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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: hogfather

Hogfather is a Discworld novel about Xmas. But more importantly to me the first time I read it 13 or so years ago, it’s about belief. For me that makes it one of my favourite Discworld novels (beside Small Gods). I remember it being very important to me when I was still in my X-Files stage of life, where the Mulder/Scully dynamic between skepticism and faith was what I lived for in my fiction. This Xmas, reading the book again, I could read it a bit more as a straight-up novel, not a culmination of philosophy.

In the story the Hogfather (like Santa Claus, but with four pigs flying his sleigh) has disappeared and Death has taken over the role for Hogswatch Eve. Death isn’t a very convincing Hogfather and he manipulates his granddaughter Susan into figuring out what’s happened to the real Hogfather and put things right.

I’d forgotten huge chunks of the plot (though I remembered the Tooth Fairy being important somehow) but the bits about belief and the need to believe in little lies like the Hogfather as practice for believing in big lies like justice stuck with me. But it felt like there was a lot of padding to the story. I guess my estimation of it went down a little bit on this rereading but it remains one of my favourite Xmas stories (along with the original The Nightmare Before Christmas).

tech review: pinboard.in

At the end of November I finally decided to revive my del.icio.us account. I figured the winter break would be a good time to get everything organized and figure out a way to integrate my Google Reader shared or starred items into it, or possibly my Tumblr. I wanted this kind of functionality because, though Tumblr is great for ephemerality, I hate its search function. And Google Reader is good for searchability, but the tagging bothered me and not everything really fits that kind of reverse chronological format. If I want to read that thing I read about Benford’s Law, I don’t care when I posted it. A bookmark service is what I wanted and del.icio.us was a bookmark service.

This desire hung around and hung around but I didn’t get any further than ruling out some of the alternatives. Then I read (on Warren Ellis’ blog first but then everywhere) that del.icio.us was shutting down. So I went looking for an alternative. It bothered me to no end that Google Bookmarks are so terrible at integrating with both Chrome and Google Reader. Come on people. Eventually, through LittleBig found Pinboard.

Pinboard is a bookmark manager that’s very similar to del.icio.us. Here’s my stuff (beware that the dates on when everything was bookmarked can be wildly inaccurate, since I imported a whole whack of everything over from my browser and other places at once). You can tag things, have rss feeds of your bookmarks, sort things by their tags, all that stuff. There are also simple options for making tags private, and marking bookmarks as unread. Fine and dandy. But, and this is the killer thing for me, it’ll monitor your Google Reader shared items and import them as bookmarks. Sadly, it doesn’t import the tags from Google Reader, so I have to go through those untagged items every couple of days to get them organized. I’m a nerd who doesn’t mind doing that though, so it’s not a deal-breaker for me. The other thing I just flipped the switch on is Twitter archiving, which might be a good idea since I’m so damned interesting on Twitter (warning: my Twitterfeed is very boring).

One of the big sticking points about Pinboard is the cost. There’s a fee to sign up, based on the number of people using it. The idea is that’s how it keeps itself free of spammers, and the earlier you join, the less you pay. If you read the LittleBig post you saw that in December Pinboard made itself freely available to librarians and library school students, which was pretty sweet. Only $9 but it was a great Xmas present from a stranger.

At this point I’d recommend Pinboard pretty unreservedly, but I’m using it for free. If it would also monitor Tumblrs and import those as bookmarks, or just keep the Google Reader tags when it brought things over, I would call it a must have. If you like keeping track of the things you read on the internet, that is.

book review: 2666

I received Roberto Bolano’s posthumous novel 2666 from my mom for Xmas (she would have exploded into a fine mist if she hadn’t bought me anything). And I just finished it this week. It was very good but very dense. I needed to keep on taking breaks to let things seep. Happily, the organization of the book lent itself well to that. There are five parts, each of which could stand alone (though in my opinion each would suffer for it), but which all circle the same area. So, my review.

The Part About The Critics. This section feels like an Umberto Eco novel in some ways. Mostly because it’s about European literary academics who are all specialists on this obscure German writer, Archimboldi. There are four of them, three men and a woman, and it charts how they came to their field and became acquaintances allies and lovers, because of this writer. They decide they have to find him and head to Santa Teresa, Mexico where there are rumours he might be. They go and visit with academics there, do some lectures, but really they’re looking for Archimboldi. In Santa Teresa there have been many murders of women, spoken of like a curse. Supposedly a very tall gringo (Archimboldi was very tall) had been arrested for the crimes. Stuff happens and the story ends with resolution on some fronts but none at all on others. This part was 160ish pages.

The Part About Amalfitano. Now, Amalfitano is an academic who lives in Santa Teresa, and he was the guide for the academics in the first part of the book. This part tells the story of him, his daughter, his wife who abandoned them and a geometry book which he has no recollection of obtaining. The academics don’t show up here, but the whispers of all the murders surround the story. This is a story about sadness, and has a different texture than the part about the academics. While you kind of felt the narrator was treating the academics lightly, as slightly silly people in a world they didn’t really take too seriously, Amalfitano’s part is heavy. Despondent almost. It’s only about 70 pages long, and was my least favourite part of the book.

