The Rhesus Chart, by Charles Stross, cover image

(The Rhesus Chart, by Charles Stross. Ace, 2014, 359 pp., $26.95)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Every once in a while I crack open a science fiction novel, begin reading, start smiling a few pages in, and a few pages later mutter to myself, “Yes! This is why I read science fiction!” The Rhesus Chart is the most recent addition to the all-too-short list of such novels.   (The previous two books on the list are Ken Macleod’s The Night Sessions [2012] and Iain M. Banks’ Surface Detail [2010].)

The Rhesus Chart is the latest installment in Stross’s “Laundry” sci-fi/horror series, which follows the adventures of mild-mannered computer science geek Bob Howard, who, in the first “Laundry” novel, The Atrocity Archives, inadvertently summoned unspeakable tentacled horrors from a parallel universe, and quickly found himself conscripted into “The Laundry,” a super-secret British government agency dealing with the occult via “applied computational demonology.”

This latest installment deals with a nest of vampires in the heart of an investment bank. Stross, of course, takes full advantage of the comedic possibilities this offers. And, Stross being Stross, very near to the start of the book offers a convincing half-page scientific explanation of why vampires can’t exist–and then explains how nontraditional ones can, via invasion of entities from parallel universes.

On a mechanical level, The Rhesus Chart is very well written–Stross’s seamless back-and-forth switching between Howard’s first-person p.o.v. and multiple third-person points of view is particularly impressive. The plot is intricate and well thought out. Stross even manages to make banking interesting, accurately describing such screw-the-public practices as front running and high-frequency trading. And there are sly references to science fiction books and movies, politics and, especially, computers and IT throughout the book.

In the middle of all this, Stross works in horrifying (and accurate) information about mass executions by the brutal, murderous Iranian fundamentalist regime. And good for him for doing so. As a genre, science fiction is ideally suited to exploring political, social, religious, economic, and ethical theories and problems, and to critiquing and exposing the present-day powers that be. The genre would be much better overall if more sci-fi authors did so. Science fiction is supposed to be a literature of ideas, but it rarely is. The vacuousness of most science fiction, hidden behind a flashy, shiny facade, is perhaps its most irritating feature. (Even this would be forgivable if it at least delivered on its promise of entertainment, but all too often it doesn’t.)

Stross, though, does present substance  in the course of this very entertaining novel. Going beyond exposing the sleaze and rapaciousness of the banking industry, and the murderous activities of Iran’s religious thugs, he also works in some humorous digs at political correctness, such as “who’s-more-oppressed Bingo” and the correct PC acronym and euphemism for zombies: “RHR’s,” “Repurposed Human Resources.”

And then there are many passages that are simply quite funny. Here’s one:

Doris Green from Health and Safety … looks round the table, her stare challenging any of us to gainsay her. Middle-aged, plump, and gallus in twinset and pearls, Doris is one of the H&S types who seems to have had her sense of humor surgically shrunken and her perm prematurely grayed by exposure to one too many inquests into bizarre workplace accidents that involve cordless hammer drills, sex toys, and the phrase “Watch this!”

Since no review is complete without a bit of carping, here are my two complaints about The Rhesus Chart: Stross uses a number of Britishisms (e.g., “take the piss,” which means to mock or take advantage of–I had to look it up) that will take the American reader temporarily out of the story; and the book is too short.

Both entertaining and substantive, The Rhesus Chart is a great read.

Highly recommended.

(If you haven’t read the previous “Laundry” novels, I’d recommend reading them in order: The Atrocity Archives [2004]; The Jennifer Morgue [2006];  The Fuller Memorandum [2010]; and The Apocalypse Codex [2012].)

* * *

Reviewer Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia.

Free Radicals front cover

  1. […] Halting State (2007), Rule 34 (2011), and all of the “Laundry” novels–especially The Rhesus Chart (2014)–are excellent […]


  2. […] In The Delirium Brief, Bob Howard is back as the first-person primary narrator, and with him some of the humor. (There are also third-person passages from the p.o.v. of other characters.)  The tale is so dark, though, that the humor is somewhat muted. But it’s there nonetheless, as is the pointed political/social commentary, which was largely absent from the previous two books. At one point early in The Delirium Brief, Stross devotes nearly a full page to a wonderfully precise description of how privatization of public services screws the public, which is reminiscent of his description of how the banks screw the public in his very funny The Rhesus Chart. […]


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