The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross
Golden Gryphon Press HCVR: ISBN 1930846258 PubDate: 05/01/04
Review by Sam Lubell
295 pgs. List price $24.95
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In a world where Lovecraft was right, spy thrillers are somewhat different from those John Le Carre would recognize. Charles Stross’ The Atrocity Archives takes place in an alternate Earth where magic works, following mathematical laws and professors of philosophy are funded by the Pentagon. He’s clearly following the tradition of rational magic as science, promoted by John W. Campbell’s short-lived magazine Unknown, as opposed to the anything goes fantasies that have come to dominate bookshelves. In the past of this book, Alan Turing, he of the Turing test, created a theorem that allows contact with intelligences in other universes, the old ones of the Lovecraftian mythos, or literally rip holes in space time.
The hero of the book Bob Howard was working on a geometry curve problem, not knowing that the result would summon the demon Nyarlathotep and destroy an entire city. Fortunately, the British secret agency known as the Laundry was aware and stopped him by recruiting him with the intent of giving him a desk job where he would stay out of trouble. But Bob, not inclined to sit around and wait for his pension puts in for active service and becomes a spy for the Laundry, investigating cases of mathematical magic such as a British professor who seems to be the target of a group of Nazi agents who survived the end of WWII by jumping universes and computer virus that replicates the effect of a medusa, turning cows into concrete.
Howard is not a James Bond-type hero and the Laundry is a secret organization so there’s none of the celebrity spy image the movies are so fond of showing. One character mentions that spying is 90 percent desk work, nine percent waiting outside in the rain, and one percent action. Moreover, Howard is in over his head and frequently makes mistakes, such as forming a romantic relationship with the woman he rescues (actually, that part is rather James Bondish, actually.) This makes Howard an interesting character which is good since, this being a spy story, all the other characters are at least partially ciphers.
A large part of the humor comes from the bureaucracy of the organization. Howard has to account for every paperclip and for every minute of his time. The organization uses matrix management, has procedures for everything from reporting a shortage of paper clips to summoning demons and seeks to be the first spy organization with ISO-9000 certification. However, this level of tight control actually makes sense in a universe where crossing the chalk lines of a pentagram can enable demons to seize control of your body. Another bit of humor comes from Howard’s roommates, who literally are Pinky and the Brain who build weird sorcerous stuff in the basement.
The book contains the short novel, “The Atrocity Archive” (about 183 pages) about the professor and the Nazis, an 80-page novella “The Concrete Jungle” about the case of the killer cameras, and an interesting afterward explaining the reasoning behind this combination of spies and sorcery. The book is a limited edition of 3,000 by Golden Gryphon Press. In the age of 1000+ page mega-blockbusters, when the likes of Robert Jordan needs 700 pages just to get all his characters to the next spot on the map, it is amazing how much mileage Stross gets from such few pages. His experience writing short stories clearly helps him keep this tight. Still, there’s plenty of room for more development of this combination of spy thriller with Lovecraftian chiller and I hope to see more from Stross in this world. The Atrocity Archives is highly recommended not just for those who like horror and/or spies but for fans of the rational fantasy as well.