Friday, August 13, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 191 (8/13) -- The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross

People always want to know what genre a book is in -- even if you equally love play-fair mysteries and serial killer thrillers, for example, you'll want to know which one a particular book is before you start reading it, just to set your expectations accordingly. So, to aid in this process, I will start by answering the first question a reader might have approaching The Fuller Memorandum: is this book SF, fantasy, or horror?

The answer is Yes. Yes, it is. But the word "or" is a little misleading.

Fuller is the third novel in Charles Stross's deeply entertaining "Laundry Files" series, the premise of which is that, essentially, H.P. Lovecraft was correct in almost every particular -- except for the fact that he didn't take account of the twin pillars of modernity, government bureaucracy and computer science. So the many-angled ones do lurk sideways to our reality, ready to be called by the right combination of abstruse mathematics -- and, if there's one thing that computers do better than anything, it's run through math very, very quickly. But twentieth-century governments were pretty good at controlling hugely destabilizing new technologies and at creating giant, dysfunctional bureaucracies to surround them (like white blood cells), and so the knowledge of the marginal state of the human race has remained a closely guarded secret, maintained by all of the skills and trickery of technology-enabled necromancy.

The Laundry is the British supernatural spy agency, and all of its agents operate under pseudonyms within its cubicles and conference rooms -- because true names, of course, have power. (And this may partially explain why Human Resources is so uniformly hostile and evil in the Laundry novels -- even more so than in real life, I mean -- since dealing with direct deposit routing for several hundred fake names would be enough to send anyone around the bend.) The hero of Stross's novel is a mid-rank computational demonologist who uses the name Bob Howard, and is married to fellow employee Dominique O'Brian, who uses a Zahn violin in the course of her (occasionally wet) work. The Atrocity Archives saw Bob as a young agent caught up in a Len Deighton-esque scheme by a Nazi death-cult with a sideline in dimension-hopping, and The Jennifer Morgue found him caught up in a geas cast by the requisite insane billionaire in the Carribbean, forcing Bob into an ill-fitting tuxedo to stop the billionaire from waking something very nasty in the ocean depths.

One of the great strengths of the Laundry books is the way that Stross translates Lovecraft's pulpy names into bland, deliberately obtuse bureaucratese that he can drop in quietly -- such as calling the Deep Ones BLUE HADES, or the coming "time when the stars are right" CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN. That sidestep allows Stross the space to write about Lovecraftian creatures without directly invoking Lovecraft and the post-Lovecraft panoply of supernatural horror, and to maintain a more straightforward (though geek-snarky) tone suitable to his spy-thriller plots. It does, however, offload a lot of the work onto the reader, who has to be sufficiently versed in Lovecraft to pick up the references and realize what they mean. But it does allow Stross incredible freedom and scope for action -- he's now written three Cthulhu Mythos novels in which the word "Cthulhu" never appears once. [1] (And for good reason: government functionaries would never stoop to using terminology picked up from cultists.)

In Fuller Memorandum, Bob is another few years older -- Stross seems to be trying to run these books in time with the real world, and this one takes place during mid-2011, from a few scattered datapoints in the book -- and is poised to climb the ladder of promotion at The Laundry is he continues to keep his nose clean and make himself useful to his scary, unaging boss, Angleton. But several seemingly unrelated events -- the missing memo in the title, one of a stack of documents Angleton asked Bob to review; Bob's botched exorcism of a haunted Concorde airframe, which led to the death of a civilian; and his wife Mo's work suppressing a nest of cultists codenamed CLUB ZERO -- snowball together, as Bob is thrown into a new set of codeworded secrets on the BLOODY BARON committee and a report from the Laundry's boffins gives the chilling news that CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN is nearer than anyone had thought, and
that the run-up to apocalypse will be even messier than previously expected. And so Bob and Mo, like any good spy-novel protagonists, have to first figure out what's going on before they have any hope of foiling the Brotherhood of the Black Pharaoh.

Along the way, Stross indulges his blackly wry humor, both through Bob's deeply entertaining first-person narration and through a thousand little asides about the true reason for the UK's huge battery of closed-circuit cameras, the real explanation why iPhones are so popular, and why overpopulation really is a problem. And he pulls out all of the stops for the big ending, including an army of the dead and the disposition of a nasty entity known as the Eater of Souls. Fuller comes together more strongly at the end than Jennifer did, and is equally as funny and thrilling along the way -- it's easily Stross's most entertaining novel, a masterpiece of pure enjoyment, and possibly his best work period. If you don't like the Laundry Files, there's probably something wrong with you.

[1] Though someone really should do a concordance to the Laundry universe; I managed to dig up BLUE HADES from memory, but I can't quite remember what he calls the Cthonians in this series.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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