(The Annihilation Score, by Charles Stross. Ace, 2015, 401 pp., $26.95)
reviewed by Zeke Teflon
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The Annihilation Score is the latest in Stross’s “Laundry Files” series, which blends sci-fi, fantasy, horror, political and social commentary, sly references, playfulness, and caustic humor. Until now, the primary character in all of the novels has been 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 in the series departs significantly in that the p.o.v. character is Howard’s wife, “Mo” O’Brien, another Laundry operative who’s in charge (barely) of “Lecter,” a violin with vast paranormal powers, which is made of human bones, is sentient, manipulative, and which is “hungry” to feed on the souls of those it kills. The novel largely revolves around Mo’s frightening and disturbing relationship with Lecter, and with their struggles to control each other.
The background for this struggle is that (due to ever-increasing computational power) the number of people who accidentally invoke entities from parallel universes, and interpret the abilities those entities give them as superpowers, seems to be increasing exponentially. Thus, there’s an outbreak of lycra-clad “superheroes” wreaking mayhem. One of the Laundry supervisors comments on them:
What sort of fool goes out and buys a Lycra body stocking and cape, then beats up on bank robbers for their jollies? . . . A certain level of narcissitic personality disorder goes with the territory, as does a predisposition towards authoritarianism . . . Charming people.
And those are the relatively harmless ones. Mo is put in charge of combating the “unreasonable ones: disturbed hero-worshiping nerd-bigots who, if they accidentally acquire superpowers, will go on a Macht Recht spree. . .” As a means of limiting the harm these types do, she’s to put together a team of the relatively harmless ones, with constraints on who can be in it:
There’s room for one person of color, one female or LGBT, and one disability in a team of four–if you push it beyond that ratio it’ll lose credibility with the crucial sixteen to twenty-four male target demographic, by deviating too far from their expectations.
Mo is also charged with halting the depredations of a mysterious super-villain type, “Freudstein,” who begins a series of spectacular crimes by robbing and vandalizing the British Library. The novel unfolds as it follows Mo, focusing on her struggles with Lecter, her fraught dealings with her overseeing bureaucracies, and her difficulties in unmasking Freudstein. Mo’s struggles all resolve in satisfying manner in the final few pages.
However–this may in part be due to my intense dislike of the whole superhero genre–I’m reluctant to recommend The Annihilation Score. It comes up short in most of the categories that made the previous Laundry Files novels so much fun. There’s less humor in it than in the previous books, the two above quotes being the funniest passages in the whole book; the playfulness is almost entirely absent; the political and social commentary is muted, focusing mostly on the dorkishness of superhero worshipers and on the authoritarianism of the police; and there are relatively few sly references that will provoke smiles in those who recognize them.
Recommended only to those who are already Laundry Files or superhero fans.
(If you haven’t read the previous Laundry Files novels, I’d recommend reading them in order: The Atrocity Archives ; The Jennifer Morgue ; The Fuller Memorandum ; The Apocalypse Codex ; and The Rhesus Chart .)
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Reviewer Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia.