RogerBW's Blog

The Annihilation Score, Charles Stross 24 September 2015

2015 modern occult secret service, sixth in the Laundry Files series. As CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN continues, more and more people are developing occult powers, and they envision them according to their own mythologies. Which means superheroes. Mo O'Brien, combat epistemologist and wielder of the last Zahn violin, now has to run a super-crime-fighting squad.

This is the first Laundry book not to be told from Bob Howard's viewpoint. Mo is his wife, separated from him at the end of The Rhesus Chart on the official basis that her violin wants to kill him and can get inside her head, mostly in practice because of the thing that's now in his head after the events of that book.

The first problem is that Mo doesn't really have a distinctive voice. Most of what she says could have been said by Bob, except for the parts that make up the second problem: presumably in an attempt to give her that distinctive voice, Stross has chosen to make her a stereotypical emotionally-flaky woman having a minor nervous breakdown. This isn't what she has ever been like before (even if you retroactively assume that Bob was always giving unreliable narration, which Stross has now begun to claim), and it doesn't make her someone I want to read about. The first half of the book is a long series of her insecurities about working with other women with whom Bob may or may not have had relationships before they got together. Yes, the woman's story turns out to be all about the man. Talking about the Bechdel test (and getting it wrong), and giving a middle-aged woman a superpower of literally not being noticed, doesn't automatically give you a Feminist Ally Card.

In truth, there's a knot of tension behind my sternum that does not dissolve in relief at the idea of spending an evening in the company of a vampire and a mermaid who both once upon a time had carnal relationships with my currently separated husband.

And while Bob had nightmares from the violin for years and kept on being Mo's emotional backstop, the moment Mo starts to feel a little uneasy about him she's out of there and, while not talking to Bob about it, allowing herself to start to get involved with an attractive co-worker. Which again doesn't really invoke my sympathy. Sure, you can say she's having a breakdown/crisis/PTSD/whatever, but why should I care what happens to her when you don't give her any positive traits? This isn't "Mo O'Brien who's going through some tough times but whom I still care about because I liked her in previous books", this is an insecure narcissistic Bridget Jones clone without redeeming features.

So what about the plot? Well, just as The Rhesus Chart assumed a fascination with vampires, The Annihilation Score assumes a fascination with superheroes that I simply don't share. There's no effort made to get me interested in the conventional approach before the deconstruction begins. So people are developing paranormal powers, assuming that they are becoming superheroes (apparently in a world where comics froze in the 1980s, as everyone here is using a very old-fashioned four-colour Good Guys and Bad Guys model), and Mo's job is to head the agency that's going to discourage vigilantism, work with the police, and have its own high-profile superhero team to go after the villains. Meanwhile what seems to be a mad scientist, "Professor Freudstein", is committing major robberies…

Yeah, that "they assume it's superpowers" is a bad start. Apparently this all works by country, because all countries are monocultured and never talk to each other (except in the USA):

In sub-Saharan Africa we are tracking an upswing in reports of vigilante attacks on suspected witches. […] In predominantly Islamic countries there have been increasing reports of Djinn and ifrit, and witchcraft trials have been reported in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan's tribal territories, and Afghanistan. […] There've also been outbreaks of miracles in Poland, Ireland, Mexico, and elsewhere in Central and South America. Statues of the Virgin crying tears of blood, that sort of thing. Religious manifestations in India, much speaking in tongues in Baptist churches in the Deep South.

But in England? Apart from one djinn in a Muslim area, it's all superheroes all the time, and nobody is even sceptical about it.

And of course that means you can't even pretend these books are set in anything like the real world any more. There are public superheroes, and people with weird powers, all over the place. This changes everything, and to claim that life will basically go on as before modulo a few more explosions seems ingenuous in the extreme.

Of course there's a mystery going on too, but here's another key to the book's problems: Mo doesn't solve it. She goes along with this and that and the other, defends herself at Home Office briefings just enough to keep her job, falls for some of the oldest tricks in the book, and is taken completely by surprise by the betrayal that was obvious to us back at the beginning while she was still whining about the fact that other women had once found her husband attractive. (It doesn't help that she's also denied information about what's going on from her Laundry bosses, apparently for no reason other than to keep the particularly dim reader in suspense.)

As a result of this failure, some two thousand civilians die. But we don't even get any of the tear-jerking manipulative stuff we got about the dead Laundry operatives in The Rhesus Chart, oh no; none of these people matter, they weren't the important ones, they're just there to bulk up the body count.

There are continuity errors and things that never get resolved. A "use this to call me in emergency" device never gets used. An important meeting is called but never happens. Worry about K-syndrome never goes anywhere. There's inconsistency about the locations the Laundry is using for offices. CRB checks haven't existed since 2012, before the book started to be written. Here in the UK we've mostly never heard of the American police PR campaign "Officer Friendly", so why would we call a superheroic policeman that? The editor, and the large number of credited test-readers, should feel ashamed of themselves, unless they told Charlie about this stuff and he ignored them.

all I can think of is a silly book that Bob told me he was reading a couple of years ago, by some dead famous author, who came up with a clever neologism, what was it… an out of concept problem? No: an out of context problem.

