful... and even gainfully employed! Because of the forbidden knowledge that Mo is slowly but surely piling up all on her own, she's been made a target by a group of Iraqi terrorist (the book is set in the year 2000, before the Iraq war and 911) and is trapped in the US by the US version of the Laundry, the Black Chamber (which actually was a US intelligence agency and the forebearer to the NSA, it was shut down in 1929 by Secretary of State Henry L Stimson). The Black Chamber is a bit of misstep by Mr. Stross in my opinion, betraying a fundamental misunderstanding of how the US government and intelligence community works. Bluntly, there wouldn't be a single all powerful agency in charge of this stuff in the US. I mean look at how we do normal intelligence work. We have the CIA, the NSA and the FBI often doing counterintelligence work, along with military intelligence organizations who are doing their own thing. This is a minor thing though, it just bugs me. Anyways back to Mo. I like Mo, she's smart and despite being terrified half the time is remarkably useful and level headed. In this story she mostly serves as the goal/target of the bad guys, bait and as someone for Howard to explain things to. What I'm left with at the end is really wanting to see a Mo who understands what the fuck is going on working with Howard in the field. I'm pretty sure that would be amazing.

The book as a few conceits I don't care for. Howard has a tendency to get knocked out or not around when major violence is happening. Additionally there are times when instead of showing me the climactic action, Mr. Stross cuts away to the future and just has Howard tell me what happened via the medium of the briefing. This is an effective method for communicating the perils of bureaucracy and the navigation thereof but is really jarring and annoying at times to read. I want to be shown the action, not told about it later. Thankfully the big climax at the end of our story is not skipped ahead but shown to us as it happens. Otherwise this story would be getting a much lower grade. There were also characters I could have done without in the story itself. For example, Howard's ex-girlfriend who thankfully disappeared halfway through the story. I kinda wondered if she had a bigger role in past drafts? You could make an argument that she is there to show just how stuck Howard feels before getting into field duty but really their interactions just left me frustrated with Howard and reinforced my feeling that he was a smart mouthed dumb-assed PfC in need of a good kicking from his Cpl. The civilian world really would be improved by the introduction of a NCO class I sometimes think, but I wander off topic.

That said I really enjoyed the story itself and the world of the Laundry. Howard is a interesting and good guide to this world as well as being a rather good protagonist. Mr. Stross is supremely capable of creating the dark, surreal, but also sublimely ridiculous atmosphere that occurs when you go out, save the world from ye elder things that dwell beyond the rim of the universe, and then have to come back in order to fill out an expenses and accounting form in triplicate. There's something fundamentally British about this to my mind and I honestly enjoy it. I also enjoy the treatment of magic and the fact that we are not only able to use it effectively but we can modify it and our technology to work together in safer and faster ways than the traditional methods. We have summoning pentagrams made from lasers, palm pilot spell casting, mass produced magic items and weapons and more. This lends itself to the surreal modern feeling of the story. So while we may be very small fish in a possibly very doomed pond, we are not without our own abilities and resources. The threat that we are shown in this story is vast and terrifying as well and is rather fitting for the Lovecraftian nature of the story. In the end though I wouldn't call this a true Lovecraft story as there is victory against those dark incomprehensible forces, but it is entirely possible that this is at best a fleeting temporary victory against the many headed forces of extinction that are slowly gathering around us. Due to some of my frustrations with cutting away from the action in the story and some of the other bits and pieces that bug me, I have to give The Atrocity Archives a B+. I really recommend it however!

The Concrete Jungle
by Charles Stross

It's 3 am and the phone rings. Who do you want answering it? Bob Howard of the Laundry of course! The Concrete Jungle takes place after the Atrocity Archives and shows us a case in the life of Bob Howard as he is roused to determine why there is an extra concrete cow in Milton Keynes. The answer is someone has hijacked the Laundry's best defense system against invasion by creatures man was not meant to know. Howard has to find out who is hijacking this extremely dangerous weapon system that could end up killing millions, keep it a secret from the general public, and navigate office politics as the never-to-be-sufficiently-damned matrix management system means he has actually has three managers (I'm not sure anyone really deserves that, I mean yeah Howard's got a smart mouth but I figure just make him do some push ups).

The weapon system in question is a technological version of a medusa stare. Medusa are not only real but are normal people who through the power of Cthuloid brain tumors develop the curse of turning anyone they look at into burning radioactive stone rubble because they turn a chunk of our meaty carbon molecules into silicon ones. This causes a number of side effects, like for example... death. The British government has figured out how to do this with machines and has realized that the best defense against the creatures from beyond was to upload this into their ever-expanding network of public surveillance systems. This system would let them zap monsters pretty much anytime they showed up in an urban area. One problem: you've planted a weapon of mass destruction pointed at your populace within your very cities. Interestingly enough everyone's aware of this and is very unhappy about it but decides that this is the better option, which should tell you something about what these cameras are meant to fight I think.

Much to my disappointment there is Mo in this story, she's off training on the coast. Instead, Howard is paired with a lady inspector cop who is kinda fun in a no-nonsense “I can break both your arms”  kind of way. We also get to see more of Howard's relationship with his field bosses and it becomes very clear to me that they're pushing him through some fast training with an eye towards promotion. I'm not sure Howard understands that, all he seems to grasp is that they keep throwing him at big messes with a broom and a mop. In this case, when the person hacking the camera systems is revealed to be someone rather close to home, Howard is racing not just to save the British people but the Laundry itself.

The Concrete Jungle is a short story that was included with the Atrocity Archives in my copy of the book. It's enjoyable and provides a look at some of the stuff that Howard has to deal with as well as clearing up some problems from the last book that simply were too close to played out to make it to another novel. Additionally I get shown more of the action than last time, which is a grand improvement I think. That said, I really want to see Howard and Mo together in the field and Mr. Stross just isn't letting me have my damn cookies. Still, I enjoyed it so I'm giving the Concrete Jungle a -A as it's showing improvement in my opinion.

These Reviews edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

I would like to remind our readers that the floor is still open for suggestions for the Halloween review!
Next week, Caine Blackknife!

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