RogerBW's Blog

Taxonomy of the Occult Secret Service 13 May 2016

John Dallman invented the term Occult Secret Service to describe the Laundry novels of Charles Stross (from 2001) and the Broom Cupboard novels of David Devereux (from 2008). It's become popular in other fiction and in role-playing games. Is it useful to analyse it further?

Unlike many genre labels, it's pretty easy to define. The setting (1) is a recognisable real (modern or historical) world; (2) it also has magic (broadly defined), but (3) this is not universally known (or the world wouldn't be recognisable); (4) the protagonists are fighting against nasty magical things in the world (some of them are probably magicians themselves); (5) they are working for a formal government organisation that also knows about magic.

So the RPG settings Unknown Armies (1998) and The Esoterrorists (2006), which tick many of the boxes, nevertheless aren't OSS because their heroes don't have direct pull with the government. They can't call up the police and have a street closed off, or a crime scene handed over to their jurisdiction. (The Esoterrorists does have a very powerful organisation as patron to the heroes, but it's a secret one, not part of any formal structure.)

James Oswald's book series about Inspector McLean (from 2012) isn't quite OSS because McLean is the only policeman who has any clue about magical weirdness, and even he doesn't know much. Paul Cornell's London Falling (also from 2012) is similarly on the edge: it has protagonists who are police officers and know about magic, but if they want backup from outside their immediate circle they have to concoct purely mundane explanations. There's no "Magic Division".

John Lambshead's Wolf in Shadow (2013) has The Commission as one of several OSS-type organisations fighting turf wars with each other; I gather he's written a novelette dealing with it directly, though I haven't read it. Similarly, the Charlie Higson TV series Jekyll and Hyde (2015) features a government department ("MI-O") responsible for monster-hunting in the 1930s. Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London (from 2011) has a secret branch of the Metropolitan Police which (while it's just as small as in London Falling) is an official "Magic Division", and can say that it needs something done without too many people asking silly questions.

Another usual, if not perhaps defining, characteristic of OSS books is that fights with bureaucracy may be as important as fights with monsters. Not every enemy has claws and goes "rar"; entirely mundane and non-violent foes may end up doing far more damage than a casually-summoned demon.

An obvious tool for subdivision is to look at how the organisation fits into the overall structure of government. Usually it's mostly off the books: other branches of government are aware that something exists, but they don't really know what it does, and the Civil Service doesn't encourage curiosity.

The Broom Cupboard doesn't seem to have any connections that get talked about, but is at least a few hundred years old. Organisationally it's an heir of John Dee and Walsingham – something that's since become quite popular in these books, with the Laundry claiming it in The Apocalypse Codex (2012), and the Commission growing from a research unit based in John Dee's library. But I asked the author for more information on the mundane side: as far as the rest of the structures of power are concerned, it's a boring logistical support branch which coordinates aid requests between agencies – so it can call up the Army and say "lend us a Lynx and a half-brick of your finest nutters", and there's a name to go on the paperwork. On the other hand, it clearly has unofficial sources too; in Eagle Rising our hero is implanted as a courier between MI5 and GCHQ in order to give him a chance to read some documents recovered from a crime scene.

Through a mundane lens, the Laundry is the sole heir of SOE – though mostly its agents get by with magically-boosted warrant cards. The Commission is opposed by, and has vicious jurisdiction battles with, the Black Museum, which is – not what you might think it was from that name – more or less the British Museum's Special Operations Division. (As opposed to the British Library's Special Operations Division, which I got from the anime series Read or Die and may yet use in modified form in an OSS game). All of these lack cover excuses: they have a place in the org chart, but they don't say what they do or for the most part have an excuse for the requests they make. Aaronovitch's Folly is generally held to be a boring section within Economic and Specialist Crime… except that senior policemen clearly know it's "X-Files shit", and I have trouble believing in the discretion of all senior policemen. Particularly in the more recent books, it's pretty clear that there's a lot of weird stuff going on and these are known to be the people to handle it.

