The Atrocity Archives - Charles Stross

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

The Atrocity Archives
Charles Stross
Golden Gryphon Press
ISBN: 1930846258 (Amazon link)

I read Stross' Singularity Sky recently, and although I loved it, I was surprised to find that other people reckoned it was one of Stross' poorer efforts. That's the sort of comment that makes me buy more from an author. The Atrocity Archives is superb. For lots of reasons. I'll try and be methodical and make a list.

Let's start with the cover. It's very nice. Seriously, it is. It's the sort of cover for a SF novel that doesn't make you want to hide it inside something less embarrassing, like, say, a Playboy magazine, while on the bus. I don't think I have any of this small publisher's books on my shelves, but it's a handsome product, thick paper, nice binding. Oddly impressed with the paper as I was, it's what's on the paper that's important, and that breaks down into five sections.

First goodie, a long introduction from Ken McLeod. He talks quite a bit about Stross' background, and why IT's central to the sort of novel he writes, even when it is apparently about secret government services battling Lovecraftian demons:

"Imagine a world where speaking or writing words can literally and directly make things happen, where getting one of those words wrong can wreak unbelievable
havoc, but where with the right spell you can summon immensely powerful agencies to work your will. Imagine further that this world is administered: there is an extensive division of labour, among the magicians themselves and between the magicians and those who coordinate their activity. It's bureaucratic, and also (therefore) chaotic, and it is full of people at desks muttering curses and writing invocations, all beavering away at a small part of the big picture. The coordinators, because they don't understand what's going on, are easy prey for smooth talking preachers of bizarre cults that demand arbitrary sacrifices and vanish with large amounts of money. Welcome to the IT department."

(Okay, so non-developers might not find that as powerfully succinct a summary of the modern software industry, or as funny, as I did.)

Second goodie, the main course, a short novel called The Atrocity Archive (singular, as opposed to bound book's plural). In an interview on the Infinity Plus website the author describes this as:

"... a British spy thriller in the tradition of Len Deighton [...] that Neal Stephenson might have written to an outline by H. P. Lovecraft. The many-angled ones live at the bottom of the Mandelbrot set, and The Laundry exists to protect the British Isles from the scum of the multiverse. Our hero, Bob, is a slashdot-reading hacker-geek who's fallen into spook-land and can't get out--he's on a voyage to the heart of darkness, and his vessel is a British government agency that is in the process of becoming the world's first ISO-9000 quality-assured secret intelligence service."

Our Hero is Bob, a typical computer nerd - okay, he's got a girlfriend, but she's psychotic and sort of not with him anyway - who wasn't anyone special until his academic work drew him to the attention of The Laundry because "I'd worked out the geometry curve iteration method for invoking Nyarlathotep and nearly wiped out Birmingham by accident. Then they came and offered me a post of Senior Scientific Officer and made it clear that 'no' wasn't on the list of acceptable answers."

This makes more sense when you realise that this is a world where computations mean something; due to highly advanced, and highly entertaining, handwaving, certain calculations in this universe can resonate with other universes. Bob's universe is the one where Turing wrote "Phase Conjugate Grammars for Extradimensional Summoning". One of the best jokes in the entire book is when we learn that Knuth's fourth volume has been classified, under the secret third section to the Official Secrets Act, because he re-discovered Turing's work. If that's not funny to you, or you just don't know who Knuth is, then this, sadly, probably means half the fun of this novel is going to pass you by.

Bob's stumble into this secret world and his new life as a self-described "darkside hacker" isn't actually that interesting. The Laundry exists mainly to put troublesome people behind civil service desks and keep them out of trouble until retirement. Bob now lives with Pinky and the Brain in the sort of squalid geek house familiar to many post-grads, albeit second hand Sparc stations were more common than demon summoning grids. In between dealing with his anti-social housemates, and his crazy on-off girlfriend, Bob is getting a little bored with his job. Relegating a hacker to mere system admin and not allowing him to poke his nose into interesting things is cruel, and so Bob has been agitating to be put onto active duty. This is not a good idea in a classic British bureaucracy, especially one hampered by the rules imposed by classified working practices, ISO standards and, er, zombie security guards. I was reminded most of David Langford's A Leaky Establishment, and certain pub conversations I've had with people in the past, whose jobs, in theory, were more interesting than mine. Um, obviously they didn't tell me anything, but what they didn't tell me was very funny, but of course I didn't really know why. Er, time to move on...

