Tuesday, November 29, 2005

It Came from the Library Shelf! The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross

As horror fantasy has become more popular and ‘realistically’ portrayed (in the same manner that superhero comics are now more ‘realistic’), it’s basically been portrayed more systematically. In other words, if you exist in a world in which fantastical things are real, then somebody must be aware of this and working to deal with the situation.

Sometimes this is a private agent (Buffy Summers, Karl Kolchak, Blade, the brothers on the current Supernatural), sometimes the government has devoted a special unit to dealing with such things (The X-Files, the Men in Black, the Buffy universe’s special forces branch The Inititive), and more radically sometimes vampires are publicly known to exist, and you end up with a merging of the two, as with licensed vampire killer Anita Blake.

The first idea, of independent civilian agents, is the most problematical. (In a worse case scenario, you end up with Carl Kolchak somehow stumbling across yet another monster in the streets of Chicago every week.) Surely if vampires or werewolves or whatever were real, it would be increasingly difficult for their existence to remain unknown to the public. In a way it’s an analog to a superhero’s ‘secret identity,’ an idea that writers like Brian Michael Bendis at Marvel are increasingly calling attention to as fundamentally unworkable. One of the only ways to really keep this idea of unknown supernatural creatures at all credible is to establish either a governmental or extremely powerful private cabal dedicated to both opposing such creatures and keeping the public so unaware.

An offshoot of this idea is that such agents would develop special weapons and tactics to their work. If vampires perish in sunlight, for example, develop vampire-destroying light grenades, as seen in Blade II. One of the charms for nerds in the Buffy universe is that nerd skills thus became important. If effectively confronting the supernatural requires accumulating and analyzing arcane data, well, that’s practically what defines a nerd, except that in the real world such data tends to be less useful, such as a knowledge of all the call numbers of the various ships in the Star Trek universe.

Damn, that’s a long intro. Anyway, The Atrocity Archives is set in a universe in which Lovecraft’s elder gods, among other entities, exist. The story revolves around Bob, an IT guy for The Laundry, a British spy branch that deals with supernatural incursions. Technology has made summonings of various malign forces somewhat easier, and Bob’s technical and mathematical skills soon have him becoming a field agent. Indeed, he was forcibly dragooned into the Laundry after certain mathematical theorems he was messing around with nearly caused a major Lovecraftian incursion.

The tone of the book is as anti-glamorous as author Stross is able to produce. As he acknowledges in his afterword, the book is in the spirit of Len Deighton’s Cold War spy novels starring a low-rung, poorly paid spook (anonymous in the books, but dubbed Harry Palmer in the four Michael Caine movies based on the character) who in between morally depressing and dangerous field assignments spends most of his time filling out mandated paperwork and dealing with supremely petty bureaucratic office politics. Stross notes that Cold War spy novels were basically horror, since they were all ultimately playing off the fear of an apocalyptic nuclear war. In this case, the apocalypse would be supernatural rather than (wholly) technological, but otherwise it’s a sturdy concept.

And so in Bob we have a modern Harry Palmer. He spends an increasing amount of time literally saving the universe (our universe, at least), but still has to deal with overseers who make Gary Cole in Office Space seem genuinely warm and flexible. This should seem comic, but sadly, it doesn’t play that way at all.

As noted, the book basically plays like a Cold War spy novel. Bob works to frustrate a plan by a malign foreign power (in this case, really foreign), and then also has to deal with a very unpleasant and extremely dangerous weapons systems, one developed by his own government, that has been rather unfortunately misappropriated. Those two plots are basically separate, although the character stuff makes them definitely two parts of a whole.

Stross is clearly a smarter man than I (which isn’t that much of a distinction), so I know I’m not enjoying his book on all the levels that are available—certainly the authentic-sounding science stuff is over my head—but I got enough of it to really like the read. The good news is that Stross is amazingly prolific, with about ten books scheduled to be published here over the next three or four years. The bad news is that he isn’t due to release another book about Bob and the Laundry until December 2006. In the meantime, we’ve been getting/will get a separate series of books that are basically a riff on Zelazny’s Amber series, which I actually had been reading but didn’t realize Stross was the author of until I visited his website a half hour ago. Those books are OK, but I’ll take more Bob, please, whenever I can get it.


Post a Comment

<< Home