Review: The Atrocity Archives

The Atrocity Archives

Charles Stross

Golden Gryphon Press

Rating: 8 of 10

There are those books where the cleverness of the author is irksome, where one cannot escape the vague impression that the reader is expected to stop and applaud the literary gymnastics at the end of every chapter. In The Atrocity Archives, Charles Stross does not engage in pyrotechnic wordsmithery, but his cleverness is unmistakable.

Stross, (we dearly hope), has conjured up The Laundry from the bowels of his imagination, an esoteric department devoted to cleaning up those nasty messes that result when dimensions collide. The occultic Laundry is one part NSA, one part MI5 and two parts bureaucratic nightmare, as even the most awe-inspiring eldritch horrors are somehow reduced to matters of paperwork and departmental infighting. It is as if 007 was fired for sexual harassment and replaced by 013, a Dilbert in uneasy possession of Lord Voldemort’s powers. The complex synthesis is a most unlikely one, and yet Stross pulls it off with effortless expertise.

A longtime technology columnist for Computer Shopper, Stross presents a world in which modern science and mathematical theory have been used to harness occult power from… elsewhere. The Cold War, it seems, was even more grim and cold than anyone imagined, as the arms race involved far more than the comparatively prosaic threat of nuclear weapons. An insignificant pawn for a minor player in the Great Game, Bob Howard has recently traded the boredom of a desk job for what he hopes will prove a more exciting position in the field. But in this environment, one can never tell when things squamous and rugose will unexpectedly liven up a tedious day at the office with a moment of sheer horror.

Story: 4 of 5. Surely one of the strangest thrillers ever written, the fantastic and science fiction elements only add to the tension. Yes, there are girls that must be rescued and worlds that must be saved, but the unique nature of the threats involved, both wordly and otherwordly, keep the pages ever-turning. There are actually several stories contained within one meta-story, as a related novella, The Concrete Jungle, follows the Archives proper.

Style: 4 of 5. The text is gripping and entertaining throughout, as the juxtaposition of everyman’s office life with the omnipresent possibility of sudden and horrible death is quite amusing. Stross uses his jargon judiciously, piling it on for maximum effect at times, but never allowing it to slow the story down. Like Umberto Eco and Dan Brown, he manages the neat trick of making the reader feel smarter for having immersed himself in his book.

Characters: 3 of 5. Stross’s Howard – an homage to a genre legend – is an amusing protagonist. He is not at all the cliched reluctant hero, but his self-deprecating nature makes his occasional self-doubt all the more real. Stross, for all that he is manifestly an vision writer, still manages to draw his characters with precision and more than a little wry humor.

Creativity: 4.5 of 5. Yes, this is a synthetic creation. His influences – Lovecraft, Stephenson, Fleming, Adams – are obvious, and yet the wizard’s melting pot prduces something new, different and even stylish in a technocratic manner. Stross is perhaps the best “new” writer the science fiction genre has produced since Neal Stephenson; he is certainly the most interesting.

Text Sample:

The fact of the matter is that most traditional magic doesn’t work. In fact, it would all be irrelevant, were it not for the Turing theorem – named after Alan Turing, who you’ll have heard of if you know anything about computers.

That kind of magic works. Unfortunately….

The theorem is a hack on discrete number theory that simultaneously disproves the Church-Turing hypothesis (wave if you understand that) and worse, permits NP-complete problems to be converted into P-complete ones. This has several consequences, starting with screwing over most cryptography algorithms – translation: all your bank account are belong to us – and ending with the ability to computationally generate a Dho-Nha geometry curve in real time.

This latter item is just slightly less dangerous than allowing nerds with laptops to wave a magic wand and turn them into hydrogen bombs at will. Because, you see, everything you know about the way this universe works is correct – except for the little problem that this isn’t the only universe we have to worry about. Information can leak between one universe and another. And in a vanishingly small number of the other universes there are things that listen, and talk back – see Al-Hazred, Nietszche, Lovecraft, Poe, etcetera. The many-angled ones, as they say, live at the bottom of the Mandlebrot mathematics, except when a suitable incantation in the platonic realm of mathematics – computerised or otherwise – draws them forth.

