If we pursue this plan, by late 2006 any two adjacent public CCTV terminals — or private camcorders equipped with a digital video link — will be reprogrammable by any authenticated MAGINOT BLUE STARS superuser to permit the operator to turn them into a SCORPION STARE basilisk weapon. We remain convinced that this is the best defensive posture to adopt in order to minimize casualties when the Great Old Ones return from beyond the stars to eat our brains (273).
Many of us find our lives divided. We may have a mundane job and a more fantastic other or inner life. Perhaps you’re an SF fan, or a roleplaying game
fantasy gamer, or a weekend jock, or a Walter Mitty-style daydreamer. Perhaps, like the younger Stross, you work a day job while trying to establish yourself as a writer. Perhaps you enjoy your work, but find that, year to year, more and more, bureaucratic administrivia overshadows the aspects you love. Bob Howard lives in exactly this situation. He must compile petty reports and report to petty officials; the rest of the time he gets to fight monsters and save the world.
Howard plays protagonist in The Atrocity Archives, which includes three pieces: the eponymous Lovecraftian spy thriller, the Hugo Award-winning "Concrete Jungle", and "Inside the Fear Factory," a non-fiction reflection on spies, the Cold War, H.P. Lovecraft, horror, and hackers.
Title: The Atrocity Archives
Author: Charles Stross
According to The Atrocity Archives, Alan Turing bridged math and magic before he died. Simply knowing the correct mathematical formulae makes one a sorcerer, and sorcery, in the wrong hands, is dangerous. The Laundry, Great Britain’s most secret agency, is one of several waging an occult war against the dark forces that regularly threaten our world. Bob Howard, no barbarian, has been recruited by the Laundry and finds himself facing eldritch horrors and government bureaucracy.
The book begins with Howard on a mission in the United States, where both the Laundry and Al Qaeda-style terrorists with, curiously, a German-accented leader, seek Mo, an academic who has stumbled onto hidden matters. This begins an elaborate mystery involving alternate universes, Nazis, a literal Atrocity Archives in the basement of the Rijksmuseum, and lots of paperwork.
The Atrocity Archives makes entertaining reading. I prefer, however, the other two pieces in this volume. "Concrete Jungle" covers much of the same territory as the Archives but it features a more interesting (and original) plot, better characterization, and fewer words. The winner of a 2005 Hugo for best novella, it has Howard investigating the appearance of an additional concrete cow in Milton Keynes, England—- an anomaly with fearful implications for those possessed of secret knowledge, and which inevitably leads to a confrontation with a world-threatening menace and, of course, more paperwork. Infodump always presents a problem in works with baroque backstories. Too many explanations, at times, weigh down the Archives; "Jungle" handles the problem brilliantly through reports on past horror which are entertaining in their own right.
I have the same complaint about many of Stross's works. They begin with mind-boggling concepts that resonate with with the real world, but they end like superior episodes of Doctor Who or James Bond. I’m praising with faint damnation here. Many adventure stories have pat endings. They’re still enjoyable. I just find the conclusions disappointing when contrasted with all that has come before.
Still, Stross has fused several influences into a wonderful playground for a series, and he has since published The Jennifer Morgue, which presents further adventures in this world.
Rounding out the Archives is "The Fear Factory," which makes a number of thoughtful comments on Stross’s influences. Lovecraft as an author of spy thrillers? Len Deighton as a creator of horror? Stross argues both cases, and also examines the contrast between spy and hacker realities and the fictions they’ve inspired.
Stross has been prolific. He's a very good writer, and a witty good writer at that. That impresses me enough to keep reading-- and yet I keep seeing signs that he will become a great writer.