Back in the early days of fiction being published online, one of my favorite sites was the Infinity Plus repository of quality fiction. The original collection still exists but has stopped being updated ages ago and now exists as another portal for selling ebooks. One of the most memorable stories I read there was Charles Stross’ A Colder War. That’s why I paid attention when Stross later turned some of the themes and ideas from that story into a series of books called The Laundry Files. I never did get around to reading it and since I resolved to read more published fiction this year and less online fanfiction, I thought I’d start here.
It turns out that although this series and the earlier story share similar themes, they’re not actually set in the same world. Bob Howard, hacker extraordinaire, works for the Laundry, the British government secret agency for dealing with the occult. This collection includes two stories. In the first one, The Atrocity Archives, Howard applies to be assigned for field duty and is sent to the US to meet a British professor of logic Dominique O’Brien whose work has come dangerously close to bending reality. He discovers that O’Brien is being targeted by a cult that he suspects are the remnants of the occult branch of the SS of Nazi Germany and is ordered by his bosses to set a trap for them using her as the bait. In the second story, The Concrete Jungle, Howard is called upon to investigate the government’s CCTV network being suborned by a hacker. It turns out that the government has secretly weaponized the network to give the surveillance cameras a basilisk stare-like effect that can turn targets to stone and someone seems to be using it for pranks.
I enjoyed Stross’ science-fiction novels, especially Accelerando well enough, if only because of how packed with cool ideas they are, but this one was so disappointing that I had a hard time finishing it. The prose is unspectacular but decent enough. However I have serious reservations about the worldbuilding, the tone and the characters. In particular, I found myself disliking how much magic this setting has. In most stories of this genre, I’m more used to the occult being real but still being so dangerous and so rare that the protagonists don’t often make use of it themselves. The whole idea is that humanity is horribly outmatched and the onset of apocalypse is staved off only one day at a time using ingenious and methodical usage of mostly mundane technology. This is very much not true in the world of the Laundry Files. Howard’s side-arm of choice is not a conventional firearm but a Hand of Glory and he’s so knowledgeable about it that he can jury-rig one in the field using the severed hand of corpses he finds. He is never without a palm-top computer that essentially acts as a grimoire. He can run specially written programs on it that have spell-like effects.
That’s all well and good. It’s not what I expected but there’s no reason why that shouldn’t work. Except that the conventions of this genre require that all this be kept a secret from the general public who has no idea that magic is real. Given that all governments seem to in on it and that magic is well understood enough that it’s in common use by all these agencies, I have a hard time buying that it’s possible to keep a lid on all this. Another thing I dislike is the sarcastic tone of Howard’s inner voice and the exaggerations for comedic effect. For example, every cup of coffee in this world is seemingly awful to a ridiculous extent. This has two problems: all characters in the world end up sounding the same and in a world in which demons and magic exist, it’s hard to tell when Howard is making a joke or when he’s being serious. I don’t find it funny and I feel that it makes the phenomena Howard encounters less horrifying.
I also have a real problem with how the stories handle women. Despite being something of a nerd, Howard basically ends up being the traditional hero saving the damsel in distress in the first story. The competent people who deal with the world-ending threats seem to be all men. This may change in later installments of the series but in this book that’s how things are. Even worse is the fact that one of the antagonists is the Accounting department within the Laundry itself. Stross obviously means to use this as a source of humor. Look how the accountants are sticklers for bureaucracy and saving money while the whole world is in danger and ‘lo and behold, these accountants are bitchy women. Once again, it’s not funny, it’s not remotely realistic that they would be seriously held back by such considerations when there are real threats and mocking women in this manner feels so old-fashioned that I feel embarrassed for Stross. Perhaps this was meant as a nod to more traditional spy thrillers but I still didn’t like it.
The stories are still fun to read in a way that crack fics are fun. I actually do like all of the tools that Howard has in his arsenal, sort of like James Bond gadgets with an occult twist even if they seem more appropriate to an RPG than in a story. Still, I’m very disappointed by the quality of this book. I feel that it’s inferior to the usual fiction that I can read for free on the net and even within its own genre is far less impressive than the stories that I can find for example on the SCP Foundation website. I might come back to Stross’ science-fiction books one day but I doubt I’ll ever read another book in this series.