The Jennifer Morgue
By Charles Stross
I covered Charles Stross in my review of The Atrocity Archives, so I will just suggest if you want to know more about this chap, you read that review. The Jennifer Morgue, published in 2006, is the second novel of the series the Laundry files. Let me go ahead and sum up the concept behind the series. Lovecraft was right. Humanity is an over clever ape in a cold hostile multi-verse, where creatures and beings beyond our imagining lurk beyond the walls of our universe and in the dark corners of our own. Math is magic, combined with computer technology the right mathematical formulas and geometric creations can not only defy the natural laws of our world but can catch the attention of those inhuman beings. With their attention usually comes terror and death. Robert “Bob” Howard (which is in and of itself is a nice reference for me) is a drafted member of the Laundry, the more-secret-than-top-secret British agency whose job it is to not only delay and maybe even prevent the extinction of humanity but to keep most of us from finding out what is actually out there. The more people who know that this stuff can actually work, the more likely it is that someone will actually kill us all (by accident, or on purpose). I usually disagree with secrecy at all cost in stories like this but Mr. Stross has built a convincing case, in that letting this stuff become public is like handing out the plans to nuclear bombs and then making sure all the parts are cheaply available in your local corner store (plutonium is 20% off for repeat customers!). Since I'm very partial to living in a civilization with indoor plumbing and climate control... Or just living in general, I'm against that idea. Anyways let me get to the novel itself.
Humanity is not the only intelligent species on the planet. There are older, colder civilizations that dwell on our planet. Visitors from unknown stars that came to our tiny blue orb before our distant ancestors learned the secret of fire or flint. In prehistoric times they settled the parts of the Earth that they wanted, built cities, waged wars and did great deeds and they are here still. We evolved and grew on the part of the planet they do not consider worth having, we literally spent the infancy of our species unknowingly in their shadow in places they would deem worthless wasteland. They are indifferent to us and given their abilities that is something to be thankful for. The most well known of them is code named BLUE HADES by the Laundry, an aquatic civilization that signed a treaty with the powers of the world. They promise not to cause our extinction and to remain aloof from our affairs and we promise to stay in our reservation. Which is in this case means the dry land and the top layers of the ocean they have no interest in. Their rivals or perhaps their enemies, are a chthonian race of creatures known by the code name DEEP SEVEN. Not much is known because there has not been a lot of contact with DEEP SEVEN because they live deep in the Earth's crust. Whatever wars they fought with BLUE HADES would have ended before humanity discovered writing at the latest which is lucky for us because the type of weapons that these creatures would have used against one another would have been beyond our understanding and our ability to protect ourselves from. Those weapons are still beyond our ability to protect ourselves from.
In 1975, in the Caribbean sea, a United States agency attempted to retrieve something from the bottom of the sea. They used what was state of the art technology at the time, however they were foiled by the defenses that BLUE HADES had set up. It was an expensive lesson in leaving well enough alone but it was one that was learned. The United States made no additional attempts, neither did any other nation. In the opening years of the 21st century however, there's always someone who thinks that whatever the government fails at, private industry can succeed at. Enter our villain Ellis Billington, software billionaire, who through the use of magic, creative accounting and the joys of selling to the government and setting the prices via regulatory capture is a man with too much bloody money. Unlike most of the men before him, he doesn't get involved in politics or charity; Mr. Billington prefers more arcane pursuits like trying to conquer the world by retrieving artifacts of an advanced alien race from the ocean floor. However he has a problem, that being that just about everyone else on the planet (excluding a very small number of allies and employees) are very much opposed to him becoming planetary overlord. This includes the US paranormal intelligence agency, the Black Chamber, an organization that our main character Bob views with dread and loathing. Considering who he works with and for... That's saying something. Mr. Billington didn't get to where he is without a certain level of intelligence and cunning however, so using resources both mundane, esoteric and morally vile, he has assembled a protection which means that the Black Chamber cannot touch him and nor can conventional law enforcement. Unfortunately for him, he had to leave a gap in the protection for it to work and it's into that gap that Bob Howard is heroically pushed. For the record readers, I do mean pushed.
