The Apocalypse Codex (A Laundry Files Novel)
by Charles Stross
Cover Artist: Mark Frederickson
Review by Benjamin Wald
Ace Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781937007461
Date: 03 July 2012 List Price $25.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK
The Apocalypse Codex is the latest installment in Charles Stross's Laundry series, which mixes Lovecraftian horror with computer geekery with bureaucratic incompetence, and finding surprising synergies in the odd combination. This is the fourth novel in the series, and while it still has its moments of charm, the premise is starting to feel a little played out. In this outing, British hacker turned spy Bob Howard, employee of The Laundry, a bureau of the British government that deals with occult threats, going up against a Denver based mega-church and its charismatic leader reverend Ray Schiller, who takes himself to be orchestrating the second coming, when in fact he is close to summoning something much less friendly.
The plot has Bob being given new responsibilities as he is fast-tracked for management in light of the upcoming catastrophe labeled case nightmare green. He is put in charge of managing a pair of external assets, Persephone Hazard and her partner Johnny, in their investigation into Schiller. A simple reconnaissance mission soon changes into something much more serious, as Schiller turns out to be much more dangerous then he appeared, and Bob and his team find themselves the only people in position to head off what could turn into a global apocalypse.
The story is reasonably fast moving, following the usual formula of throwing Bob into a dangerous situation that rapidly escalates out of control. However, the basic premise of the Laundry novels has started to wear a bit thin. This is apparent in the way that the first fifty pages of the book feel in many ways like a rehash of things that have gone before. We get some flashbacks into Bob's past, a reexplanation of the threat posed by case nightmare green, a reintroduction to Bob's creepy boss, Angeleton, and so on. All this is presumably meant to bring new readers up to speed, but it feels repetitive to someone who has read the previous novels already. Even the new additions, like Bob's introduction to the external assets department and their special function, lack the zing of previous novels.
Perhaps in an attempt to correct for the way that the central premise of the series has begun to feel a bit stale, Stross introduces Persephone Hazard as a supporting character. Unfortunately, while undeniably new, she ends up undercutting many of the things about the setting I most liked. Bob is emphatically not a super-spy. He is mostly an ordinary geek, who is able to find hidden depths when the occasion calls for it. This is a strength of the series, showing a spy who is a normal person, complete with expense reports and meetings. Persephone, on the other hand, is pretty much a super-spy. She skips all the boring meetings, and instead spends her time parachuting into castles with magical amulets and infiltrating cults. Also, whereas the series has always emphasized that magic is, in the modern age, done with computers and circuit boards, Persephone is an old fashioned witch, able to conjure spells with a wave of her hand and some magic words. This just feels like an abandonment of what made Stross's setting unique, and hence interesting.
Finally, I found that Ray Schiller was a bit of a boring and predictable opponent. The metaphor of religious believers being taken over by mind destroying parasites feels a bit obvious. Mega-churches are likewise an easy target for corrupt organization that feeds on true believers. It starts to feel like Stross is stacking the deck against religious belief, especially when we consider that all of the Laundry novels have usually portrayed religion in the form of cults. We do have one (very) minor character who is both religious and relatable, but in general it feels like Stross is promoting a rather one sided view of religious belief as mindless and dangerous.
Overall, this is the weakest of the Laundry novels. Ingenious as it was, I feel that the idea of combining Lovecraft with computer hacking may have run its course. Stross is, of course, a highly skilled writer, so the novel is by no means a total failure. The plot moves well, there is plenty of suspense, and Bob remains as lovable as ever. However, for the first time since I started the series I feel like we might have seen enough of Bob and The Laundry.