orange all-caps text of the word "review" on a black background

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: doctor 13: architecture and mortality

Doctor 13: Architecture & Mortality is a metatextual comic by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang, about superhero universe retcons and the lives that get snuffed out when they happen. All of the main characters in the story are long-forgotten 8th-string DC characters fighting The Architects, who are comics creators. There are lots of puns and things that must have been awesomely fun to draw because they’re pretty excellent to look at (in the same way Dr. McNinja does this kind of madness). By the end the Nazi Gorilla Vampire is saying “I guess I’m an anti-hero” and the fourth wall is smashed quite nicely. But there’s also a good little meditation on how the past is all the universe there really is.

I was actually surprised this was done back in 2007. It felt very much like a pre-New 52 kind of story, but I guess that just shows how regurgitative the business of superhero comics really is.

book review: entropy in the uk (the invisibles vol 3)

I’ve slowly been reading Grant Morrison’s Invisibles series, and I feel like Entropy in the U.K. is where the plot is starting to pick up. King Mob is being held by the terrible people (who are barely people) and the rest of the Invisibles have to rescue him. Jack Frost starts to come into his own after being a reluctant participant in the previous books and the dream battles and real battles are less random and weird for their own sake. You really start to get a sense of Morrison’s madness going somewhere here, which I can’t say I got as much from the character-introducing stories.

book review: logicomix

Logicomix is an exploration of Bertrand Russell’s lifelong quest for rigorous truth through logic in graphic novel form. There are multiple framing devices to the book: the outermost layer is of the authors in their efforts to write and draw the story accurately, below which is an American lecture by Russell ostensibly about whether the US should enter World War 2, but that lecture is an excuse to have Russell narrating his own interactions with logic and truth, which encompass his life. Oh and then there’s a Greek play at the end.

The multiple layers work quite well, with the authors breaking in to argue about how much of set theory and basic logic needs to be explained, and whether the themes of “logic through madness” actually make any sense. Because Russell is narrating his life himself the realization that he’s kind of a dick to his wives is done half-apologetically and gently.

The theory of things and the importance of taking 320-some pages to prove, to actually prove that 1+1=2 is kind of intriguing. I tend to think of that sort of academic theoretical stuff as nonsense (and there isn’t much sense of how Russell did the practical things like pay his rent through his life) but with the biographical aspects it made it much more understandable. Which is the aim of this kind of book: to make these sorts of things accessible to laypeople like me.

There were brief appearances by a pile of mathematician/philosophers I’ve read about elsewhere, including Wittgenstein and Godel.

Not necessarily for everyone, and I’m not sure I’d want to use it for a YA book club or anything, but a really interesting read.

book review: a madman dreams of turing machines

A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin is about two of the 20th century’s geniuses, Kurt Godel and Alan Turing. It was an okay book, but unsatisfying. I felt like the book was too focused on a few scenes (one in the Vienna coffee house and the other being under the floorboards at school, both of which happen early) leaving the rest to be word-count padding. The self-consciously literary tone put so much distance between the reader and the subjects that nothing felt consequential. I mean, yes, we see Godel unveil his theorem in Vienna. We spend section after section there in that coffee house, coming at it from different angles, but the writer is so concerned with her descriptions and her own ghostly presence that we’re disconnected from everything. And Turing gets even less, apart from showing how odd and gay he was. Everything felt like specimens under glass, which is fine as far as it goes, but left me kind of cold.

i get pitch by pitch updates for the postseason games while at work which is nice

Work goes along. On Saturday I managed to save a woman’s horrible weekend. There was more to the weekend and the series of events that got her to this point, but when I came in her time was almost up on the computer and she was applying for a job and it wasn’t letting her paste her resume and the job closed tomorrow and and and… Through careful application of two keys on the keyboard (“Ctrl” + “V”) I saved her day. She was almost crying in thanks. It was kind of weird.

Last week I managed to piss off beard lady a couple of times by disagreeing with her. She was angry about how the university paper won’t run her ads anymore and to prove her point she pulled out this issue: “What word do you think of when you look at this?”

“Upside-down” I said.

“No. Gynecology.”

“No. Gynecology is not the first word anyone other than you would think of.”

“Gynecology. And they put this on the cover….”

At this point she’s about to go off on one of her pornography rants and I try to intercept. “No. There is nothing to do with gynecology on the cover of that newspaper.”

So she folds the paper until the tiny strip showing the hem of the girl’s shirt is the only thing visible on the page. “Look. Gynecology.”

“Beard Lady,” I said (using her real name instead of Beard Lady), “That’s all you. You just folded everything to make your point. No one else is doing that. You are wrong. Gynecology is not the word for that cover.”

And then she got all in a huff and left after telling me that my cowrkers said she shouldn’t ever listen to anything I had to say. A couple of days later she was back and I printed off copies of the DVD cover for National Treasure 1 and 2 because she didn’t know which one she’d seen in the theatre. She was kind of testy with me then but we made it through all right.

book review: infinite typewriters

Goats is one of the first webcomics I followed way back in the day when it had very little continuity. One of the first bookmarks I made sure any new browser had, one of the sites I’d check on the road in Tibet or wherever I had a few extra minutes after the important emails were out of the way. I’ve bought Goats Tshirts as Xmas presents and have seriously considered buying original art of some of the strips.

So yes, I’m a fan. But it took reading these strips in collected deadtree form (the first volume is entitled Infinite Typewriters to realize how batshit insane a tale it is. It’s more Zing! Pow! than something like Achewood and because of that I don’t think I’d ever really thought of it as being in the same league. I think of myself as someone who appreciates subtlety, fine things usw. Goats was an elder statesman in my comics trawl, something I read because I’d always read it. I had a suspicion it was just a rut I was in. But man, if this is a rut my life needs some serious reexamination.

The book refers to things that happened before Jon Rosenberg kicked it up a notch and decided to turn his joke a day tale into something multiverse spanning and epic, but knowing those little tidbits never make anything on screen fall into place. I mean, maybe the previous appearances of Gregor Mendel would. If you were insane. When it’s a part of your life for years the incremental madness seeps in and you don’t question it. It’s only when you can actually see how we got from Doodletown to Xibalba with a stop at comic conventions along the way that the comic’s glory can be fully realized. And all of this is a very good thing.

When reading it daily I have to confess, I wasn’t a big fan of the Good Hitler vs. Space Hitler storyline. In collected form where it’s not a two month digression from the fish who can kill a man with a taco sauce packet coming to terms with the idiot society surrounding him? Golden.

Did I mention it’s beautiful? The colour work and the character designs are great. The photo faces of Scott Baio and Robert Goulet do take a bit of a hit when they’re on a page instead of the copy-and-pasternet but they aren’t overwhelming.

So yes. Thanks for putting this in book form so I could re-appreciate the awesomeness of insanity.