The Jennifer Morgue
by Charles Stross
Cover Artist: Mark Fredrickson
Review by Ernest Lilley
Ace Trade Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780441016716
Date: 06 January 2009 List Price $15.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
[NOTE: We're rerunning Ernest Lilley's review from our February 2007 issue.}
What do you do when you discover you're stuck in a spy novel channeling James Bond...and the villain is writing the script even as you dodge bullets, dance with beautiful damsels, and generally piss off your girlfriend? Oh, yes, and naturally nothing less than saving the world is at stake. All that pretty much sums up the plight of computer geek/magic maven British intel agency operative Bob Howard. He works for an agency know as The Laundry, whose mission is to keep other worlds in the metaverse from leaking into ours, creating generally bad results and the appearance of magic in our universe. Coding, it turns out, is a lot like incantation, and mathematics is the root of all magic, so the last line of defense for our world is, well, geeks like us. This volume also includes a nifty short story "Pimpf" with Bob saving a new hire from the clutches of an insidious computer game, as well as a nice essay on "The Golden Age of Spying."
Some stories, like Karl Schroeder's terrific Sun of Suns, start off weird and gradually becomes sensible. Not so the Jennifer Morgue. This starts off with a historical recap of the CIA's Glomar Challenger operation to recover a sunken Soviet (remember the Soviets?) sub, all nice and normal in a spy novel sort of way. Then, things get very strange indeed.
The Jennifer Morgue is a spy novel unlike anything you've read before, well, unless you've read The Atrocity Archives, which it's a sequel to. But even then, Stross is heading off in a new direction this time out. To call it Men in Black Magic wouldn't be wrong, though it doesn't begin to do it justice. This spy world is one familiar to all too many of us already, a world of corporate hotel conferences and endless software procurement meetings that leave the participants brain dead by mid-afternoon. Only in this case they're left literally zombified, not metaphorically, and it turns out that we're living in a multiverse with weak walls and something we'll call magic is leaking.
Bob's our man from the British intel agency that keeps mysterious doings under wraps and he's the real thing, a secret agent with an expense account and an ops team with a host of fantastic gadgets...but when I say "the real thing" I mean that he lives the life of any midlevel cog...on a meager expense account doing far more traveling than he'd like and separated from his girlfriend (also a spook) by the whims of the organization.
Sent off to Germany for the mind-numbing conference with peers from other eurospook agencies he discovers that he's actually being sent on a mission to save western civilization, and he's been partnered with an inhuman demon who lives on souls (when she's done with them the owners don't actually have any need for them anyway) who happens to be wearing a body even a supermodel would envy. The downside? Her sex life has a certain praying mantis quality to it, and he's been destiny-entangled with her (for his protection) which includes a shared telepathic link. Which more than occasionally rhymes with "kink".
It doesn't take long for either reader or character to realize that things are all proceeding along the script of a meta-spy-novel, but not because author Charles Stross didn't have anything better on hand for a plot. Rather, Stross (see our interview) has created a story which uses the meta-Bond plot as a commentary on both it's absurdity and its power. Author Rudy Rucker would say that he's playing the "power chords" of the genre, but by doing so right out in the open, he's masterfully concealing his actual moves.
The Jennifer Morgue is a high water mark in whatever genre you want to assign it, and a lot of fun besides. But it's not all there is in the book, which includes a short story after the novel, which would easily have been long enough for publication by itself in Fleming's day, but with the trend towards door-stopping fiction I suppose they wanted a few more pages. Until I actually read the short story "Pimpf."
In "Pimpf" our hero Bob gets dinged for not spending enough time at work playing online games. Online games, you see, are one of the breeding grounds for inter-dimensional mayhem, and as a result, they need to be monitored constantly. Periodically some bright game designer comes up with what he supposes is a newer, cooler world of evil and codes it into being, unaware that what he's really doing is echoing some real evil in the multiverse. When the Laundry catches someone getting too close to one of these realities, they have to do something about it. Like hire them and swear them to secrecy. Which is how Bob winds up with an assistant, which he spends the rest of the story saving from being trapped in an especially nasty piece of gaming. No, trust me. It's good.
Stross promises more tales from the Laundry to come, but not for another year or so as he's got commitments. Next time he'll be writing from a different author's perspective (we're thinking LeCarre) but we'll have to wait to find out.