Tuesday, September 04, 2012

The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross

Charles Stross's fiction is never what you might call overly optimistic -- even when Earth-derived minds have spread throughout the solar system (as in Saturn's Children), they're all posthuman robots, since the original meat-based humanity has long since died out. And when he thinks of slapping a million iterations of our continents onto one gigantic plate-shaped world, as in the novella "Missile Gap," he doesn't make it a wide-screen panorama of continent-hopping adventure, but something vastly darker. Even his Amber-derived alternate-worlds caper series quickly devolves into nuclear blackmail and family backstabbing. So it's unnerving to note that his funniest, zippiest, and most consistently amusing series is the "The Laundry Files," a sequence of computer-science spy thrillers set in a deeply Lovecraftian world, explicitly set a few years before the stars will be right, and the Old Gods will return to at the very least kill most of humanity. He's clearly setting us up for a very big fall, and not making any mystery of it, either.

The Apocalypse Codex is the fourth novel in the series -- after The Atrocity Archive, The Jennifer Morgue, and The Fuller Memorandum (see my review), all of which I recommend as highly as possible for anyone who has ever loved James Bond, Lovecraft, Dilbert, or anything roughly contiguous with any of those things.

Since, as we all know from fantasists from Le Guin on down, the true names of things have a special power, all of the people working for the Laundry -- the super-secret agency of the British government tasked with defending its citizens from extradimensional threats -- use false names throughout. And so the series main character is called Bob Howard, his boss is Angleton, and his long-time girlfriend and colleague is Mo O'Brien -- as usual with Stross, there are multi-leveled allusions and wheels within wheels, so Apocalypse Codex could be read as a smart, snarky supernatural adventure novel set in a very dark world even by readers completely unfamiliar with Lovecraft. Though I do suppose that any reader needs to know something of the nature of modern bureaucracies to really enjoy these books.

Apocalypse Codex continues Bob's career momentum; each novel is set a year or two after the prior book, and Bob is rapidly climbing the career ladder at the Laundry -- not primarily because he's such a wonderful agent, but because that coming interdimensional apocalypse (aka CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN) will require as many trained agents in place as humanly possible; one assumes that there are at least a dozen Brits in similar situations, and untold numbers in their own nations' equivalent forces. In this case, it's ten months after the end of Fuller Memorandum, and Bob has almost stopped waking up screaming from the memories. Bob survived that prior mission, and the world did not end -- this counts as an unqualified success, in the world of the Laundry -- and so he's working on his next step up the org chart, which requires various soft-skills workshops dealing with how to manage people.

So he's sent off for a week of workshops and skills-building, out in some random suburb called Sunningdale Park, with a cross-section of up-and-coming British bureaucrats from much more banal organizations. And there he's quietly met by Gerald Lockhart, a high-level officer in his own organization, who tells Bob that he will be immediately seconded to Externalities, a portion of the organization he hadn't previously thought existed. In fact, Externalities should exist at all, as Bob understands the Laundry: it requires everyone who learns the One True Religion to join on pain of death for secrecy purposes. Externalities, on the other hand, is only loosely tied to the rest of the organization, and Lockhart leads Bob to believe that his mission will be to supervise a small team of outside operatives -- Externalities is for operations sensitive enough to require plausible deniability, cut-outs, and similar spycraft traditions.

In this particular case, it's because an American evangelical preacher -- Raymond Schiller of the heavily televised Golden Promise Ministries, purveyor of what seems to be the usual God-wants-you-to-be-rich gospel, though with undertones that worry the Laundry -- is meeting with the UK's Prime Minister, and is clearly seeking closer contact with several Cabinet officials. The Laundry cannot directly investigate the decision-making ranks of Her Majesty's Government, but they can put "external" assets to work looking at individuals who come in contact with those ranks. And so Lockhart introduces Bob to Persephone Hazard, a young woman of varied background and unusual skills, and to her assistant, Johnny McTavish, who was born into an unusual religious tradition (perhaps not unlike Golden Promise) and who escaped into the SAS and other activities.

Obviously, Ray Schiller turns out to be much more than an unctuous American trying to get favors from a foreign government, and so Bob, Persephone, and Johnny make their way, quietly, to Colorado, to do some more intensive surveillance on Golden Promise and to discover precisely what dangerous plans he is crafting. Those plans turn out to be even more dangerous, and more imminent, than anyone had suspected, and the three agents are left on the ground, unprotected, far behind enemy lines. (And "enemy," there, applies almost as much to the deeply frightening American counterpart of the Laundry, the Black Chamber, which relies much less on purely human operatives than the British do.)

Bob and his team must again stop an apocalypse -- keep gates from being opened, Sleepers awoken, and souls from being eaten wholesale. And, along the way, Stross provides a nightmare version of an American church -- one assumes he is not particularly fond of evangelical Christianity, from the evidence here -- and an impressive parade of horrors for Bob and Persephone to confront.

Stross is more and more comfortable with his magical apocalypses as this series goes on; Fuller Memorandum had a major set-piece conclusion, and Apocalypse Codex laps that -- while also being told in a technically more difficult manner. (This time out, Bob is writing his report in both first person and third, covering both the events he personally witnessed and those that Persephone and others engaged in while he was occupied elsewhere.) Apocalypse Codex is darkly funny as well as thrilling, and Persephone Hazard is a great character, continuing Stross's tendency to make his most dangerous agents women.Apocalypse Codex is a great novel in a great series, tightening the screws even tighter as Stross's world shambles ever closer to the abyss -- and these books have the best whistling-past-the-graveyard humor I've ever read.

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