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: supergods

I want to recommend Grant Morrison’s Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human as if it was just a straight up recounting of superhero comics and how they developed. It’s a prose book, not comics itself. Very readable history. Yep. That’s it. Go read it.

Okay, I can’t do it. Even though I want to completely obscure the idiosyncratic bizarre excellence that the book contains, I won’t paper over the fact that an unsuspecting reader of comic-book history blithely following along with the tales of Bob Kane and Stan Lee and Kirby and Miller could be blindsided by this turn into Grant Morrison’s time in Kathmandhu when he met higher dimensional beings who explained to him how the universe works and how that affected his superhero comics (like the amazing All-Star Superman).

It’s a crazy great book about one writer’s relationship with superheroes and because he’s a bit of a mad egotist (in a very charming way) it feels like it’s more than just a story about a drug trip, at least more than one man’s psychedelic voyage but about a chunk of society’s weird shamanic voyaging.

If that sounds like a totally wankery waste of time to you, I won’t feel bad if you skip this one. I loved it though.

book review: into you (dial h vol. 1)

Dial H: Into You is the first trade paperback I own from DC’s New 52 initiative (though not the first I read). The New 52 was DC’s superhero universe reboot that happened in 2011 in an effort to get new readers. I’m not a huge fan of being reminded how crassly commercial the literature I consume can be, so I haven’t been reading a lot of mainstream superhero stuff recently.

Dial H is not a normal superhero book.

I mean, sure there are cosmic problems which are solved by punching, but China Miéville is writing this book so those problems get weird. Plus the superhero at the centre of it is a Colorado schlub named Nelson Jent who, when he dials H-E-R-O on a payphone, taps into some other universe to become a random superhero for a while. Random superheroes like Boy Chimney (powers of smoke-control and telepathy through pollution), the Iron Snail (heavily armed and power-armoured snail shell and tracks dragged by a ‘roided-out soldier-type), and the Cock-a-Hoop (a giant metal hula-hoop with the head of a rooster).

I like how the book makes a ridiculous concept into a kind of exploration of the universes of weirdness and how they’d intersect with DC’s own universe of “normal weirdness” (with its aliens, magic, unnatural disasters and high-technology). The main story is about learning how to deal with the powers of the dial (which does get disconnected from the payphone) and coming to terms with weirdness. I also really like that his superheroing partner is in actuality a woman in her 60s.

I bought this one because it’s China Miéville doing superheroes. While it’s not as good as a Miéville novel, there’s enough good stuff in here to let me forget that it’s part of a stupid comics event. At least while I’m reading it.

book review: the hunt (animal man vol. 1)

I think The Hunt is the first trade paperback that came out of DC’s New 52 initiative that I’ve read. Animal Man is a superhero who can take on the powers of different animals through the lifeweb, but he’s also done some acting and at the beginning of this book he’s trying to kind of stay out of the whole “dress up in a costume and fight crime” scene. For his family.

Then he starts bleeding out his eyes and his daughter is reanimating animal corpses and she’s being hunted by agents of the Rot and everything goes pear-shaped.

It’s perfectly fine commercial superhero storytelling (which is kind of odd, seeing as it’s coming from Jeff Lemire, whose non-superhero stuff I love), but didn’t feel like a really personal story. Which makes sense. It’s work-for-hire, not The Underwater Welder.

At the end of the book Animal Man is off to find Swamp Thing, which is a pairing that certainly makes sense, but not something I’d ever really thought of before. Not that I think that hard about DC mythology on my best days.

Really. I don’t.

book review: the death-ray

Dan Clowes’ The Death-Ray is kind of like a superhero story, but a very Dan Clowesian version of one. When Andy starts smoking back in the 70s he learns he’s got super strength. He and his friend try to find people who need beating up, but it’s difficult. Then he finds that his dead father left him a death ray. Using that is even harder.

It’s not a happy book. Andy isn’t a real heroic type. I like the format and how the storybits are fragmented in a less regimented way than Wilson, the last Clowes book I read. Good but not mind-blowing.

book review: dallas (the umbrella academy vol. 2)

Dallas is a time travel story about trying to kill President Kennedy. At one point the planet is destroyed. There are psychotic timetravelling hitmen and Number 5 is trying to stop a past version of himself.

I keep on digging the art in this book and Way’s approach to time travel (and the inaccuracy of such methods) was pretty sweet. This isn’t the kind of story you can just drop into, so make sure you read Apocalypse Suite to figure out who these characters are and why you should care first.

book review: supergod

Supergod is the story a British scientist tells of how the world was destroyed by nations putting their trust in hugely powerful beings who can fly. It’s an interesting read for the ideas and the pictures of superbeings reshaping the world.

There aren’t really any characters to get attached to apart from the narrator, who basically takes the place of Uncle Warren telling creepy tales of mushroom sex and soviet robots. Also, because it’s a Warren Ellis comic, of course the British space program plays into the story.

It’s a different take on superhumans than something like Black Summer; a much bigger picture story, and one that highlights how badly people would really deal with that kind of thing.