RogerBW's Blog

The Atrocity Archives, Charles Stross 14 March 2016

2004 modern occult secret service, first in the Laundry Files series; a short novel of the same title coupled with the novella The Concrete Jungle. Bob Howard is a techie working for an extremely secret part of the British intelligence community, trying to suppress knowledge that could destroy the world… and clean up when it gets out.

The style, I'm told, is a deliberate imitation of Len Deighton; I've never read any of his books, so I can't say how well that works. This book is a good example of the "literature of ideas" school of science fiction, though: the characters don't have terribly distinctive voices, and they descend into infodumps on the slightest provocation, but the ideas that they infodump are great.

Bob himself is reasonably well developed as a personality, and some of the better material is not his deadpanning about how terribly fragile the world is but his dealing with his flatmates who don't take this stuff as terribly seriously as he does. Also well-observed is the tension between the supernatural horrors of a Lovecraftian universe and the human horrors of Nazis and terrorists, trying to use those supernatural horrors for their own human ends.

Less effective, for me, is the balance between world-saving adventure and thoroughly mundane bureaucracy. Yes, it might well be realistic, but it isn't much fun. (I'm not a fan of The Office either.)

In The Atrocity Archives the only female character who isn't a cardboard psycho bitch is more of a plot token and lust-object for Bob than anything else, though she has her moments; The Concrete Jungle does slightly better in this regard, and it's a pity DI Jo Sullivan didn't get particularly involved in later books. In fact The Concrete Jungle is a stronger story on all levels, not spending as much time on infodumps and instead getting on with the actual plot.

These are early stories, and the craft isn't always there: Stross's writing voice here is that of the cocky man who thinks he's funnier than he is. (Stross isn't, I should say, like this in person.) This is a book to be read for the ideas.

Followed by The Jennifer Morgue.

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  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 01:51pm on 14 March 2016

    These early Laundry book are the ones I actually like. The first two books were great, the third was awful. Reviews of the fourth showed it had almost as many flaws for me as the third and I gave up. I particularly don't like the way Stross has been changing his mind about things and retconning history or saying Bob was always an unreliable narrator.

    Are you sure Atrocity Archives was written in 2004? It's computer references feel about 10 years older than that. Heck I think I might have read if before 2004, I would need to check dates on John's Laundry campaign.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 02:08pm on 14 March 2016

    This is why I went back to write reviews of them: I enjoyed them for longer than you did, but I wanted to write positive reviews of the early ones rather than just negative reviews of the recent ones.

    Yes, 2004, though I believe it was serialised in Spectrum in 2001-2002 (without The Concrete Jungle attached). GCA says I generated Dr Bennett for that game in November 2007, first point award in January 2008).

  3. Posted by Owen Smith at 08:07pm on 14 March 2016

    OK so it's first publication was 2001 (and probably written a bit earlier), that makes more sense together with a bit of telescoping of time in my mind.

  4. Posted by Dr Bob at 07:00pm on 17 March 2016

    I didn't get on with Atrocity Archives at all. I almost gave up in the first chapter due to technobabble (yes I know some of it was tech rather than babble). It did get better, but then Charlie rather blew it for me by saying on a con panel that he'd written it thinking something along the lines of: "Wouldn't it be more horrifying if the Nazis did what they did because of the influence of Cthulhoid monsters?" And I'm thinking NO, NO, NO! It is far more horrifying that ordinary human beings did it.

    Did like Equoid and his book about economics in spaaaaace (blanking on the title).

  5. Posted by RogerBW at 07:10pm on 17 March 2016

    Yeah, I see that as being more interesting the other way up: there are horrible monsters out there, but they are here now because humans brought them here for human reasons (e.g. "we want to win the war"). (This has been something of a recurring theme in my WWII-with-magic campaign.)

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