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book review: the laundry files (complete series)

I have been a fan of Charles Stross’ work for many years. I remember reading Accelerando and liking it once I got my head around it, and enjoying the near-future police procedural books like Halting State but it was Glasshouse and Neptune’s Brood that turned me into an “I will read whatever this gentleman puts out” kind of reader. So it’s a little weird I haven’t read his Laundry Files series.

On the surface this seems made for me. I love the confluence of lovecraftian mythos and modern technology stories. I enjoy tales of rebellious smartasses in confining structures they were not made for but have to deal with. But for whatever reason I never got into Stross’ version of that. Much like my filling the Dark Tower gap last year, I decided to go for it in 2017. I read the entire series in order (mostly) from February to April and put my thoughts in this review as I went. There are a couple of later additions to reviews, mostly to change speculations about my opinions to solidify them a bit. At the end of the review I do suggest my top three stories to read if you don’t want to commit to a seven novel + assorted short works series.

Short orientation: The Laundry is a British governmental department dealing with “things humans were not meant to know.” It turns out the multiverse is leaky and math that looks like magic (and that’s much easier to do with late 20th-early 21st century computing power) can summon tentacly beasts and other malign entities from nearby or far realities. The Laundry tries to clean up those messes.

the atrocity archives

Bob Howard works a desk job for the Laundry fixing their IT systems. He asks to get assigned to active duty and gets to help extract Mo from the United States when her brain’s contents have been tagged as an interesting asset by the Americans. Things happen and Bob saves the universe from a Nazi-summoned energy-sucking entity.

One of the things I liked most about this book is how Bob’s physical solving of problems amounts to figuring out a clever way to call for help and get it there quickly. I wasn’t a big fan of the way Bob’s female superiors were portrayed as harpies worrying about the stupid inconsequential shit while the boys bluffly went off to save Mo and the world.

concrete jungle

In this short story Bob investigates the intersection of a Gorgon effect with the UK’s rampant surveillance camera culture in the middle of a bureaucratic power-play back at the Laundry’s office. Bob’s female supervisors (who were written as loathsome characters) get removed for their crimes and I hope the gendering of nags getting in the way of the serious work done by fun bros will ease up as the series progresses.

the jennifer morgue

The Jennifer Morgue takes Bob Howard and puts him into a Bond movie, but one where the agent we spend the most time with has to deal with an underpowered smartcar and the ignominy of wearing a suit while thwarting a possessed billionaire trying to summon something from the briny depths (in violation of many secret treaties).

I never like plot devices where a character is forcibly attached to another character against their wills so the way that happened in this book gave me a bit of the squicks, but otherwise I appreciated this one. Falling into Bond tropes (despite how unrealistic they are for secret agents) is the driver of the plot but the fact they are Bond clichés is part of the villain’s master plan.

This one also did veer away from the women in power as naggy evil bitches trope, which let me breathe a sigh of relief (I was pretty sure it’d happen since I knew Stross’ more mature work, but am glad I didn’t have any more books of it to sit through).

down on the farm

This short story has Bob investigating the asylum where Laundry field agents are sent when their brains break from their mathematical sorcery. There’s a clever enough “so that’s what’s going on!” reveal but because the story was so short there wasn’t enough build-up or room to complicate it.

equoid

“Equoid” is a short novella about unicorns. But Lovecraftian unicorns part of the larger Shub-Niggurath meme. Bob heads out into the country to check up on a thing and ends up in a tentacly horrific mess. My favourite aspects of this story included the twists to what could have been a very predictable plot, and the specific in-continuity addressing of the role Lovecraft plays in the Laundry Files universe. It’s my favourite of the short Laundry works, and I’d argue the best entry point to the series.

“Equoid” was originally published free online at Tor.com, but I had to go into the Wayback Machine to find the copy linked to above.

the fuller memorandum

In The Fuller Memorandum Bob Howard and his wife Mo O’Brien are dealing with cults. Doomsday cults. Bob’s dangerous boss goes missing and he’s making mistakes so his nice boss is sending him home for stress leave but there are Russians in London and the timeline for the end of the world has been pushed up.

This book got way more violent and darker than the previous ones felt (though I’d say “Equoid” is the most viscerally unsettling of all the stories). Daycares are terrorist targets and there’s a lot of death magic going on. It was fine, but less jokey and fun as Bob is maturing his way up the hierarchy of the Laundry. I appreciate that the evil management of bureaucracy shtick wasn’t focused on a harpy in this book.

overtime

“Overtime” is a short Xmas story about forecasting Ops and the imminent onset of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN. The belief in Santa as the walls between realities get weaker is causing a tentacly monster to come down the Laundry’s chimney and Bob, who’s working the holiday night shift, has to deal with it. It is an okay story but nothing special.

the apocalypse codex

The Apocalypse Codex is about infiltrating an American megachurch that has some heretical beliefs (involving waking sleeping gods and putting mind-control bugs in people who don’t buy into the theology willingly). This is also the first of the novels that has Bob in a management role. I appreciated the “learning how to let your team to the job” aspects, though Bob does get to do some stuff himself too.

My biggest problem with the book is the scale of the aftermath. Big things happen to thousands of people in Colorado in this story and I would think dealing with that would be difficult at the least, so I hope it’s not swept under the rug. Stross usually is pretty good about following up on aftermath so I’m not too worried.

The other problem with this book was that there wasn’t enough Mo, and there was a Mo substitute. I understand why the story needed someone other than Mo in the badass superspy role, but that Persephone Hazard was so undifferentiated from Mo made it fall a little flat. The characters in general felt more plot-expedient than actual people, but maybe that’s just familiarity wearing through.

the rhesus chart

I think The Rhesus Chart is my favourite book in this series. Though there wasn’t as much aftermath from The Apocalypse Codex as I expected there is mention of some of those meetings. The great part of this book is that it’s a vampire story. But of course vampires don’t exist. Mo lays out all the ways that vampires as portrayed in fiction wouldn’t work, from caloric intake needs to turning the entire global population into vampires and all of that. But then some high-flying quants in an investment bank become vampires and the story unfolds.

I liked it because the story brought us out of some of the “terrible world shaking doom” rut the main novels could have been settling into; this is actually a pretty personal small-stakes story. I always like “real science” vampire explanations and the “magic is computation” conceit of the Laundry Files led into some interesting work with that. I also loved the banker/vampire-talk. They were using Scrum management techniques and all the buzzwords, because they were just a startup entering an industry where the dominant players were very old and entrenched.

The weakest part of the book in my opinion was the vampire-hunter, though I’m glad she was introduced into the story quite late so we didn’t have to spend much time with her.

the annihilation score

The Annihilation Score is a Laundry Files book about superheroes and policing, but more importantly it’s a Mo O’Brien centred story. After the vampire threat lay waste to the Laundry (and Bob and Mo’s marriage) in The Rhesus Chart, Mo is put in charge of dealing with the outbreak of super-abilities among people who aren’t sorcerors.

It’s about PR and what a superhero uniform looks like, and explaining actions to very powerful government people, especially when there’s a racist super tossing trucks at counter-demonstrators vs the much more powerful djinn summoner hiding in a friendly neighbourhood mosque. Politics yo.

It was good. I found the marriage-breaking-up stuff good and humanizing along with the demon violin infiltrating Mo’s head, but needing it to do her job. Again, this one made management seem like a not-so-terrible thing if done properly, which makes me wonder what I’m becoming.

the nightmare stacks

The Nightmare Stacks is a Laundry Files novel about an alien invasion, but by faerie. This one doesn’t have Mo or Bob in it, and uses one of the vampires from The Rhesus Chart, Alex, as the main protagonist. The Laundry is moving to Leeds and there are prognostications that things are going to go badly.

The faerie are gracile hominids whose world has been destroyed by tentacly beasts and magic (the sort of thing the Laundry is trying to avoid on Earth), who use magical geas as their will to power instead of language. They’re brutal and inhuman and one of their spies with a bit more empathy than her species would prefer gets involved with the invasion (and – spoiler alert – turning it around).

It was fine, but I felt like I’d read this plot before in Stross’ Merchant Princes series. Again, we’ve got knockoffs of the original Laundry characters playing roles that aren’t very dissimilar from what the originals used to be, which makes the originals feel retrospectively thinner and more puppety. I liked how it ended, but the situations weren’t enough to make up for the characters.

series thoughts

And here we are, all caught up as of April 2017. (There’ll be another Laundry Files novel coming out this summer.) I’m not sure it was to the series’ benefit to read them all in two months like this. You can see a bit more of the formula to the series, the strings holding up the puppets, and the repeated explanations of how things work that you remember from the book you read last week.