Bob's transition to a new role as an active field agent is occasioned by a beautiful episode featuring a training course, an idiot from the wrong department, demonic possession and a handy, and heavy, fire extinguisher. What really makes the episode is the wonderful mix of real horror Bob has at his actions, and the reality of why what he did was necessary, and the droll treatment of the office paperwork afterwards. This is a job where heroically saving the world from things "squamous and rugose" can lead to disciplinary action for poor time-keeping records and failure to fill in the approval forms ahead of time.

After his fire-extinguisher-fu, Bob gets his chance escape the office politics and do his bit for saving the world from the brain eaters from beyond the stars when he's sent to the US to check out just how close to Turing's work a certain researcher is getting. That she turns out to a beautiful redhead doesn't matter to Bob at all of course, not does it influence his actions when our geek - more at home with a multi-tool or a Palm than a gun - finds himself drawn into a kidnap plot involving middle eastern extremists. Complications ensue. Only when Bob gets back from that particular international incident do things get really interesting... In a tour de force of straight-faced story control, Stross shows us that the complications themselves turn out to have complications, not least on the office politicking, and pretty soon he has managed to construct a full blown Castle Wolfenstein scenario - referenced by Bob of course - with undead space nazis, horrors from the dungeon dimensions, ice giants carving faces on the moon and a laconic detachment of the Artists Rifles. Absolutely wonderful stuff.

First few pages can be found here but to be fair, things only get interesting once Bob gets back to the office, and although it represents his writing style nicely, this doesn't at all represent how dense with ideas the rest of the novel is.

Third goodie, a novella which also features Bob and the Laundry, but which isn't a sequel in any meaningful sense. In an interview on the Scifi website Stross talks about how IT experience forces him to write SF differently:

"Have you noticed how many classic thriller/suspense plot structures rely on thehero or heroine not having a mobile phone? Now, it's worth asking: How many classic SF plot structures rely on the central character not having their entire sensory feed backed up on a bunch of server farms on the other side oft he planet, or on the evil megacorporation's file servers with the secret plans for total world domination not being on a disconnected network? Bandwidth and connectivity have the same structural implications for much modern SF that travel time and isolation had for older fiction. And that's just one example of what you get when you start tooling up to write SF with a comp-sci background."

I had this at the back of my mind as I started The Concrete Jungle. Although I've seen a few comments that this novella isn't as satisfying as the main novel, I personally thought it was massively improved by way he incorporated the theme above, and also by how what the story seems to be about, isn't really what the story is about in the end. What the story appears to be about is Milton Keynes' sprouting an extra stone cow overnight, this one probably the work of a Gorgon. There's some nice classified medical case notes from the past, where scientists try to tie Gorgonism into the newly emerging science of quantum mechanics, and it's insistence on the role of the observer. What Stross does that I admired was connect that with networks, cheap digital cameras, and an understanding of why the RIAA, vendor lock-in and non-open standards are bad. The start of this novella you read for the secret agent action, the mid-portion for the overt geek content, and the ending for delicious madness of The Laundry's bureaucracy. Not quite on a par with The Atrocity Archive, maybe, but still superb.

Fourth goodie, a long afterword in which Stross deconstructs his own work. This might sound a little self-indulgent, but it's interesting stuff, not least in pre-empting questions about Tim Power's excellent Declare. Declare's a very different style of novel to The Atrocity Archive, not least in taking John Le Carre and a Djinn in Soviet Russia as a starting point, but although the genre isn't exactly as limited as "Vampire Samurai novels", comparisons are inevitable. Stross says he was warned away from reading Powers' take before he'd finished his own novel, that he liked it, and basically talks a bit about why they're not really addressing the same ideas.

Last up, a glossary. This is probably the only section of the book I didn't enjoy. Okay, so the scope for enjoyment in glossary land is generally limited, but my inner pedant - like an imp of the perverse but more inclined to get me into footnotes than adventures - was piqued by a some of the definitions. Obviously the fun TLIs for supernatural SWAT teams stand, but I understood COTS to be "Commercial off-the-shelf" instead of "Cheap off-the-shelf", an important distinction in this age of free software and massive license fees. Usage may differ in hardware land, in which I've never lived. However, I did live next door for quite a while when I worked in telecomms, and I understood FPGA to mean "Field programmable gate array", not "Fully prog<mumble>". But that's being picky. Very very picky.

Charles Stross is definitely the most exciting writer I have discovered for years. The Atrocity Archives is highly recommended, and if you know who Donald Knuth is, then I'd upgrade that recommendation to simply Buy This Book.

Update: I've since been pointed to Stross' earlier novella A Colder War, which is a bleaker, harsher take on the central idea in The Atrocity Archive. It's good, but expanded to novel length would be unbearable...

Posted: Sun - August 1, 2004 at 08:17 PM