No, it was an outside context problem. Very specifically. But who cares about the difference between lightning and a lightning bug when you can write a 140,000-word book in eighteen days?

Or you could slow down a bit and get it right. Or at least fix it in the second draft before you invite people to put down money for your work.

(Yes, I'm bitter. I've recently been working on revisions to a much shorter book which will have a much smaller audience. But I am doing my best to make sure that every damn word in my book is the right word, because what's the point of doing it at all if I don't do the best possible job?)

A final frustration was that as soon as the King in Yellow was mentioned I knew perfectly well that this was a Major Clue, and I'd have been much more interested if the book had been about something a bit less well-worn, like, oh:

Delia Derbyshire's symphony for fixed-disk storage systems that requires about two million pounds' worth of 1970-vintage IBM 370-series mainframe: apparently if you move the disk drive read/write heads fast enough they make screeching sounds at set frequencies.

But that just gets a passing mention, and Lost Carcosa is the major plot driver. Ho hum.

The next book, working title The Nightmare Stacks, is apparently going to be from the point of view of Alex. Who? One of the interchangeable background vampires from The Rhesus Chart. At this point I have no plans to read it. Unreliable narrator indeed!

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 11:41am on 24 September 2015

    Yeah. The major failure here is the change of tone. I'm willing to forgive Charlie the inability to write women characters (mostly because I'm not at all sure how good I am at it myself) but the shift away from bureaucratic-comedy-mixed-with-cosmic-horror to what can only be described as 'wackiness' is harder to put aside.

    I'm going to carry on reading: I want to get to the book beyond next which returns to Bob and involves... that would be spoilery...

  2. Posted by Owen Smith at 02:18pm on 24 September 2015

    I loved the first two Laundry books. I hated the third one, and gave up after that.

  3. Posted by John Dallman at 02:27pm on 24 September 2015

    Oh, is that what Officer Friendly was referencing? I just took the initial references as "something that some of the characters know about but hasn't been explained yet."

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 03:37pm on 24 September 2015

    Owen – at some point I plan to write reviews of the earlier books.

    John – that was my assumption. There's nothing else that seems to refer to it.

  5. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 01:51pm on 26 September 2015

    I shall be interested in seeing your reviews in due course.

    I tended to agree in principle with your review of the previous book, as in it was a bit rough around the edges, but managed to enjoy it despite this. I'm surprise at the characterization of Mo, because I thought that Charlie has done quite well with his portal series and Halting State stories that have female characters, but perhaps I missed something and someone can enlighten me?

  6. Posted by Owen Smith at 03:44pm on 26 September 2015

    In Britain we have our own myths and heroes. As well as comic super heroes, there should be outbreaks of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table plus Merlin and the expanded cast including villains, and Boudicea and her warriors fighting off the Romans might make an appearance. It could also stretch to King Harold bravely trying to fight off the Norman invasion, or rebels like Hereward the Wake or to dip into the Scottish stuff Bonnie Prince Charlie. There is plenty more Welsh, Scottish and Irish stuff.

    If you need to widen the field, how about lost dead Tommies from WWI trying to find their pals? Or heroic Battle of Britain airmen, complete with a Spitfire or Hurricane that can mysteriously launch from their suburban bedroom?

    And dare I mention Harry Potter? Wizards secrectly live among us keeping their powers mostly hidden fits perfectly with a sudden outbreak of powers.

    We have a rich mythology of our own folk heroes, but I suspect Charlie is pandering to the US market hence sticking with super heroes. Or is he looking for the Marvel tie in money?

    If the change of style is as severe as Roger and Michael claim, this book would prove annoy the hell out of me.

  7. Posted by RogerBW at 02:12pm on 27 September 2015

    Ashley: I can't account for it. I agree that the Halting State series had much better-characterised women. The major difference here may be that Mo's relationships are a primary focus, and her thoughts about them fall far too easily into stereotype.

    Owen: quite so, there are lots of other possibilities. (And the free web fiction series Shadow Unit, which I'd strongly recommend, explores this sort of thing in rather more detail; the premise there is that something gives people paranormal powers, but the form those powers take is rooted in their existing worldview and obsessions.) Catering primarily to American readers would account for Officer Friendly, but I suspect Charlie simply wanted a book about superheroes in the Laundryverse, just as the last one was going to be about vampires in the Laundryverse, and then searched for a way to make it happen rather than building from the bottom up.

  8. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 02:29pm on 27 September 2015

    Apropos the American market. This might be a meta reflection that Britain is becoming more Americanized.

  9. Posted by RogerBW at 03:42pm on 27 September 2015

    I see what you did there. :-) Fair point, but "Officer Friendly" is very specifically an American thing.

  10. Posted by Owen Smith at 01:19pm on 28 September 2015

    I have no clue who or what Officer Friendly is.

  11. Posted by RogerBW at 01:30pm on 28 September 2015

    Wikipedia will explain.

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