Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #170: The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross

If you're going to do an alternate history about the end of the world, there comes a time when you have to crack your knuckles and end it.

The Delirium Brief is that point in Charles Stross's "Laundry Files" series. Those books started as a cross-genre mix-up that seemed like it shouldn't work: Dilbertian bureaucracy meets Lovecraftian horrors, with an overlay of Comp Sci and a satirical take on spy-novel tropes. It did work, though, and brilliantly -- my theory is that Stross is such an essentially depressive writer, always focused on the worst possible outcomes, that only by setting the failure condition of his stories to Utter Destruction of Humanity can he be freed to unleash the fullest power of his imagination.

Stross's central character, the hacker-turned-IT-demonologist-turned-Deeply-Scary-Sorcerer who calls himself "Bob Howard" in these stories, at first saved the world almost inadvertently. But, as time has gone on and the stars have gotten ever more right, the number of potential apocalypses have risen exponentially, and the secret British agency called the Laundry have given him more and more responsibility and power -- and some of that power accrued to him in the act of surviving some of those near-apocalypses.

(The previous books in the series are The Atrocity Archives, The Jennifer Morgue, The Fuller Memorandum, The Apocalypse Codex, The Rhesus Chart, The Annihilation Score, and The Nightmare Stacks. They all basically stand alone, in the manner of a mystery series, but they work much better in sequence. This book in particular can be seen as a sequel to The Apocalypse Codex, and also follows up particular elements of Fuller Memorandum, Annihilation Score, and Nightmare Stacks.)

The Laundry, like most such fictional organizations, was supposed to be secret. Some cracks in that secrecy were showing in Annihilation Score, but they could be papered over, more or less. But the events of Nightmare Stacks -- an army of elves invaded Leeds, to be really reductive about it -- blew that wide open. Hundreds were killed, massive amounts of property damage were done, and, worst of all, the government was embarrassed.

So now questions are being asked in Parliament, and I'm afraid Stross has about as high an opinion of the ruling classes of his country as I do of mine. What happens is horribly plausible in our world of radical free-market ideology and government disdain for knowledge and expertise. You see, the Laundry is privatized. Quickly and completely, like a stab in the back.

Even worse, it's not sold off to some well-connected Old Boy who's spent widely to grease the skids and expects to make a killing from the public purse -- that's true also, of course, since that's how privatizing works -- but it's sold off to the worst possible new owner. One whose secret intention is to claim the brains of all Britons, before too long, for his other-dimensional master, the Sleeper in the Pyramid.

Yes, Reverend Raymond Schiller is back. And his link to his inhuman master is even more unpleasant and horrible this time than before.

The Delirium Brief is the story of what happens when the Laundry is torn apart by its enemies: what re-forms in its place, what plans that new entity can make, and what bargain it needs to make to avoid the worst of the most immediate apocalypses.

This series, very deliberately, will not run forever. It's coming to the endgame now, actually: my guess is that Stross might have two more books to finish out this timeline. Maybe three. Maybe just one. Stross has said that this timeline ends in 2015, and it's creeping up on that deadline -- now, whether the timeline ends because the brains of everyone on Earth are eaten or for some other reason, I can't say.

But the series is by Charles Stross, so I'm not placing any bets on the side of a happy ending.

We're not at the end yet. The Delirium Brief is a dark, dangerous book of spycraft and Lovecraft, set in a world where merely dying is often the best possibly outcome. But at least we have Bob Howard and his compatriots to stand against those monsters...whether or not they're "The Laundry" or not.

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