on 15 November 2007
I must say I'm a bit bemused by some of the earlier reviews...so let's at least try to cut the confusion a bit. First, the book "The Atrocity Archives" (note the plural) contains two separate items: the short novel "The Atrocity Archive" (singular) and the long short story/short novelette "The Concrete Jungle". They are part of a series, i.e. they make use of the same characters in the same world, but there is no reason to expect plot continuity, any more than there would be reason to expect plot continuity between two separate episodes of Star Trek or two Agatha Christie Poirot stories. The separateness of the stories is quite clear from the layout of the book: why some earlier reviewers wanted to read them as one beats me completely. Oh well.
Second, this is actually Charlie Stross's first book, though it's clearly been reissued on the back of his later success, and yes, it does show. This is a book written as a side project by an IT professional, and one feels that other IT professionals were the intended audience. It does, indeed, work better if you're a geek (I'm not, but I am a university physicist so I got most of the in jokes). When it was originally published, the publishers obviously felt, probably rightly, that an introduction by Ken Macleod would help to sell this unknown author - the subtext, that if you like Macleod you're likely to like Stross, is completely justified in my opinion. Yes, the intro could have been dropped for this reissue, but it would probably have cost money to do so.
The stories in this book (and its sequel, "The Jennifer Morgue") are written as affectionate pastiches of classic spy novels, as the Afterword makes clear. The basic idea is that magic actually works, mostly by tapping into alternate universes (probably the "many worlds" of quantum mechanics). Hence, people working in particular branches of applied mathematics (especially geometry and algorithm theory, as you might expect given that magic uses formulae and diagrams) are apt to get more than they bargained for. The Laundry, a branch of British Intelligence, is tasked with (a) heading off mathematicians and computer scientists who are straying into the wrong areas before they accidentally do something catastrophic and (b) dealing with the consequences if they fail to manage (a). However, it's also a government department, which means in addition to this it is expected to conform to government standards for administration, staff development, etc. Been there, done that, and feel exactly the same as Stross evidently does about it!
Disagreeing completely with an earlier reviewer, I think this does work, and (given the historically-attested strongly mystic ethos of large parts of the SS, plus the whole spy-novel pastiche idea) a late-WW2 Nazi SS plot is an entirely sensible choice of "baddie". However, it is true that, after a highly entertaining build-up, the actual climax does seem to me to happen too quickly and be resolved rather too easily. I think this is first-book inexperience; I doubt he'd write the last quarter of the story in the same way if he were writing it now. It's not really a serious fault, because the entertainment value of this book is mostly in the details: the sly digs at various office administration buzzwords (and assorted Microsoft products - a view I suspect Bob Howard shares with his creator). Anyone who's worked in IT or in a university department should find this book very funny indeed. (Incidentally, the mathematicians whose names I recognised - not all of them - are being used in completely appropriate contexts given the book's premise: yes, O previous reviewer, I'm pretty sure Stross does know what he's talking about there.)
If you're looking for sophisticated high-concept hard science fiction as per Accelerando, Glasshouse, etc., this book is not for you. If you're a fan of Dilbert, buy it immediately!
Science fiction espionage horror. With a dash of comedy. Loads of computer geek stuff. That's what you get from the Atrocity Archives.
Bob Howard (I'm not sure if this is an allusion to the Conan creator) works in IT for a branch of the Secret Service that deals with stopping people from accidently summoning cthulhu type entities using circuit boards. He struggles with the usual minuitae of everyday life, pointless training course, over-officious bosses and bizarre flatmates. Like Harry Palmer, he lives in a lowrent world, eating cheap pizzas and waiting for his flatmates to leave so that he can use the washer/dryer.
But when he's forced to kill a possessed man on a HR course, he attracts the attention of his superiors and soon finds himself caught up in an incipient armageddon and a journey to another universe.
It's good fun. I will admit, like another reviewer, I did feel that events escalated rather quickly and to a degree that one might have expected Bob to feel a bit more out of his depth. However, I didn't think it detracted from the story which was, as I say, good fun, certainly enough to make me want to read the next book in the series, the Jennifer Morgue.
The Atrocity Archives is a small book compared to the door-stoppers of modern fantasy and SF, weighing in at only 299 pages once you discount the introduction, afterword and (a very necessary) glossary of terms and abbreviations. But don't let that put you off. The sheer number of ideas contained in those few pages is just mind-numbingly amazing, and keeps the story racing along at break-neck pace.