In general though, I like the books. If I’m recommending the highlights for someone who doesn’t want to plow through the whole array in order, I’d suggest “Equoid,” The Fuller Memorandum and The Rhesus Chart as the three to start with, and then fill in bits afterwards if you like those.

book review: company town

Madeline Ashby’s scifi novel Company Town is on the shortlist for Canada Reads 2017. Though it’s very specifically Canadian, it doesn’t feel like CanLit, and I am interested in how it will be championed.

Company Town is set on a futuristic city-sized oil-rig of the coast of Newfoundland. The protagonist, Hwa, is a bodyguard working for the sex-workers’ union when she gets hired by the new owners of the city/rig to bodyguard the young heir. She takes the new job and then her friends start getting murdered and disappeared, so she’s trying to get to the bottom of the mystery.

A couple of the Canadian bits include there are comments about universal healthcare (and how that doesn’t cover Hwa’s chronic health issues), and when the first sex-worker is found dead they mention the authorities immediately implementing the standard Missing Murdered Disappeared protocol, and Hwa’s Newfoundland accent coming out in times of stress.

Otherwise it was a good techno thrillery kind of thing, with a mostly genetically enhanced population (who still have to work in the resource extraction industry, go Canada) and an outsider protagonist that dealt with things like post-traumatic stress pretty well. I noted while reading that it felt a bit like Charles Stross’ books (most notably Halting State in my mind) and then Stross was in the acknowledgements for getting the manuscript to an editor.

book review: neptune’s brood

Neptune’s Brood is a great space opera about interstellar banking by Charles Stross. Seriously great.

The protagonist, Krina Alizond, is a banking historian who now that she’s worked her way out of her indentured servitude to the hugely wealthy intelligence that created her, is into Ponzi schemes and especially how they play out over huge distances and slower than light travel. There are tonnes of digressions into the history of banking and how to set up a colony around another star when you can only travel at a percent of the speed of light and building a ship to do that is planetary economy expensive. The solution is debt and repayment over the long long term.

Alizond, is also interested in what happened to her sibling (who was also forked off of the same hugely wealthy being) on a distant world so she’s going there by hitching a ride working on a chapel-ship dedicated to the Fragile (ie humans who have not been upgraded to actually function in space and over the timescales one needs to be thinking in if you want to make a difference in a huge uncaring universe). There are banking privateers and mermaids and queens and a (really boring) space battle. It’s set in the same universe as Saturn’s Children, but I haven’t read that one and it did not matter at all.

Definitely one of my favourite books of the year, and it even includes an epigraph from David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years (one of my favourite nonfiction books). If you like thinking about how things could be if they were different, this is a book you should read. We have science fiction basically so books like this can be made.

book review: the book of cthulhu

The Book of Cthulhu is a collection of short stories based on H.P. Lovecraft’s work. These are all stories that were written in the last thirty years and are the kinds of things that make me overlook a lot of HPL’s actual terribleness (inre: sexism & racism). The mythos, the secrets, the sense of foreboding are all what I like in a horrific world, and because these stories aren’t written by an early 20th century weirdo they don’t have the same kind of baggage.

Indeed, there were a number of stories in the collection that dealt with race pretty much head-on. I loved David Drake’s “Than Curse the Darkness” which was a colonialist tale of Africa in which the heroes (a British scholar and American gunman) team up with a pack of pigshit-terrible Belgian slave-drivers to stop a summoning ritual by a cult the Belgians have been feeding through their murderous disfiguring practices in the pursuit of rubber. This was a story where the Belgians are constantly using the word nigger and chopping off black people’s ears and genitals and generally being horrible human beings, but they’re also necessary. It’s a story about evil and siding with evil and fighting evil and by the end of the story you feel kind of terrible that they did manage to save the world. That’s a mythos tale for you.

Also, Elizabeth Bear’s “Shoggoths in Bloom” was awesome because it posited a world where yes, these creatures existed and were inexplicable, but that just made them more interesting to scientists. It’s a science story instead of a horror story and it worked really well. Charles Stross’ “A Colder War” was about mythos weapons and their escalation, and Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Crawling Sky” was a pretty badass western featuring more rancid horsemeat than I expect in a story.

My least favourite story in the book was the Brian Lumley one about a circus sideshow. It felt too much like a Tales From the Crypt episode. Most of the book was really quite good though.

book review: rule 34

Rule 34 is the kind of Charles Stross book I like. It’s Edinburgh in the future and spammers are dying in graphic ways, seemingly dreamed up in 4chan. Liz Kavanaugh is a police detective whose career is in the shitter, trolling the internet for memes that could become dangerous, and she gets pulled into the investigation.

