Friday, September 23, 2011

"The Atrocity Archives" by Charles Stross

(cover from

The Atrocity Archives (2004) is a weird mix of cold war spy novel combined with Lovecraftian horror, all with a healthy dash of Dilbert's office politics. I've never read anything quite like it.

Bob Howard is an IT professional charged with keeping the archaic, and often quite bizarre, computers in "The Laundry" repaired while he struggles with his superiors in a bureaucracy from Hell (not quite literally). At the same time, he's a secret agent in this same British organization, which defends the world from brain-sucking monsters from another dimension.

I thought it was lots of fun, but I also thought I missed a lot of the inside jokes from an IT department perspective. And sometimes, especially early in the book, Stross is just too clever for his own good. For example, check this out:
We end up at an earning-facilitated nerd nirvana called Wagamama, just off New Oxford Street: you can't miss it, just look for the queue of fashion victims halfway around the block. Some of them have been waiting so long that the cobwebs have fossilized. My impressions are of a huge stainless-steel kitchen and Australian expat waiters on rollerblades beaming infrared orders and wide-eyed smiles at each other from handheld computers as they skate around the refectory tables, where earnest young things in tiny rectangular spectacles discuss Derrida's influence on alcopop marketing via the next big dot-sad IPO, or whatever it is the "in" herd is obsessing about these days over their gyoza and organic buckwheat ramen.

And that's not even the whole paragraph. So yes, I did tend to skim a bit. I skimmed through passages mixing computer jargon, advanced mathematics, and the occult, too. It's not that it was ever boring, though. It was just a bit too ostentatiously clever.

And either I got used to it, or it got better as the book went on. Certainly, I had no problem finishing. Although it's clearly tongue-in-cheek - I do enjoy this kind of humor - the story gets pretty exciting. It's just altogether lots of fun.

The Atrocity Archives is a short novel, as such things go these days, so the book also contains his Hugo Award-winning novella, "The Concrete Jungle." That's another story about Bob Howard and The Laundry, and it's even better than the first.

It's also available free online, so it's a pretty easy way to tell if you're going to like the series. That's what got me to read this novel, in fact. And note that there are at least two other novels in the series, as well as some more short fiction - "Pimpf," "Overtime," and "Down at the Farm" - which are also available free online.

In fact, you can see at that last link that Charles Stross has a lot of fiction posted for free online. I haven't read very much by him, and I might have to remedy that, certainly if the rest of his stuff is as imaginative and as entertaining as this.

Note: Here's my review of the sequel, The Jennifer Morgue.

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