Doing the Laundry

I just finished the first two books in Charlie Stross’s Laundry series, The Atrocity Archive and The Jennifer Morgue.  If you live in a cave, these are a blend of spy fiction and Lovecraftian horror.  Bob Howard works for an ultra-secret British organization dedicated to fighting occult threats; the constant joke is that it’s a squalid bureaucracy and some of the sharpest threats come from the over-rigid accounting and HR departments.

Stross isn’t someone who can simply write pastiche; he has a coherent basis for his mythos.  He takes Plato’s concept of mathematical things being real, and posits that delving deep into mathematics is a way of breaking through to other universes, many of them inhabited by semisapient beings that want to eat our brains.  Programming is a form of mathematics, and this allows Stross to mix magic and electronics; Bob’s major weapon is his celphone, wired with all sorts of supernatural apps.

The Atrocity Archives is an homage to Len Deighton, whom I’ve never read; it starts out looking like some terrorists have got hold of an occult summoning spell, then the trail leads to Nazis.  Which brings up an interesting point.  There was a kerfuffle on Mefi recently about Captain America and whether a movie set in WWII should deal with imaginary Nazi supervillains rather than, say, the Holocaust.   And this book is a good argument that Hollywood got it right.  Stross references the Holocaust and gives it an occult meaning– murdering millions of people gives you occult power.  This verges on bad taste– it leaves the Nazis as evil but gives them a fantasy motivation; I think it would have been better to leave the subject alone.

There’s some very well done things in the book, though– mostly the exploration of a nearly dead world, and the slow realization that the real enemy is something worse than Nazis.

The Jennifer Morgue focuses on James Bond; the villain is a Blofeldian capitalist who aims to deal with submarine cthonian horrors.  The best bit here is the least Bondian: Bob is tied– telepathically– with Ramona, a female superspy working for the American equivalent to the Laundry, who happens herself to be tied to a soul-eating demon, her controllers’ way of keeping her loyal, as in fact she isn’t entirely human.  Having a mind-link with a woman is interesting enough, and her alien nature and attributes make the situation quite fascinating.  Plus there’s the factor that Bob has to worry about what his girlfriend Mo is going to think.

The golden age of spy fiction was the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear destruction gave superpower interactions a degree of both possible conflagration and absurdity that is well paralleled by Stross’s use of supernatural horrors.   The same sense of moral queasiness comes up… the Laundry seems to be a little too close to the horrors, and the idea that the rest of us have to be kept in the dark is rather disturbing.

The Bondian elements are mostly played for fun, though I think this skirts into campiness.  The villain is running a bit of magic called the “Hero Trap” which is based on Bond stories.  This is clever as meta-narrative, in that everyone has a reason to keep Bob out of the loop (if he knows too much it would spoil the magic).  But the best spy stories weave their deceits and paranoias without any such contrivance.

I think the second book is far better due to the Ramona subplot; but it’s marred by an unsatisfactory treatment of Mo, who also works for the Laundry and embarks on her own investigation.  Mo had a damsel-in-distress role in the first book, and it seems that Stross is making up for that by giving her a more heroic role.  But damsel-as-badass is just as shallow a role, and she doesn’t get enough pages devoted to her to get much personality, or any quirks or failings.  (Bob, by contrast, is a definite character: smart and plucky, but definitely without a flair for Bondian ultraviolence.)

Anyway, good books; now I want to look up the third book in the series…