Friday, 28 January 2011

Review: The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross: Squamous Horros and paper clips

The third novel in Stross' Laundry series, The Fuller Memorandum continues the adventures of computer geek Bob Howard working for the eponymous Laundry, a shadowy department of the British secret service tasked with protecting the UK from threats occult and other-dimensional – in practice, HP Lovecraft's Old Gods, which turn out to be all too real. Of course, as the Horrors from Beyond Space and Time rarely recognise national boundaries, this usually comes down to saving the world as a side effect of protecting Her Britannic Majesty's domains. As other countries also possess ultra-top secret agencies with a similar remit but differing national objectives – The Black Chamber in the US, for example – Bob and his colleagues as often find themselves fighting against fellow humans as slimy, squamous terrors.

Each of the novels has been modelled after a different example of the spy genre. The Atrocity Archives was in the mould of Len Deighton (described by Stross in the afterword as the best horror writer of the twentieth century, who just happened to write spy stories) full of paranoia and with the overhanging threat of nuclear annihilation replaced by the menace of unstoppable monsters from another dimension. The Jennifer Morgue was a Bond pastiche, a rich mogul trying to advance his own ends and in the process threatening world security – in this case threatening to wake the things that lurk in the deeps. In The Fuller Memorandum, we move into classier territory with a le Carre inspired post-Cold War tale. Bob is now married to another Laundry operative, is enjoying his work (there has been far more of the fixing computer networks in the office and less of the facing unspeakable horrors, which makes him happy). Inevitably, things begin to go wrong and when Bob's boss goes missing, it might just be the end of the world.

Stross has a deft hand with the horror, which is perhaps starker in this book than previously. There is some excellent characterisation, although in this case the author concentrates on Bob and his wife leaving the supporting characters more in the periphery than previously, which allows him to realistic reactions to the unreal situations; not heroically setting the jaw to face things, or shlock-horror movie running around screaming. This is also leavened by a low key dry humour, often geek-culture references (the main character is a computer nerd who fights Cthuloid monstrosities, for crissakes) and some Dilbert-esque office jokes. Pointedly, while the horrors from other dimonsions are always in the background as the great threat, the evil acts in the books are always perpetrated by human beings of their own free will. By the nature of the background, secret societies proliferate and conspiracy theories abound, but the reality is close enough to ours that things are far too complex for any over-arching hand to be in control and cock-up rules more than conspiracy, individual passions vices and morality make fate redundant.

In The Laundry books, Charles Stross has used some well established tropes to create fun reads that are also thought-provoking and, at times, horrific. The next is due for publication late this year or early next, and I can't wait to see what terrors Bob Howard will be protecting the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and associated Dominions (and the rest of the world) from next.

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