One of my own unpublished contributions to this genre, which I'd like to expand on some day, gives the Civil Nuclear Constabulary a new division, BCU Black, to deal with ontological threats; that provides an actual known organisation name to appear on the paperwork. This setup is closest to Aaronovich's, but the CNC is less of a police force and more of an armed security force for nuclear materials at rest or in transit; it has jurisdiction anywhere in the UK if nuclear materials are (plausibly believed to be) involved. Here the heroes will have the problem of being coppers or specialists in a force that, well, doesn't exactly value traditional policing skills in its core culture, and certainly isn't going to be open to the idea of weird stuff. (Since I came up with this, I've learned that the UKAEA has a Special Techniques Group. Well, how can one resist something like that?)

None of these, I note, is based in the regular armed services, even in military intelligence, though there may be an historical connection. Most OSS agents aren't front-line combat types, though they can hold their own. Magic accessible to protagonists tends to be slow and fiddly, or defensive; they aren't casually throwing fireballs around, though the enemy may be. To me one of the good things about most examples of the OSS is relatively weak people against relatively powerful enemies: as in Reign of Steel, taking on the bad guys head-on just gets you dead, so protagonists have to be sneaky and clever. Being able to call on soldiers is just more responsibility: they may be handy against human enemies, but against the sort of end-stage threat the heroes are dealing with they're fodder more than fire support.

Combine that with the tension of trying to defend the innocent, but perhaps being called on instead to defend the guilty in high places, and there are all sorts of opportunities for challenges to character that don't just involve having a bigger wand than the other guys – while allowing tedious details, like "who pays our keep while we run around chasing monsters", to be bypassed.


  1. Posted by John Dallman at 01:14pm on 13 May 2016

    Gosh, thanks for the name-check. I hadn't realised the term had spread.

    Ian Tregillis' Milkweed trilogy is also definitely OSS.

    China Miéville's novel Kraken features the "Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crimes Unit" of the Metropolitan Police, who are verging on OSS, although they are limited to police powers. The great advantage of their title is that people can accept that sects might do very strange things, and believe in occult things, which then have to be studied to understand what the weirdoes are up to. It's a good excuse.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 01:18pm on 13 May 2016

    I've heard the term being used by people to whom I haven't previously mentioned it, so I think that counts as "spread".

    Agreed on the Tregillis; I've only read the first, and didn't much rate it, but it certainly satisfies the criteria.

    The protagonists of the Aaronovitch books are similarly legally restricted to police rather than covert-operative powers, though as in many of these things they can get away with some fairly big magic (as long as they stay subtle) simply because most people don't believe in the stuff and therefore won't think of it as an explanation for weird behaviour.

  3. Posted by Michael Cule at 06:20pm on 13 May 2016

    Well, where would you hide an anti-Things-That-Man-Was-Not-Meant-To-Know unit? Or even an anti-Things-That-Go-Bump-In-The-Night unit?

    In my Buffy fanfic I put HMG's liaison office with the Watcher's Council in the Ministry of Health. It seemed the logical thing to do.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 06:32pm on 13 May 2016

    I think what they need is a plausible cover story, not just for why they exist at all ("we deal with a very boring and rare type of problem" is fine for that), but for why they sometimes borrow people and send them back in body bags. Your actual intelligence agencies can say "national security, ask again in thirty years and we'll give you the same answer", but the Tedious Crimes Unit doesn't have the same excuse. (BCU Black and the Special Techniques Group can say "radiation accident", which is a trick that didn't occur to me when I came up with them.)

  5. Posted by Phil Masters at 08:14am on 21 May 2016

    You don't mention the Delta Green RPG, which predates the Stross/Laundry sequence in putting an OSS into the Lovecraft milieu. American-based, of course, but I believe that Delta Green and its deadly rivals have a canonical UK counterpart.

    There's also a sub-sub-genre in which the main occult threat to be dealt with is vampires. The TV series Ultraviolet is the pure UK version, with a small unit that seems to represent a collaboration between the Department of Health and the Vatican (for immaculately logical reasons, when you think about it, though it's vampires are more quasi-rationalised than damned), you could sort-of put Buffy's Initiative in the same box, and The Dracula Dossier is about what happens when the OSS model of how to deal with vampires goes toxic with hubris.

