Friday, August 29, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #241: The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross

Even in the world of Charles Stross's Laundry novels -- set in a nightmare version of the modern world where the darkest dreams of both H.P. Lovecraft and Scott Adams are equally true -- some things are just too ludicrous to be believed. Yes, there are slavering horrors from beyond space that want to eat our brains. And, yes, every nation has a secret agency set up to deal with those problems, of which the UK's Laundry is possibly the most benevolent and forward-looking, meaning that it's a horrible compartmentalized, barnacled bureaucracy struggling to incorporate management insights from the 1960s and thus working there is only slightly more soul-destroying than, say, at Comcast. But all of the agents of the Laundry, from the lowliest HR drones to the deeply spooky combat sorcerers of Mahogany Row, know one thing for sure: there's no such thing as vampires.

The Rhesus Chart is the fifth of the Laundry novels, and probably the best one: it succeeds The Apocalypse Codex, The Fuller Memorandum, The Jennifer Morgue, and The Atrocity Archives. (I could possibly argue that elements of the ending of Jennifer didn't quite work as well as they should, but, otherwise, the this-new-one-is-the-best-one pattern has held remarkably true for the length of the series.) All of the novels are narrated primarily by Bob Howard, who fell into the occult world as an undergraduate in computer science over a decade ago: he discovered a neat little algorithm that nearly destroyed the Midlands by opening a portal for the monsters from outside our world, and was required to sign the Official Secrets Act in blood (the special secret Official Secrets Act) and join the Laundry forthwith. He's managed to not die in the middle of horrible events several times since then, which is the hallmark of the Laundry's top people: the best sorcerers are the ones still above the ground. So he's added on a variety of skills, job duties, and connections over the years, not least due to his work as the assistant to the very creepy DSS Angleton, who appears to be a flinty old man but whose motivating intelligence is much older and from much farther away.

This time around, the Laundry has caught a management fad from Google: all of the officers of sufficient rank are now required to spend 10% of their time on a personal project. But, being the Laundry, those personal projects can only come from a tightly controlled list, and are really just new job duties, just highly speculative and recondite ones unlikely to have any direct value. And of course the other work doesn't lessen because of these "ten-percenter" projects, so they're entirely additional, generally unnecessarily, completely obligatory work. Bob's project is to trawl a National Health database to search for signs of a particular syndrome that affects sorcerers -- when you summon monsters from other spaces, the space in your own head gets more porous, and the otherworldly equivalents of viruses pop in for little snacks, until the accumulated damage turns a sorcerer into something very much like an Alzheimer's case. Bob expects to find only a tiny handful of similar cases, because the media would certainly have noticed if there was an epidemic of people with their brains being eaten, wouldn't they?

But no. There is a new clutch of vampires, just arisen inside one of the major investment Banks, consisting of all ten members of a small group focused on the more recondite end of quantitative finance and calling itself the Scrum. They have become infected with a parasite from beyond space that acts more like a symbiote -- it doesn't immediately kill them, for example -- and grants immense strength, a lack of need for sleep, and immense powers of suggestion to its hosts. (It also causes a very quick and firey reaction to sunlight, but nothing is perfect.) The reason these V-parasites don't eat the brains of their hosts is due to a sorcerous link forged by blood: the eat the brains of their hosts' victims. And so Bob's Big Data investigation quickly leads him to discover first an anomalous cluster of deaths among the staff of a particular cleaning agency, and then that there's something very, very wrong in that Bank, and that some kind of monster -- certainly not a vampire, though, since those don't exist -- has taken up a home in the Scrum.

Things get more complicated and dangerous from there, as Bob rushes a Laundry team to the Bank to find and eliminate the not-vampire creatures there. Meanwhile, Bob's home life has come unraveled at an unpleasant pace: his wife Mo O'Brien, who as AGENT CANDID is the holder of a Zahn violin and one of the Laundry's top operatives for very wet work, is racing Bob to a work-induced breakdown; and the second-in-command of the Scrum, oddly enough, is ex-Laundry HR, Mhari Murphy, who's also Bob's crazy ex-girlfriend from ten years before.

It is all too neat and tightly connected to be that simple, of course. And it all points in one direction: vampires are real, but someone has a very strong vested interest in the belief otherwise. But who?

The Rhesus Chart is one of the homier of the Laundry novels; it takes place almost entirely in Bob's apartment or in the Laundry offices -- with a third locale in an off-site Laundry storage facility. And it's the most concerned of any of the books so far with the workings of the Laundry itself: Bob has been climbing the career ladder over the past two books, getting management training here and secondment to a new department there, and now he is high enough to glance over the battlements and see the wider world.

And, of course, it all comes together in the end, with two major battles among powerful beings -- some of whom may be vampires, though, mind you, they don't exist -- and a shattering attack on Laundry headquarters itself. The Rhesus Chart is brilliant, tense, complex in the most pleasing ways, and entirely integrated -- the alternating chapters of narration Stross has used in earlier books blends into something smoother and crisper here, as Bob tells us the story of both what he saw and did and what he only learned afterward. This is a major novel from a major SFF talent working at the height of his powers, and another brilliant and thrilling book in possibly the best series running right now.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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