So not too terribly long ago I wrote a blog here about revisiting the works of one Mister Howard Phillips Lovecraft. I was working my way through the Necronomicon (not the tome but the poorly bound yet nonetheless exhaustive collection of dern near all of Lovecraft’s works put out by Orion Publishing Group) when an acquaintance of mine inquired about my recent readings. When I told him about the Lovecraft-a-thon his eyes lit up. We began to talk. Eventually the conversation snaked into the surplus of Lovecraft-continuation that has proliferated exponentially over the last two decades. Of course as one of Lovecraft’s friends and original contributors to his mythos August Derleth came up. We both agreed that while we bore Mr. Derleth no ill-will, and while I have to admit I hold a soft spot for at least a couple of his stories, my friend and I agreed that Derleth’s stuff is more imitation than expansion of his friends’ style and cycle.
This is when my friend blew my mind.
“Oh well, you’ve got to read the Charlie Stross ‘Laundry’ stuff”.
“What?” I asked, completely unsure of just what he was talking about? Cthulhu laundry?
“The Laundry is this super-secret British intelligence agency and Stross’ character is kind of like James Bond, except there’s absolutely nothing glamorous about the life of a secret agent here. It’s all paperwork and monotonous reporting, but it’s done in a world where Lovecraft’s creations are a real and excepted part of existence for the black ops types who are ‘in the know’.”
I bought the first Laundry book, The Atrocity Archives, the very same day and I gotta tell you, it is fantastic.
Here’s the deal: The world of the Laundry is essentially Office Space-meets-Bond with the workable understanding that magic is a mathematical, easily weaponizable part of the world of intelligence and Lovecraft’s extradimensional beings do indeed linger just on the outskirts of our experience.It’s a rather hands-off approach which is definitely a strength here, because unlike most Lovecraft-inspired writing these beings are a rather mundane fact to the Laundry and not necessarily a major facet of the stories. The Atrocity Archives is essentially comprised of two novellas stuck together and the first is absolutely fabulous. It deals with a group of terrorists looking to kidnap and utilize a collegiate mathematician to unlock what amounts to a dimensional time bomb. Stross’ writing style is very much British – a dry wit helps sugar coat a lot of lofty but truly thought-provoking scientific exposition and technical business/informations jargon that is occasionally punctuated with some well-paced and thrilling action sequences. There’s a whole plot turn where protagonist Bob Howard accompanies a military group into a dimensional portal that the terrorists have jump-started in a hotel room in Amsterdam. The sequence is deserving of comparison to James Cameron’s Aliens for heart-pounding, hide-and-seek military FUBAR as the team comes under fire from unknown aggressors in a snowbound alternate Earth where the sun long ago died at the hands of an alternate history WWII outcome that saw the Nazis win and usher in a demon that sucked the life from the entire Universes and is now attempting to move on to ours. Howard is half computer genius, half social refugee who rooms in a college-like Laundry ‘safe house’ with two other like-minded geniuses and is constantly caught between the petty power struggles of upper management, all of whom seem to issue orders that contradict one another and leave him perpetually caught in the middle. Stemming from this he comes into the book, and the mission, less than confident and a bit wet behind the ears but quickly catches up to speed when he steps through the dimensional doorway and sees a familiar looking moon now etched with the likeness of one Adolph Hitler shining down on a barren and forlorn version of the world he fights to protect. This is heady stuff, and at times a bit technical, but genuinely fascinating in the scope Stross applies to his world, forcing it to interact with and draw upon not only a wealth of preexisting literary ideas but also hardcore technical specs that would probably be more at home in a tome on engineering or programming than in pop fiction.
But then again, that is what good science fiction is: Extrapolation of scientific theory already being worked in research/experimentation. And Stross does it really well, with the added advantage of often hysterical social commentary a la Mike Judge.