Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Laundry Series by Charles Stross

The first rule about The Laundry is that you don’t talk about The Laundry.  The second rule about The Laundry is that if you do talk about The Laundry then your magically compelled oath of obedience will horrifically kill you.  Don’t forget to properly file your expense reports!

A recent vacation gave me an opportunity to read all the current Laundry materials in basically one go, and afterwards I have a new appreciation for Charles Stross.  I’ve really enjoyed some of his work, but thought that some of the others were not so great; on the whole, the Laundry stuff is really solid.  But what is the Laundry, you ask?  The basic idea behind the series is that it examines the life of civil servant Bob Howard (apparently not his real name, since real names have power.  As to why all the people in the office choose pseudonyms that are basically ordinary names, I don’t know, although his pseudonymous initials are BOFH, clearly no coincidence).  Howard works in the department of the civil service that deals with occult and extradimensional threats – it makes sense after all that if there really were occult and extradimensional threats, that there would be some government organization to deal with it.  But unlike many fictional depictions of such an organization, it doesn’t have an unlimited budget, does not entitle you to go around busting heads without authorization, and they make you fill out a requisition for the fancy equipment and dock your pay if you don’t return it.

The Laundry recruits people who have seen too much or who discover too much on their own.  Howard himself was a computer hacker and mathematician who nearly invoked a nameless horror on the town where he was living at the time.  The basis behind computational demonology is that higher mathematics is indistinguishable from magic, and that properly invoking certain equations can allow . . . things to come through.  Stross originally imagined this as a spy thriller with Lovecraftian cosmic horror elements, but as the series has gone on it’s become more of a typical urban fantasy setup – with the Lovecraft cosmic horror stuff still included, of course.  It’s also a proper series; another basic underlying problem is CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, which means that the Earth is passing through an area of space where the “borders” are weaker, and the increasing number of computers and large number of people will inevitably allow cosmic incursion of horrible things.  (Incidentally this can’t be avoided through genocide, since a large number of deaths will have the same effect, and Luddite-ism will also not work, since it will cause the same number of deaths, with the same effect.  We are just screwed and it’s unclear whether humanity has any chance to survive.)

So, of course, faced with an inevitable cosmic invasion, all the various countries’ occult defense agencies engage in petty turf wars and spend about as much time screwing with each other as with busting caps in zombies or whatnot.  About right, I’d say.  And Howard’s organization is obsessed with keeping track of paperclips and everyone’s timesheets.  This is still better than the American occult agency, which employs a variety of *cough* “nonhuman” employees and whose contract specifies that it is not terminated upon death.  They also refer to their agents taking “the Dark Mark” and refer to some of their troubleshooters as “Nazgul”, in both cases without irony.

Anyhow, the series currently includes five novels and an approximately equal number of novellas and short stories.  The shorter works tend to have a slightly different tone than the main works, generally somewhat lighter and more comedic, although in the case of Hugo-winner “Equoid”, straight-up pants-wetting horror as opposed to the somewhat wry tendencies of the main novels.

The first novel, “The Atrocity Archives”, has some of the first-installment weirdness that you would expect from a series that is just finding its legs, in the sense that the details that we’re given here don’t necessarily match up entirely with what we’re told in later novels.  (Stross deals with this by pointing out that Bob is an unreliable narrator and may not always be going for complete accuracy in his memoirs.)  Nonetheless the book introduces some of the key characters and key themes that we’ll be seeing throughout, such as Bob’s future girlfriend/wife Monique O’Brien and his boss Angleton, who appears to have been around for a somewhat surprisingly long time without having notably aged.  Hmm.

In any event, Bob decides that he wants to become an active duty agent since his job as an occult network administrator is deadly boring.  Although this may have seemed like a good idea at the time, he ends up continuing to have to engage in the network administration for supervisors that consider this the most important part of his job at the same time that he is tapped for increasingly dangerous field operations that could leave him dead or worse.  In this sense he’s lucky to be married to Mo, who utilizes her skills as a violinist and “combat epistemologist” to do wet work for the agency, and the two of them are essentially able to relate to and comfort each other from the terrible psychological toll that their work entails.  At least for a time.

There’s a lot of ground to cover and a summary of all these novels would take too long.  The second one is a straight-up James Bond parody/pastiche/homage, but as I said before he basically mines out that stuff and goes to urban fantasy, more or less.  That’s all right with me, but some readers might get turned off by it.  And they are also by no means perfect; the works tend to contain a fair bit of repetition and reminders, which might be more appreciated by someone that wasn’t just binge reading the whole series like I was.  Looking at some of Stross’ own commentary on these books it seems like he has gunned some of them out very quickly, and that does occasionally show.

Nonetheless, the various horrors faced by Bob are incredibly creepy, in true Stross fashion, and as it turns out many of them can be invoked by touch or just by thinking about the wrong formulae in the wrong way.  There’s a lot of body horror and parasitic monsters that ride on and/or control people, eating their tongues, coring their insides, castrating them.  Some of it is pretty out there.  Many of the real villains are just people, of course.  Cosmic horrors gotta cosmic horror, that’s just how they roll – but people trying to call up stuff they cannot put down, that’s how people do, and fortunately people can be fought and defeated.  For now.  Even if they are Americans, who are portrayed as either straight up evil or at the least very gullible indeed.  (However, the heavy-handed approach taken by the American occultists is explained in-series as a consequence of the US' enormous physical size and tendency to have isolated cultists who can't separate out reality that well during the best of times; the UK's more compact nature will make it easier to defend, and their surveillance society is - well, you'll see if you read it.)

Throughout the course of the series Bob himself gains in various powers, both practical (fieldwork), magical (gaining the power to eat souls), and political (promotion to lower management).  Given his general lackadaisical attitude and inherent laziness – at least insofar as he self-reports – it will be intriguing to see how everything proceeds.  There’s a new one coming out next month which focuses on Mo, and apparently CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN has already begun.