Joining Bob on this mission are Pinkie and Brain, former roommates, techies and sorcerers without peer as his support team. Additionally he is joined by Ramona Random, a bombshell blonde to die for, who is also a field agent (aka assassin) for the Black Chamber. Joined by a magical ritual that has them sharing literal headspace (literally), Bob finds himself having trouble sorting out which thoughts and which emotions are actually his. On top of that is the fact that Ms. Random is hiding a number of her own secrets and definitely has her own agenda. He's barely briefed, out of his element, working a budget governed by the principals of austerity and is the only guy on the board who doesn't know the script. Which might be the only hole card that he has. He's gonna need it along with anything else he can scrape out of the white sands and deep blue sea. Oh, he also needs to wrap this up before his girlfriend Mo (also a member of the Laundry) comes looking for him and gets herself into the firing line.
Stross takes this opportunity to write a send up on James Bond films using the dark humor and lovecraftian universe of the Laundry Files. It's honestly well written, funny and at times thought provoking but there's a serious problem here. The book spends time trying to make Bob Howard into James Bond (with Bob fighting the plot every step of the way, God bless him) and I honestly found myself hating that. There's good reason for it, Mr. Stross has made sure that it makes perfect sense and I've certainly seen worse but... It comes down to I picked up this book because I wanted to read about Bob bloody Howard, not James Bond. While I don't mind send ups, this gets rather intrusive and undermines the fun of the book for me. Another problem is Ramona just doesn't work for me either. On paper she's an interesting and sympathetic character, as a person who has been denied her Constitutional rights by an accident of birth (something that is more relevant in 2017 then I am really happy with bluntly) and by the fact that she clearly working in a job she doesn't want to be working in. But I find myself left entirely cold and just not really caring all that much about Ms. Random which is likely unfair but it is what it is.
I did find some of the commentary on corporate culture and government work interesting, but I also felt that Bob didn't quite grasp some things. There's a point in the book where he points out that the government would never let him have an Aston Martin but will gleefully hand him a million dollars worth of malware, which once he uses it will likely escape out into the open market and lose value. My view of that is well yes of course they won't give you an Aston Martin Bob, you don't need it to do your job. You do however need that malware and you'll likely fail without it. It sucks but it's the same reason I couldn't get a damn 5 dollar seat cushion on the LAV I worked out of during the invasion but Uncle Sam happily slapped armor worth thousands of dollars on my pale hide to keep me alive. That said Bob does have a point in that the penny pinching forced onto our government services is often penny wise and pound foolish. There's a damn reason the Veteran Affairs office hasn't been able to computerize its records: because Congress looks at the price tag, groans to itself and thinks that they're not authorizing that big a bump in the budget it's a bloody election year and the donors will kill them. Never you mind by refusing to just bite the bullet they actually stack up expenses as money now has to be shelled out to maintain paper records which requires a bigger workforce, more space and means that the sheer effort to do anything is increased which leads to even more costs down the line! Never you mind the human costs of such things in veteran health and sanity, no one ever asks about that during budget meetings because it doesn't show up on a spreadsheet! *cough* Right, review book, don't political rant.
Now we do get to see more of Mo, the professor who stumbled into things man was not meant to know and who Bob rescued in the last book. She has grown between the books, picking up new interests and knowledge and becoming rather dangerous herself in a lot of ways and I think this is the root of my frustration with the book. At the end of the last book I was excited to see Mo and Bob working together, I thought they bounced off each other rather well and really wanted to see that in the field as it were. Instead I get Bob operating on his own as a mushroom (kept in the dark and fed... yeah) and it's not fun to read for me. It's not that this is a detective novel where there's a mystery and Bob has to piece it together, it's that everyone else knows what's going on and doesn't tell Bob and we have to follow along in the wake. I might also be outside the target audience in that I've never been a big Bond fan. I've seen the movies of course, the more ridiculous ones like Moonraker often tend to be my preferred ones but even as a 12 year old I can't say I ever approved of James Bond. I tend more towards guys like Captain America and John Sheridan or... Bob Howard and I hope in the next book to see Bob Howard being Bob Howard. Still the book is well written and very well researched, so I am giving the The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross a B-.
Join me next week as we look at something a little more theological.... The Blood of the Lamb by Mark E Rogers. Keep reading!
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.