The Part About Fate. Bolano was clever, because going into this after experiencing the two different approaches of the first two parts, I expected something very abstract about fate and free will. But, Fate is the name of an American reporter who gets assigned to go to Santa Teresa to cover a prizefight between an American and a Mexican. He’s not a sports journalist. He writes stories for a low-circulation black newspaper. The first part of the story is about him going to a church to hear a motivational speaker give his talk about what life is all about. Then he goes to Mexico and tries to learn about the fight. He hangs out with Mexican journalists and cringes at the Americans. It’s interesting because he notes on the race of everyone. He’s the only black reporter covering the fight. There’s a black sparring partner for the Mexican boxer. This section feels Hemingway-ish. Maybe that’s because of the manly subject matter and the journalistic short-sentence style. When he’s in Santa Teresa he hears about the murders and he tries to pitch doing a story on the murders to his editor back in New York, but they don’t care about that. The fight itself lasts three sentences, this tiny little point the rest of the (120 page) section balances on. It was perfect.

The Part About The Crimes. And now we hit the part of the book that made me go wow. This part is 280 pages long (so just short of the length of the three previous parts put together), and it is relentless. There are police officers and narcos and gangsters and crime after crime after crime. Over a four year stretch there are dozens of women who are killed. Most of them are raped. Most of the bodies are found in the desert. There’s also a man pissing in churhces and he has an enormous bladder, but he’s a sideshow. The thing is that these crimes are described in little police-report-esque things. It’s very clinical. Stuff like: “She was found by the side of the road fully dressed. A fractured hyoid bone suggested strangulation but she was also stabbed five times. Swabs showed that she’d been raped vaginally and anally.” And it happens again and again. And again. At first I got sick of reading these paragraphs with all their sordid little details and couldn’t wait to get back to a “story” bit with one of the cops or the reporters who’d been trying to find out what was going on, but as I got further in I realized just how horrible this sheer number of crimes was. Not all of them are connected, but every woman whose murder in Santa Teresa might have been over these years, has their death reported. The relentlessness of the crimes (and the dispassionate recounting) and the inability to put a reason or a person behind them is terrifying. Was there a serial killer? They capture a German-American man and put him in jail, saying he was behind it all, but the crimes keep happening. Things go on and on. In the previous part Fate had met up with a Mexican journalist and they’d gone to the prison where the German-American man was being held to interview him. This was the hardest part of the book to read, the part I was happiest to get through, but also the part that makes the whole thing hang together.

The Part About Archimboldi. The last (260 page) part of the book deals with the life of the German writer those critics from the first part had dedicated their careers to. It’s a story of art and war. Archimboldi had a different name as a young German man, and fought in World War 2 on the German side. This part of the story keeps on digressing into other people’s stories. The story of the Russian science-fiction writer who didn’t write the books that got him purged. The story of Archimboldi’s younger sister. The story of the German who mistakenly received a traincar full of Jews and was told no train would come pick them up so he was to deal with them himself. There are echoes of all the parts of the stories we’ve already heard through the book. The killing of the Jews and the murders of the women and the raping of the Indians by the Spanish all become sort of one in your experience of the book. Archimboldi vanishes from his own story after he starts publishing his books, and we follow his younger sister and her life. In the end, stuff happens, and the whole thing was quite an excellent experience.

So yes, this is a positive review. I approve of it winning awards (even though that doesn’t mean anyone who reads this’ll like it).

book review: league of extraordinary gentlemen black dossier

I read this because I decided I’m going to do a buy nothing kind of Xmas this year and don’t really want anyone to buy me presents. This means I no longer had to save the Black Dossier for the Xmas list and could read it for free at work. Hooray.

I was leery of this book beforehand because I loved the first two Extraordinary Gentlemen books, and this was different. The previous volumes were steampunky things where they foiled Moriarity and Wells’ Martian invasion. This one takes place in the 1950s. What cool literary characters could they do neat stuff with there?

Well, when you make James Bond a horrible little prick and do Jeeves & Wooster/Cthulhu pastiches in a world where Britain was actually Airstrip One and the big villain may or may not be Harry Lime (from the Third Man) yeah there’s a lot of coolness. There’s a lot of straight prose in here and varying formats (textbook treatises, memos, British sunday strips, pornographic tracts, the whole shebang) as Mina and Quatermain engage in a (pretty thin) chase to get the dossier talking about what they’ve been doing since 1898. It’s all about the backstory here and it was all pretty neat. I wish I knew more early 20th century British fiction because I think I missed a lot.

The only thing I really disliked was the Kerouac (Sal Paradyse) bit. That’s because it was over the top with the misspellings and stuff which obscured whether it felt like Kerouac at all. I felt it didn’t but it was hard to tell.