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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 bone clocks

The Bone Clocks is David Mitchell’s new novel about a woman named Holly Sykes and the strange life she gets caught up in living. It does the excellent David Mitchelly thing of having multiple sections which are their own stories in their own specific times (though this one, unlike Cloud Atlas, does keep marching into the future).

I liked the story as it built from a literary-feeling mundane story into a pretty gonzo sci-fi spectacle. Holly Sykes is in every part and she’s great, but she’s not the narrator or even a main character in many of the sections, which is kind of what I really liked about the novel. It bounces around with a bunch of different perspectives (which are not as extremely different as the different styles in number9dream) that to me make it feel like it’s trying to capture the multiplicity of life. The book’s always about Holly even if we’re in the heads of her less than immaculate friends and lovers.

There are a couple of things that I wasn’t a huge fan of, but they were more on the loose ends side of things. The final section was longer than it probably needed to be but it was also the most affecting part of the whole experience. That might be because it was the furthest into the future and the most sfnal. I can see how you could call it preachy, but I think that fits the narrator at that point.

So yes, I liked it. It’s a bit weirder than The Thousand Autumns of Jacon de Zoet, but Mitchell knows how to write characters you’ll really care for (in the midst of weird scifiishness).

book review: the collector

John Fowles’ The Collector is a novel of the 1960s about a man who wins the lottery and then kidnaps a young woman, keeping her in a dungeon in the British countryside. It’s an unsettling book, even in our age of antiheroes, but what’s great about it is the structure. (I am such a sucker for an interestingly constructed novel.)

See, the first half of the book is the story from the collector’s point of view. We’re in his head and we see his reasons for everything he’s doing, and because he doesn’t rape the young woman immediately there’s this dread that builds and builds. The hassles and frustrations of buying a house and building a dungeon in it are all treated in a very matter of fact way and it lulls you into this weird headspace. It never has you rooting for him, but you can find yourself feeling sorry for him.

Then for the second half of the book we see everything through the victim’s eyes, including her preoccupation with an affair she was having with an older artist. It’s kind of amazing. I love that we don’t alternate points of view on things as they happen (or even on a chapter by chapter basis). Since we know the incidents that will happen from how the collector experienced them, it builds even more dread in the second half, not about what will happen, but about how will she feel when that thing we know is coming happens?

The conclusion isn’t anything special (I was kind of hoping for something amazing like in Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman) but this was his first novel, so I’ll forgive that. The whole book is quite restrained, and makes something like The Silence of the Lambs (just to pick a kidnapping story) seem really crass and obvious.

Broken Hard Drive? by purplemattfish on Flickr https://secure.flickr.com/photos/29601732@N06/3188379971/ - Licensed under a CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0 license

snowden and miranda and the guardian’s destroyed hard drives

As I’m sure others here have been doing, I’ve been keeping up with Glenn Greenwald’s coverage of Snowden’s leaks about the NSA. I’ve been kind of disgusted by the fact that this stuff appears to be legal even though it’s terrible. And that so many politicians have lied about the procedures, though that surprises me not a huge amount. I’m also not fool enough to believe this kind of surveillance doesn’t affect those of us north of the 49th.

But it seems like this weekend the progression of that story got much worse. It seems to me that holding the partner of a journalist under anti-terror laws for his role in supporting journalism is pretty heinous to those of us who believe in intellectual freedom.

It also seems that the UK government going to a news organization’s headquarters and making them destroy hard drives containing information they disapprove of is also fucking terrible.

These are laws created in a democracy designed for one thing being used to attempt to intimidate people who want to get information about our various democracies out there. This is legal but abusive. Gah. Fuck. More cussing.

To me this is clearly an intellectual freedom issue. This is the government telling someone what they are and are not allowed to talk about. This is bullshit.

As a librarian it might not be hitting where I live… yet. I mean, our government isn’t telling librarians what we are and aren’t allowed to have in our libraries, so maybe this isn’t our fight? But the fact that journalists are being disallowed from publishing certain stories is a big problem, and one that will spread. As librarians we can celebrate how we deal with cook challenges in various Bible Belts, but I think we should be doing more.

I would like to suggest that this year when Banned Books Week comes around, us librarians reach a bit further. I’d like to see us celebrating wikileaks cables and articles about Snowden in our libraries instead of merely pointing at the challenged books we have in our collections in a collective fit of smugness.

Books are fine. I love books, but I think celebrating our victories over past challenges is just another way to celebrate the status quo when there’s more we can do. Although, as a friend of mine said today, the baseline in libraries is a bit better:

If the status quo still includes intellectual freedom, mitigating income inequality, etc…sign me up.

Consider this a co-sign.

book review: the case of the team spirit (bad machinery vol. 1)

The Case of the Team Spirit (by John Allison) is the comic I’m most looking forward to booktalking for middle-school students next year. It’s about a group of six 11-year-olds (three boys, three girls) in Tackleford England (a made-up place) who solve mysteries. This mystery is about the hex that’s been put on their local football (soccer) team. This gets right to the heart of one investigator, while the rest are, well, less into football, but they do like their friend.

These characters are funny, and all of them are clever. The supporting characters, also great. I have a special affinity for Mr. Beckwith the young teacher who has this exchange with one of our detectives:

Charlotte: Sir how come you got rid of your beard?

Mr. Beckwith: My wife said it was scratching her.

Charlotte: Worr sir you are married?

Mr. Beckwith: Yeah I got a wife… am I giving away too much? Maybe I just have a piano. I didn’t want to scratch the piano with my chin.

Charlotte:Sir can I sit down on account of being confused?

Mr. Beckwith: Yes Charlotte.

Though Bad Machinery is a webcomic which you can read for free on a screen, the book is a beautiful widescreen kind of thing about the same size (and orientation) as a laptop screen. But it is batteryless.

So yes. Great stuff, and you will learn Britishisms.

book review: the ocean at the end of the lane

The Ocean At The End of The Lane is Neil Gaiman’s latest book for adults, but it reminded me much more of Coraline or The Graveyard Book than American Gods.

Part of that is because of its small scale. There’s an author whose father has died and on his visit home for the funeral he stops by a neighbour’s farm. This prompts recollection of the story of the opal miner who was their lodger when he was seven, which is a story he’d forgotten. The story involves a creature giving people money and seducing his father so that he will never be able to get help.

I liked the story, it was beautiful and Gaimany. I kind of feel bad for saying it but I’d hoped for something more substantial.

book review: johnny and the dead

Johnny and the Dead is a book about a boy who can see and talk to the deceased folks in his local graveyard. Terry Pratchett uses this short kids’ novel to deal with the importance for living people to remember the dead (and the dead people to forget the living). The basic plot is that the village council wants to put in a new condo development on the graveyard and the dead people tell Johnny to stop them. Johnny gets his friends together and (this is where the book really shines) do not organize a protest or anything big and outside the scope of what a bunch of 11-year-olds could conceivably do, they just ask questions about the people who are in the graveyard.

Now, it’s Terry Pratchett writing this, so the characters are funny, but the situations never really are. Even though it’s a bit dated (it’s from the ’90s), it’s a pretty excellent story for Remembrance Day, especially since it talks about how sad it is that soldiers go off and die (instead of doing some bullshit celebratory thing about their noble sacrifices or whatever). Also, it’s the middle book of the Johnny Maxwell trilogy, but I haven’t read the first one and did not feel like I was missing anything.