  6. Posted by RogerBW at 09:16am on 21 May 2016

    I've never actually played Delta Green but it certainly fits. The only slight stretching is to point 3, because as far as I remember there are plenty of other government and private organisations that know about the Mythos (and indeed have been corrupted by it).

    And yes, those others would certainly fit; I don't think that there's any specific requirement of the "magic" except that it should be capable of being vaguely subtle at some point in its manifestations, so that the response is investigators rather than artillery.

  7. Posted by Phil Masters at 10:14am on 22 May 2016

    The Mythos remains secret from the world at large in Delta Green. There are multiple agencies in the OSS business there, sure, but isn't that true of several of your examples?

    The OSS concept is primarily a logical corollary of any setting with secret magic that doesn't hand-wave it into perfect secrecy (the way that Harry Potter does). Magic grants power; power can be used to cause trouble; sooner or later, governments will become aware of this issue, and will want to do something about it; the agencies they create to handle the matter will probably be built on the pattern of their existing secret problem-solving agencies.

    But there's slightly more to it than that. As Ken Hite emphasises in things like The Madness Dossier (yet another case in point), the western occult tradition at least is obsessed with things like cryptography and code words - and with acts of darkness done in pursuit of the ultimate good. Spies and occultists are both supposed to be worried about the corruptions of power, but merrily pursue power anyway. And heck, what does "occult" mean, after all?

    So there's a lot of fun to be had in playing with these parallels.

  8. Posted by RogerBW at 09:49pm on 22 May 2016

    To me the "true" OSS has the protagonists' agency being the only one that does this stuff, at least in their own country, but that's a feeling more than a formal definition - not to mention a fairly sensible division of resources, if having a little knowledge is hugely dangerous.

    It would be distinctly interesting to see what an Indian, Japanese or Chinese author made of this idea.

  9. Posted by Phil Masters at 08:22am on 23 May 2016

    Espionage stories - of which the OSS story is a mutant offshoot, if it's not just a loose framework/excuse for run-and-shoot thrillers - are often about the ambiguity and uncertainty that comes with institutional secrecy. Rivalrous factions and internal disagreements about ends and means are inherent in the concept. Given which, I think that you're always going to get at least the possibility that some of those internal differences are going to be reified as distinct agencies.

    I mean, encounters and conflicts with other agencies from other countries are always going to be a plot option; does dealing with a different agency from the same country change the genre so radically?

    Or to put it another way, insisting on one agency per country makes The Laundry OSS, but Delta Green not-OSS. And that way, madness lies.

  10. Posted by RogerBW at 02:11pm on 23 May 2016

    Fair enough, call it a distinct subgenre (I did originally approach this in terms of dissection, thus the post title): "only we among the nominal good guys have magic" vs "multiple nominal good guys have magic".

  11. Posted by Phil Masters at 04:35pm on 23 May 2016

    The rivalrous agencies don't have to be "nominal good guys". Both Delta Green's Majestic-12 and Dracula Dossier's Operation Edom are major antagonist groups. Do they define themselves as "good guys"? well, they're classic espionage outfits which have got tangled up in the ambiguities of ends and means; anyone who's spent too long gazing into the abyss will tend to regard terms like "good guys" as hopelessly juvenile.

  12. Posted by RogerBW at 04:43pm on 23 May 2016

    By "nominal good guys" I think I mean "supposedly working towards the same goals as the PCs", in a very broad sense such as the good of the country. I don't know about Edom, but DG's Majestic-12 is a US government agency, if an extremely secret one; it can't be made to go away simply by shooting it or mind-controlling it. In other words, it's a different class of enemy from the usual magical beasties, mundane agencies, or foreign powers.

  13. Posted by Mr. Insidious at 05:35am on 05 June 2016

    Christopher Rice's Aeon C-Team certainly seems to be falling under this genre. Even with superheroes running around, everyone's response to magic is still "Magic doesn't exist!"

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