Saturday, July 11, 2009

Charles Stross - The Atrocity Archives

Charles Stross, The Atrocity Archives, Ace, 2004.

Spoiler warning!

This novel tells the story of Bob Howard, who works in the Laundry, a secret government department devoted to containing the contacts between our world and other worlds. These worlds are reached through arcane mathematics (or magic), and contain various monsters, powers and spells which can all be explained in scientific-sounding terms. This is all based on the Turing Theorem:

[...] everything you know about the way this universe works is correct - except that this isn't the only universe we have to worry about. Information can leak between one universe and another. And in a vanishingly small number of the other universes there are things that listen, and talk back [...] (p. 17).

Bob was enlisted in the Laundry after coming across some mathematical formula that could have led to the destruction of his city. People who "know too much" have to join the secret organization that controls this sort of knowledge. This reminded me of the film "Men in Black", except here there is no memory-erasing option. Imagine your life being changed in an instant, when you discover something of great importance, and as a result are forced to work in a strange but bureaucratic job for the rest of your life. Bob seems to embrace this change and tries to develop a useful career. He starts out working in tech support, and as the story starts he is promoted to active duty.

Bob's first major mission involves rescuing Mo, a British academic who is being refused an exit visa from America. For me one of the things that most stretched my suspension of disbelief was that Mo taught in a philosophy department, and her research there brought her to the attention of the American defense establishment. The idea that philosophy scholars could produce theories of any practical interest to the Defense Department or the Laundry seems incredible in my experience. Perhaps the author was more familiar with science and technology departments than the humanities.

Bob meets up with Mo, then discovers that things are more complicated than originally thought, and decides to leave the country before things get worse. In the one major inconsistency of the book, it seems that he phones Mo to tell her about this, only to discover that she has been kidnapped. This phone call is presented, throughout the remainder of the story, as having been initiated by Mo, but it doesn't seem like it at the time:

"Hello? Who is this?"
"Mo? This is Bob."
"Bob -"
"Yeah. Look, about this afternoon."
"It's so great to hear -"
"It was great seeing you too, but that's not what I'm calling about. Something's come up at home and I've got to leave [...]"

I found it very strange that this was later presented as Mo calling Bob, and that it hasn't been corrected in later editions of the book. But this is just a minor mistake.

The story develops, with Mo being rescued, recruited to the Laundry, then kidnapped again. Bob and his team have to rescue her from a very strange location, and Bob demonstrates his wide range of knowledge and skills.

Bob is a likable character, with his humour, intelligence, impatience with office politics and impressive adjustment to the needs of his new career. Stross recently wrote a series of posts on his blog about his early career in IT (before he became a full-time writer), and the influences are obvious, including small touches like the management going around removing Dilbert cartoons from the walls of partitions before visits of higher-up bosses (p. 5-6), which was mentioned as a practice in one of Stross's jobs.

The story is entertaining and intelligent, the characters are engaging and the whole set-up, while seeming far-fetched in some ways (the magic and multiverse), is real enough in other ways (the office politics) for readers to identify with.

The book also contains the novella "The Concrete Jungle", another Bob Howard story, which addresses the topic of surveillance with a twist. This contains a memorable description of an unhackable computer:

Didn't they know that the only unhackable computer is one that's running a secure operating system, welded inside a steel safe, burried under a ton of concrete at the bottom of a coal mine guarded by the SAS and a couple of armoured divisions, and switched off?

I recommend this novel, and look forward to reading the next Laundry novel, The Jennifer Morgue.

No comments: