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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: the break

The Break by Katherena Vermette is a multithreaded novel about a crime that takes place in Winnipeg. A young Native woman is attacked in the February night. There’s a witness who calls the police. So it’s a story about a crime, but it’s definitely not a procedural.

We get to know the family around the incident through a number of different viewpoints, including a couple of outsiders (a girl who’s escaped detention and a police officer). The story mostly takes place over less than a week, but is filled with flashbacks that give it a lot more depth than that.

It was a great book.

I often talk about how for me, the practical reason for reading fiction is to build empathy. If you get into the heads of people who are different from you, you help expand what your world can be, and it makes you better at understanding and helping people with different experiences from you. The Break is totally going to be my go-to example for that. Vermette gets us into heads really deftly and her descriptions were incisive and made me shudder. We feel for the weaknesses and we feel the strengths everyone shows.

It’s great. You should read it.

book review: the divide

The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap is Matt Taibbi’s book about how economic inequality affects the American judicial system. How if you have huge amounts of money you will never go to jail but if you have no money you will be hounded by the police for walking down the sidewalk. It was incredibly depressing, but a good read (especially as a companion to Piketty’s Capital which was talking about how the wealth gap grows).

I don’t have the experience of getting thrown in the back of a police van for walking home from work as part of a commercial fishing approach to policing. I also don’t think that the laws should turn away from companies that steal and commit fraud just because there might be collateral consequences to the economy (which is something the Obama administration argued and has become part of banking prosecutions such as they are in the U.S.).

Part of the most depressing part of this book is that it was written in 2014, so pre-Trump. All the deportations and massive fraud investigations and fuckups that hugely and disproportionately affect poor americans, that was under Democrats. Trump deporting people isn’t new. Obama deported thousands and thousands by letting states use traffic stops to get immigrants into Immigration’s clutches. Yes the jackbooted thugs are ever more fascist, but it’s not like America has been a good place for non-white people before 2017-01-20.

book review: demon (vol. 1)

Jason Shiga’s Demon (vol. 1) is a comic about a guy who tries to kill himself but it doesn’t take. There’s a Groundhog Day aspect to the first chunk of the volume while he figures out what’s going on, and then it becomes a pretty funny and gross action book where he realizes that the reason it isn’t working makes him one of the most dangerous people alive.

It’s drawn in a similar style to his choosable-path time-travel comic Meanwhile (and uses the same protagonist) but as the introduction states it is decidedly not a kids’ book. Good stuff.

book review: mooncop

Tom Gauld’s Mooncop is beautiful. The quietness of the police officer’s story on a gradually emptying satellite matches Gauld’s art-style perfectly. I can’t really say much more about it besides that it is good. I read it on half a lunch break and spent the rest of the break thinking about it.

If you like Jason‘s work — I do — you’d find Mooncop very similar.

book review: gun machine

Gun Machine is the new book by Warren Ellis and it is great. It’s less weird than Crooked Little Vein, but is a tight little police story you can tell is from the same guy who wrote Fell.

John Tallow is a New York City cop who accidentally finds an apartment full of guns. Not just a few shelves of them, but guns arrayed on the walls and floor like a shrine. Once they start getting analyzed it becomes clear that this isn’t just a gun nut’s shack; each weapon has been used in an unsolved NYC murder. Investigation ensues.

There’s a lot to love about this book. Tallow is a detective who is very believable in his “just going through the motions” before he starts working the case. Ellis writes likable foul-mouthed weirdos as Tallow’s sort-of assigned partners. The story (and the case) moves quickly, but it works. I bought that this didn’t need to be five seasons of a TV series (though The Wire made me right at home with the police politics on display in the story). There are a few coincidences at work that might make your eyebrow raise but Ellis is playing fair with you. It all works.

My least favourite part is the Native American history that gets bandied about, and that was mostly because I know Warren Ellis is an Englishman and this stuff is easy to get wrong. But anything here is way less problematic from my point of view than Johnny Depp as Tonto.

Though Pappa Warren writes great violence — “From his vantage, three steps back and to the right, Tallow could see Rosato’s eye a good five inches outside Rosato’s head and still attached to his eye socket by a mess of red worms.” — I think my favourite bit of pure wordsmithery was a cooking scene late in the book. There are all these details that work into Tallow’s mental state and the realization he has works so well with them, I wanted to applaud.

It’s a pretty quick read so if you’re not a huge Warren Ellis fan, you might want to go for an ebook edition, but the jacket design is great. There’s also a website with some interesting supplemental materials.

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.