(And you thought running that fractal screensaver was good for your computer?)

Book reviews

Nate has a little Pan-Galactic book club aborning at his site, which made me wonder if it might be interesting to put together a community book review collection over at I have a distinct review form in mind, and I’m thinking that if Digital Cowboy and I designed the forms for automated entry, the reasonably well-read collection of people here would be able to put together a fairly solid selection of book reviews that might be of use to people in short order.

Is anyone amenable to the suggestion? Let me know if you:

a) like the idea and would like to contribute reviews;

b) like the idea and would like to read reviews;

c) think it’s a dumb idea as one can find plenty of reviews at Amazon.

Basically, I like to see reviews hitting the four distinct aspects of a novel: Story, Style, Characters and Creativity. For example, I would rate Tanith Lee very high on style, somewhat high on creativity, and much lower on story and characters, whereas Rowlins would tend to score much higher on characters and story than on style.

The election is moot?

We spend a lot of time discussing the merits of third party voting here, but as I’ve now run across a fourth distinct source that believes that the election will be canceled in between now and November, I thought that I’d at least bring one of the more interestingly paranoid theories to your attention. Is any of this real? I couldn’t possibly say. The only thing of which I am sure is that there are real unanswered questions about the events of 9/11, that there a number of what appear to be logical holes in the official story, and that history suggests that there is more of a power struggle going on beneath the surface than the average person following the national media would be likely to understand.

As a tangential example, I happen to know from a direct source that the story about smart missiles hitting Baghdad was false. The missiles weren’t that smart, instead, there were spotters who had infiltrated into Baghdad who were using lasers to guide the missiles into their targets. A minor inaccuracy, sure, but a blatant misrepresentation of the facts by the government nonetheless. As to the assertion that Israel tested out some of its tactical – if tactical is the word for something that can strike from 600 miles away – nukes in Iraq, I can’t say except that the radiation reported does seem far too high for it to be nothing but expended rounds of depleted uranium.

Conspiracy theory is the most accurate theory of history, the problem with using it to understand what is happening is that one seldom has any idea of which conspiracy is real and likely to be successful until it is all over. Lenin’s takeover of Russia was a conspiracy after all; how many attempts to take over the USA have been made, attempts of which we have never heard? Given Roman history, it stands to reason that more than one individual would very much like to take control of the most powerful military and wealthiest economy in the world.

AJ: Do you think the globalists are going to have the will to carry out another massive attack here in the U.S. to try to get control back over the population and get their agenda back on track? Or do you think they’ve calculated, computed as you said, that that will blow up in their face because so many people now know who the real terrorists are?

DGP: That’s a two-prong question, Alex. I think it deserves a studied answer. The only thing I can say is I’m not sure how it will turn out. But it is very dangerous.

AJ: From watching the globalists, I think they had a plan, they are still following a plan but I think they are shook-up. I think, from the evidence, in fact I know from the evidence, that a lot of things they planned haven’t gone according to schedule and so they don’t know what to do right now.

DGP: This is correct. I think it’s personified in the persona of the Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. They almost got him in Baghdad when they fired the salvo, one night, of weaponry and they scared Paul Wolfowitz off. He’s ready to resign or get the hell out.

AJ: You think that was U.S. forces doing that?

DGP: I believe it. It was very well planned again and ..

AJ: Yeah, only U.S. forces would know that he would be there. Yeah.

DGP: That is correct. And the precision of those weapons that came into the hotel. There were eleven rounds in all and I can speak from authenticity that they scared the hell out of Paul Wolfowitz.

I have to admit, I did wonder about that mysterious attempted hit on Wolfowitz, as the modus operandi was very distinct from the usual suicide vehicle, RPG ambush or gang of gunmen. It may a priori be a frightening thing to think that there may be elements in the military now in the midst of planning a coupe-de-etat, but then, it’s not necessarily the case that they are the bad guys either. Perhaps, if they are serious about their oaths to the Constitution, we might even see a return to Constitutional government. In these profoundly interesting times, the only thing of which we can be certain is that we do not have it now.

Could this simply be Y2K-style fearmongering writ large? Definitely. But as with Y2K, we’ll find out soon enough.