Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Chicago Nerds- The Atrocity Archives

For the September meeting of the Chicago Nerds book club, we read "The Atrocity Archives" (2004) by Charles Stross, the first novel in his ongoing "Laundry Files" series.

The novel (and most of the series), follows Bob Howard, an IT worker for the Laundry, a a covert UK agency that deals with supernatural threats. In this universe, Stross predicates a kind of information-based magic, with the result that certain kinds of math and computing can bring about reality-altering affects. However, the backdrop to this universe is a version of the Lovecraftian Cthulhu mythos—insane cosmic horrors beyond human ken wait to flood our dimension etc. etc. Oh, and the series also mixes or alternates comedy with the cosmic horror. Good stuff.

We had a very critical but ultimately positive appraisal of the book. Notes and possible spoilers below!

One of our biggest criticisms is that book feels very monovocal—there's only one voice, everyone sounds like Bob, and we suspect that Bob sounds like Charles Stross. The characters are all fairly two-dimensional (which we noted is better than one-dimensional), and we noted a severe lack of female characters with agency. Also, the scene with Mo tied naked to the sacrifice-bed thing was pretty gratuitous (although, oddly, not described very exploitatively, so why have it like that at all?), and the attempt at other diversity (gay roommates, for example) feel pretty weak. However, we actually excused some of this on the reasoning that "everybody's kind of flat, so which type is flat is less important".

Some of us really enjoyed the juxtaposition/conflation of Ancient Eldritch Horrors with Corporate/Bureaucratic Frustration. We hearkened back to the bureaucracy-disaster-comedy of Connie Willis in "To Say Nothing of the Dog", and suggested Manuel Gonzales' "The Regional Office is Under Attack" and Max Barry's "Company" in a similar vein, and we also talked about the television series "The IT Crowd" a bit.

Extremely polarized reactions to Stross's introduction and afterwords, which cite his major influences (Lovecraft & Neal Stephenson) and lay out a (some of us thought) really fascinating discussion about the relation between the horror and espionage genres.

Some of us really liked the over-the-topness of some of the trope deployment here (secret Nazis?! ON THE MOON!?), while noting that part of why they're over the top is that they're not exactly new. Re-reading Laundry books made me want to go and read Mignola's "Hellboy", in a similar vein.

Lots of little details we liked here, from the pigeon's-foot Hand of Glory to the basilisk gun technology (CCTV usage reminded us of that one "Black Mirror" episode). The constant acronyms and terrifying/mundane bureaucratic details were also part of why this worked so well.

In conclusion, a few of us plugged the rest of the series (which definitely get better along a few different axes), and the group as a whole concluded that this is a "nice short fun flawed thing" and that our "time wasn't wasted per se", which, coming from the CNSC reviewers is positively glowing.

Also, really can't suggest reading Stross's blog too much, it's one of my favorite reads. Lots of SF/political/technological ideas, discussion, thought experiments, and good crowd-sourcing from his readers.

Next time! We're discussing "Ghost Talkers" by Mary Robinette Kowal! Be sure to keep up with the Chicago Nerd Social Club on their website & Facebook group—there are a ton of Halloween-y & otherwise nerdy events coming up.

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