The premise: The Laundry, a top-secret government agency with the duty of protecting the world from unseen horrors--a troop of Nazis existing on an alternate universe, breaking through the dimensions of space and time; terrorist capable of summoning demons, et cetera, etc! And how does The Laundry do this? With magic of course! Not the Gandalf type, though, but by harnessing technology... For with pure mathematics, anything is possible...
When Bob Howard, a low level techie at The Laundry, goes and gets himself noticed by his superiors, his trouble begins...Forced onto assignments where he's frequently in danger, Bob doesn't think things can get any worse ( a very dangerous thing to think in an organization which uses advanced mathematics to compel there employees to tell the truth!) ...so of course they do!
At times too concentrated with jargon and surplus info, this book is nonetheless a cracking read. Some parts are very funny (particularly when you meet his house-mates, Pinky and The Brain!) and the office characters crucifying Bob (metaphorically) for overdue paperwork, etc will be very real to those unfortunate enough to work for a top secret government agency...or just a normal office!
Very nearly Nine out of Ten, the best Stross book I've read yet!
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on 25 May 2004
It's difficult to review this book without comparing it to other authors, simply because they share certain common moods. The actual story concept is original, a fusion of espionage, horror, and SF that won't necessarily appeal to readers who are purists in any one of these genres, but is hugely enjoyable if you can take it all in.
Briefly, the story revolves around agents for a British intelligence organisation tasked with suppressing certain mathematical concepts; the ones that are the keys to other dimensions, most of them containing entities implacably hostile to mankind. The trouble is that they happen to be very interesting mathematical concepts, the ones that are close to the cutting edge of computer research, and there are a lot of people out there that are working on them. In the past it took thousands of man-hours to screw up reality, today a laptop can do it in sceonds. This can result in horrific accidents and is potentially the ultimate terrorist weapon. There is an uneasy peace between the world's intelligence agencies, which pool resources to counter this threat, but things haven't always been that way. The ultimate threat of the book is a remnant of Nazi research from the second world war, and turns out to be much nastier than expected.
I enjoyed everything in this book, from the home-life of the hacker/agent hero to its final apocalyptic scenes on a dying alien world. Thoroughly recommended.
on 21 October 2011
I first encountered Charles Stross and Bob after winning the Fuller Memorandum in a giveaway from Graeme at Graeme's Fantasy Book Review. I completely adored it and it was laugh-out-loud funny. While that one was very readable without having read the previous books, I had to check out the other ones too.
The Atrocity Archives are pretty much where it all starts for Bob. We witness his first gigs as an active field agent, we find out how he got on Angleton's team, why he actually became part of the Laundry and how he meets Mo. It was fun to see a much younger, more akward Bob, who is still living with two of his buddies, Pinky and Brains, in a Laundry-warded house in London, instead of the older, more mature (ahem) Bob we meet in The Fuller Memorandum. However, having seen 'the future' in book three, some of the elements can be a bit confusing. Mostly these are of the type that are logically explained by apparently that is a skill they pick up later, such as Mo's violin playing, but at times you just had to go with the flow.
What is striking is how much of Bob's world seems plausible. The overt magical elements of course aren't, but many of the more political elements are. Stross' Afterword even says he had to change the name of the terrorist organisation Bob encounters in California, after 9/11. Which actually makes the weirder stuff more believable. Even a secret enclave of Nazi's doesn't seem implausible, only the fact that they live in a different dimension. Speaking of said different dimension, the scenes there were fantastic and the 'far-side of the moon'-gag was priceless.
I really like Bob. He isn't a Mary-Sue, but he does allow us to learn about his world, either through his explaining it or learning at the same time as we do. And that is how the story is mostly told, as if you're sitting down with Bob, who is telling you his story over a pint. Which doesn't actually make much sense, as The Laundry is supposed to be super secret, but it does make for a pleasant narrative, as Bob sometimes manages to break the fourth wall.
My one complaint would be that the novel is rather short, clocking in at 336 pages and that is including a foreword, a novella and an afterword. Now, there is nothing wrong with short novels, but in this case some extra space could have been devoted to developing the relationship between Bob and Mo and Bob and his sort-of ex-girlfriend, Mhari. The ex-girlfriend keeps popping up, but doesn't really seem to serve any purpose in the novel and while Bob and Mo aren't a case of the dreaded insta-love connection, things do seem to move along at a fair clip.
