If there really were, say, necromancers and black magicians trying to summon up eldritch, batrachian, Lovecraftian horrors from dark dimensions in the hopes of taking over the world and generally messing up everyone's day, would it not be a job for the intelligence community to ferret out? That's the brilliant conceit behind Charlie Stross's stories about the Laundry, just such a covert organization. That he hasn't written twenty of these is something I cannot understand. They're exactly the kind of amusement-park entertainment that has resulted in smashing success for guys like Jim Butcher. The Atrocity Archives, with its snark levels amped up into the red, bears as much resemblance to a Harry Dresden novel as it does to any of the works of spymaster Len Deighton, whom Stross calls his main influence. Fiendishly clever and as bristling with deliciously subversive ideas as anything else he's written, this early work of Stross's shows it was no secret the man was going places.
This volume — first released in the US in hardcover by Golden Gryphon before Ace did the trade paperback — offers both Stross's first published novel, The Atrocity Archive, originally released as a UK magazine serial, and its sequel, the Hugo-winning novella "The Concrete Jungle," exclusive to this book. Ordinarily I would review a book like this as a story collection. But as there are only two stories, and both are so consistent in tone and quality, it's easy to look at The Atrocity Archives as a novel in effect. (Easier, actually, than it is to look at the nine-novella mashup Accelerando that way.)
In The Atrocity Archive, Stross takes the amusing approach of purporting to introduce us to the real world of counter-intel tradecraft; comprised not of flashy playboys like Bond who call attention to themselves in a way no actual spy with any brains would if he wished to stay alive, but of computer geeks and pencil-pushing cubicle drones poring over endless hours of make-work drudgery and dealing with bureaucratic tedium. Then he has these guys battling undead Nazis and Old Ones. Applying hopelessly obscure mathematics and good old "no one understands it so we can use it to explain anything" quantum mechanics in giving an SFnal gloss to magical incantations and sorceries may be a gimmick. But it's an awesome gimmick. And I can't help smiling at the way Stross routinely has his characters saying things like, "Most of it boils down to the application of Kaluza-Klein theory in a Linde universe constrained by an information conservation rule," as if it's a perfectly normal way to talk and we're just meant to go, "Okay, these guys know what they're doing, so I'll just come along for the ride." I honestly have no idea how much of this stuff Stross is making up and how much of it is really the kind of high-end number crunching that Mensa types do while sitting on the commode instead of Sudoku. I don't really care, to tell you the truth. Stross employs it in the service of terrific entertainment, and that's enough for me.
To keep its geek cred strong, The Atrocity Archive introduces us to a worthy everyman hero with the entirely colorless name of Bob Howard. Actually, he's not that much of an everyman, as his intellect is perhaps in the top 1-percentile bracket. But he isn't glamorous, and he has enough of the same roommate/job/girlfriend grievances as the rest of us. When the Laundry, the X-Filesy offshoot of British intelligence into which he's been conscripted for being too smart for his own good, assigns him to make contact in the U.S. with Dominique O'Brien, a British academic whose researches are unwittingly taking her down a rather sensitive path, Bob suddently finds himself embroiled in a wild plot involving Islamist terrorists, the SS, elder gods, and wormholes to dying alternate universes.
The Atrocity Archive was serialized in late 2001, and written earlier that year, which makes its creation contemporaneous with — if not inspired by — 9/11 and the subsequent war on terror it provoked. So while there's nothing here that could be called deliberate political commentary, Stross is nonetheless highly attuned to current events in his plotting. The goal here is strictly escapism, with numerous references peppered throughout — say, Castle Wolfenstein — to make sure readers stay in the right frame of mind as the story careens along. (I also can't help but have an abiding love for any tale that references both Discworld and Richard Dawkins.) It's can't miss entertainment for the urban fantasy crowd.
More overt political commentary can be found in "The Concrete Jungle," in which the notion of the surveillance society is taken to its frightening extreme. The UK is currently blanketed by CCTV security cameras, and here, some evildoer has figured out a way to turn them into weapons. A sinister software upgrade turns each camera into something like a basilisk, turning victims into crumbly, carboniferous stone. (Yes, Stross gives us an SFnal explanation for how that's done, too.) Could it be an inside job? It's certainly a spin on paranoia that the usual conspiracy-theory crowd hasn't gotten around to yet. But if it doesn't exactly make one worried that there are diabolical mass murderers in the corridors of power waiting to laser-beam us to death while we walk to the corner store, one cannot deny that it is damn creepy that so much "security" currently exists in our modern world. While it's all purportedly for our own good, I don't think most people would be inclined to feel more safe learning that they've been unknowingly photographed or videotaped over a hundred times in a day. But then, I suppose it's the kind of thing most people have come quietly to accept, too, particularly in the rare instances when all that camera coverage helps catch a real bad guy.
Braiding together the real and the unreal, Charlie Stross remains one of our most vital, irresistible storytellers. He might make you sleep with one eye open, but just because you're paranoid doesn't mean Yog-Sothoth isn't really out to get you. It's comforting to know a guy like Bob Howard and his trusty palm-top are on the job.