Thursday, January 20, 2022

Dead Lies Dreaming by Charles Stross

I'm a year late and not as enthusiastic as I thought I would be: this will likely be short.

I've loved all of the previous books set in this world, but I had a hard time getting into Dead Lies Dreaming. This is not a "Laundry Files" book, partly because that government organization has been disbanded and partly because it's about other people doing other things. But I didn't think I was particularly invested in Bob Howard as a protagonist, or that particular government agency, so I was happy to dive into the story of some other people, relatively normal civilians, in a world sliding into a pick-and-mix of Lovecraftian apocalypses in the middle of the past decade.

(See my post on The Labyrinth Index for the most recent of the original series, and links backward to previous books.)

So: Nyarlathotep, more-or-less (an avatar of him, at least) is Prime Minister of the UK, which makes this world not quite as dystopian as you might think (human beings can still go about their lives mostly untroubled!) but still noticeably dystopian (pyramids of skulls in public parks! several other Lovecraftian death cults are jockeying for power, some apparently through mass sacrifices of their own!). Also, every bad thing about our real world is also happening in fantasy form, since Charles Stross is a mostly realistic writer who has never seen a horrible thing he didn't immediately incorporate into a novel.

(I've long wondered how he manages to get out of bed in the morning: his creative muse, at least as seen from the outside, tends to the bleakest of the bleak and the darkest of the dark.)

Living in this shitshow are our cast: four young people squatting in the ruins of a palace that used to belong to the family of one of them (Imp, Game Boy, Doc, and the Deliverator); an ex-cop now working in private security (Wendy); and Imp's older sister Eve, the personal assistant to a evil billionaire. (But I repeat myself.)

All of them are also sorcerers of some power, or possessors of mid-level superpowers, depending on how you want to look at it. This probably means all of them have extradimensional beings already snacking on their brains, because that's how power works in Stross's world, but they're young enough not to show any effects yet, and the real apocalypse could easily come along before the many-angled ones manage to eat too many brain cells.

Or they could die from other things: it's a dark, dangerous world. Living long enough for magical Alzheimer's to kill you can be seen as the good outcome. (Have I mentioned Stross's worlds are really really dark? I may be understating the case.)

I think their powers are all clear in Stross's head, but I kept mixing up the four squatters, and never quite got straight what each of them can do. It felt like several of them were mostly "really good at persuading people," though that's mostly their leader Imp's thing.

In fact, it took a long time to get the four squatters' names and personalities clear in my head: Stross jumps from real names to goofy code names to physical descriptors to emotional descriptors as he writes about them, and it took me a while to get that The Deliverator is Del is Rebecca is the Black woman. (Also, Imp is an asshole - charismatic visionary subcategory, so with an explanation, but still an asshole - and all of the four are damaged needy whiny bastards a lot of the time.) They also all get introduced in a high emotional register, so they emote madly at each other for the first two or three chapters in which they appear.

Anyway, these four people that I'm supposed to relate to but initially found deeply annoying and confusing are running a series of big robberies, despite a magic-powered surveillance state that uses summary execution as the answer to any crime more serious than failing to pay a TV license. They are doing this to fund a movie that Imp plans to direct, because of course he does. Their powers are sufficiently good that they have gotten away with it up to now, and have nearly what they need for the movie, so it's maybe One Last Job And Then They Can Retire.

Wendy runs into them during one of those robberies, causing a rapid transition from "cop attempting to catch them" to "co-conspirator and Del's new girlfriend," and their skills and some huge coincidences get all of them pulled into Eve's schemes on behalf of her horribly, horribly evil boss. There are also a few large men toting powerful firearms, who are mostly in the narrative to provide danger for a while until they get killed by each other or more horrible things. All of those characters travel through a house larger on the inside to get to a Dreamlands version of past London, where the big ending happens.

I liked all of the sentences, found the paragraphs pleasant, and read all the way to the end. But this one wasn't as compelling a read as some of Stross's earlier books have been for me: the characters weren't appealing enough to offset how dark and miserable his worlds always are. Frankly, I didn't like any of them all that much - Wendy was fine; I kept hoping she would bug out and find a more interesting plot among people less aggressively boho and whiny - and so wasn't as invested as I wanted to be in seeing them not get killed by the over-the-top combo of Peter Thiel, Harvey Weinstein, and Aleister Crowley that is the villain of the piece.

That all sounds like the definition of "a me problem." If you think you would be any more amenable to a boho retelling of Peter and Wendy in a crapsack mostly-contemporary Lovecraftian London, Dead Lies Dreaming is one of the best books to read as an introduction to Stross's no-longer-Laundry-centric world.

No comments:

Post a Comment