The Concrete Jungle, the novella included in the book, was fun and gives a whole different meaning to cow tipping. I like that we get to see how someone could get pulled into working for The Laundry without ever even knowing they existed. It's a fun story, but also one to give you chills, as there is just a hint of Big Brother and what he could do to you in it.
The Atrocity Archives is a great start to The Laundry series and funny as heck. The novel and novella are great, but Stross' Afterword really finishes off the book in style, funny, informative and sneakily erudite--the former literature student in me truly enjoyed it. If you like near future stuff, spy thrillers and a bit of Lovecraftian horror, you shouldn't miss this one.
on 24 May 2005
The Atrocity Archives, if I must harp on, yet again demonstrates the versatility of Charles Stross' writing. And provides a really good reason to become a fan now.
This is a well conceived mix of spy thriller, Cthulhu-esque terror and comic romp - as our hero (A technical support adviser, for the secret British agency known only as The Laundry) Bob Howard braves the terrors of the unknown universe, middle management, undead nazis and other things both Squibbous and Rugose.
The first tale - The Atrocity Archive (note no 'S') itself it intelligent, witty and imaginative; and leaves you screaming out for more from Bob Howard. Which is quite fortunatly answered straight away by the follow on novlette "The Concrete Jungle", which makes up the last third of the book.
Here Bob is entangled in another plot to turn all of Britain's CCTV cameras into lethal disintegration rays using a 'magic' system, and he must track down the psychotic hackers who have taken it upon themselves to sludge various unwitting members of the public. Can he figure out who, why and where?!
Two tales, both super - and both part of what we can only hope becomes an ongoing series (if the world were truly right - a TV series). And Mr Stross is currently writing the second story...so watch these spaces.
on 22 July 2011
The Laundry is a government department, that's been around for a few decades, that nodoby's ever heard of. They have a very specific remit and it's not quite what you'd expect. The Laundry protects humanity, or at least Britain, from the predations of beings from other dimensions. These dimensions can be reached by carefully following some particular geometric curves, but doing so is very, very dangerous.
Part of the Laundry's remit is also to ensure that knowledge of these curves remains unknown, and then deal with the results when someone gets too curious without full knowledge of the consequences, which are never positive.
If you know Pratchett's work, or are familiar with Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos then you'll recognise the style of the work, or the nature of the nightmares that can appear amongst us.
I only encountered Stross' work recently, and I wish I'd found his work years earlier. This is a really enjoyable book, well-written, thoughtful, humourous and witty.
It's one of the best books I've read this year and I can't recommend it enough.
on 14 July 2006
If you've read Stross' Hard SF novels (Singularity Sky, Iron Sunrise, Accelerando etc.) this might come as a bit of a surprise. As the other reviews have stated, it's a sort of cold-war era spy yarn mixed with Lovecraftian hokum. Despite this, it's full of jokes and at times almost Douglas Adams-like humour (sorry Charles if this wasn't deliberate). If you've read "A Colder War" in Stross' short story collection "Toast", you'll have an idea of what to expect here, though with an overall lighter feel and ending.
on 10 April 2011
If you have ever wondered what would happen if you combined H.P. Lovecraft and Len Deighton, you have the answer here.
Often witty, amusing and genuinely clever. It is somewhat rough and ready but it is very enjoyable.
This really consists of two different stories and is somewhat episodic which reflects the stories origins as they were originally published in magazines.
The background details are very interesting and the author has created a fully realisable background for his books.
It did sometimes read as a fantasy of a frustrated IT helpdesk employee but generally always in an amusing way.
Computational Demonology is a great idea and it was great to read a light hearted thriller with well done actions scenes, decent dialogue and very well worked out scientific (sounding) and occult elements.
on 6 January 2013
Others have written pretty thorough descriptions of this book, and I must agree that the concept is intriguing. However, I found the writing to be very difficult to plough through - lots of techno-babble which does nothing to advance the plot, and only the most rudimentary character-development. I can see why people make comparisons with Len Deighton in terms of the twisty spy plot and I think it's an important similarity - they're both very much plot-driven rather than character-driven. I found myself applying the 'eight deadly words' rule - 'I don't care what happens to these people'.
I don't think I have enough interest to give another of these a chance - my 'to read' pile is quite high enough.