The book is told in second person for the most part, putting the reader into a lot of different characters’ places including a non-neurotypical mobster with something terrifying in his suitcase. And seriously, though nothing is described with slasher-movie levels of glee at depravity, this is the sort of book that could probably use trigger warnings.

One of the big ideas in this book (that I don’t remember from Halting State, but could very well have been there too) is that Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Rebus and whatever are a load of bollocks in terms of modern criminal investigation. In the future, good detectives are no longer the hyper-observant individual. That’s what computers are for. Good detectives in the future are good managers of people and IT to get all the cogs working together. There’s a lot of great ideas throughout the book, and not decades-old thoughts about how scary Artificial Intelligence would be.

If you don’t like second-person narration and thoughts on the future of criminality and stock manipulation this probably isn’t a great choice for you to read. But if that doesn’t turn you off and you like thinking about Makerbots and the seamy underbelly of future economies, it’s a must-read.

books review: the revolution business, the trade of queens

It’s weird that a science fiction series that ends with a huge American nuclear attack on a fantasy world feels like it petered out, rather than built up to a grand huge climax, but that’s how the final couple of books (The Revolution Business and The Trade of Queens in Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series felt to me. I’ve talked before about how each book felt like it was only a small part of a bigger story and the thing as a whole is probably what should be judged. But well, now that I’m done I have to say I can’t really recommend this series. Charles Stross has way better stuff out there.

What I did like about these books was the use of actual American politics in dealing with the revelation of other worlds. The books were set in the mid 2000s and the American administration at the time is used to full effect. There are stolen nukes and terrorist attacks and not creating fictional politicians to deal with that, but using the real characters helped.

Sadly, the story just kind of flops along. Miriam was pregnant with the heir to the throne in Gruinmarkt and then she has a convenient miscarriage and the nobles hide in a refugee camp in the other world, and everything is generally unsatisfying. Stross seems to have had a good time planning out the nuclear bomber wave, and that chunk of the final book was my favourite since the economic thinking from the first two books.

That’s what really got me about this series. The cool concept of these parallel worlds and the realistic way characters reacted to it by figuring out how to make a better living, well that gets lost along the way. Maybe it would have worked better if the books had jumped bigger timeline gaps so the economic stuff had more time to develop. I don’t know.

So my advice is to read the first two books of the series (The Family Trade and The Hidden Family) and stop there.

books review: the hidden family, the clan corporate, the merchants’ war

It seems fitting to review the second third and fourth books in Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series together because the flaws they have as stand-alone books make sense if you look at them as chapters in a longer story.

At the end of book 1 in the series we were up to date with Miriam Beckstein, tech journalist who is also a countess in an alternate universe where the geography is shared with Earth but technology and society has spun off on a very different track. Miriam and her clan are people who can hop between that world and our own (it’s set in the early 00’s U.S. homeland security paranoia).

In The Hidden Family Miriam has learned about a third world which is where there are more world walkers who are trying to destabilize the Clan’s power base in the medieval world. This third world is kind of steampunkish and hugely politically repressive. Miriam is trying to create a new economic base for her extended family in that new world.

In The Clan Corporate basically nothing happens. It’s an intensely frustrating book, to Miriam as well, because she’s basically just locked up while her family figures out how to sell her to the royal family to squirt out worldwalking babies. We also meet a DEA agent who’s dealing with the aftermath of one of the medieval spies turning on the Clan’s drug smuggling operation.

By The Merchants’ War the Clan is plunged into civil war and Miriam is on the run in the steampunky world and we’re learning just how genre distinctions between Science Fiction and Fantasy are kind of dumb.

I really like the story this series is telling. People are clever and behave like real clever people might. I just hate how it’s broken down into these separate volumes so you need to have recap time and setup time before the grand climax of the book, which in books 3 and 4 don’t even really happen. It’s the kind of series that’s crying out for a one-volume edition with some of the redundant bits edited out, since nothing is standing at all on its own. (You may remember that I had the same issue with Dance With Dragons. Too much like catching up with the characters and not enough story-structure for my taste.) But I’m looking forward to finishing the series because Stross writes great, thought-provoking stuff and the fact that it’s getting less and less like Zelazny and more like, well, Stross makes me very happy.