Posts Tagged ‘Laundry Files novels’


(The Delirium Brief, by Charles Stross. Tor, 2017, 381 pp., $25.99)

After the last two Laundry Files novels, I thought the series was floundering. I was wrong.

The previous two books in this genre bending (sci-fi/fantasy/horror) series, The Annihilation Score and The Nightmare Stacks, marked a fairly sharp break from the five previous books in the series (not counting novellas and story collections), in that the primary narrator changed, and with it came a change of tone. The characteristic dark humor of the sardonic narrator, “applied computational demonologist” Bob Howard, was largely though not entirely absent, as was much of the pointed political and social commentary that marked the previous books in the series.

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.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the plot of The Delirium Brief is so dependent on back story, so dependent on the reader understanding the references to events and characters from the previous books in the series, that The Delirium Chart does not work as a stand-alone novel.

I’ve read all of the previous Laundry Files books, plus much of the subsidiary material, and I had trouble remembering some of the essential references. It doesn’t help that the novels have been spread out over more than a decade, and that I’ve read at least 500 other sci-fi novels since the first Laundry Files book, The Atrocity Archives, came out in 2004, but still….. The upshot is that only readers fresh to the series who read all of the books in a fairly short period, or readers willing to reread the previous ones, will fully appreciate this very dark tale that leaves the reader hanging, eagerly awaiting the next installment in the series.

And damn it! I want it now!

Recommended with the above provisos.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel, a nonfiction book skewering Christianity, a translation of a nonfiction anarchist history book, and an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover

 

 


The Rise and Fall of Dodo front cover

(The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O, by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. William Morrow, 2017, 752 pp., $35.00)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Well, from Stephenson, this is something completely unexpected and different: a light, comic, genre-bending (sci-fi & fantasy) novel that mixes quantum physics with computer science, magic, witchcraft, time travel, and parallel universes. If this sounds more than a bit like the set-up of Charles Stross’s “Laundry” novels, it is. 

Another similarity is that the protagonists in both the Laundry Files novels and The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.  work for super-secret government agencies dealing with the occult. There are, however, major differences between the Stross and Stephenson/Gallard novels. One is that the “Laundry” stories feature first-person narration from a single point of view, and The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. has first-person narration from eight p.ov. characters (four male, four female), and the story is told via journal entries, memos, historical documents, transcripted conversations, and e-mail exchanges. This sounds like it could be a mess, but it’s not: the story is quite easy to follow, which given the narrative complexity is no mean feat.

All of the characters are well drawn, with distinctive behaviors, physical appearance, dress, speech patterns, writing styles, and personality quirks. Those characters range from the very sympathetic (Melisande, the primary character, and Tristan, the primary male character), to the utterly loathsome (Blevins, an abusive, puffed up hypocrite).

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. begins with a time-lock device: we learn from Melisande’s first journal entry that something has gone horribly wrong, and she’ll be stranded in 1851 unless she’s rescued within a few weeks.

From there, the story unwinds detailing the development of D.O.D.O. (Department of Diachronic Operations) from its humble beginnings with Tristan, who works for the Department of Defense, recruiting Melisande, an ancient language expert, to work on a nascent time travel project. Following that, D.O.D.O mushrooms, with Tristan and Melisande quickly recruiting Frank, a physicist working in the area of (what else?) quantum physics, who creates a time travel machine in which witches can practice magic and send people back in time.

Shortly, the DOD begins using the time machine to alter the past, and shortly after that the DOD official overseeing the project, General Frink, appoints a slimy, incompetent crony as its administrator in place of the competent Tristan. From there, several disasters ensue, ending with the time-lock situation (Melisande stranded in 1851) described at the beginning of the book.

There’s no point in detailing the plot further, except to say that it makes sense as much as any time travel plot can make sense (ultimately, they don’t — they’re inescapably paradoxical). So, time travel is one of the book’s two “gimmes”; the other is the existence of magic and witchcraft.

One very attractive feature of the book is that it has many genuinely funny moments, including a wonderful three-page passage on the reactions of surveillance personnel forced to watch the virtually nonstop sexual antics of two of the characters. This is the high, or at least the funniest, point in the interplay between the male and female characters, which is both amusing and believable throughout the book.

If there’s any lesson to be drawn from The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., it’s that hierarchical institutions are inherently dangerous, in part because incompetents in command positions can and do make terrible decisions, overriding the concerns of the competent people beneath them.

Other than that, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. has no redeeming social value other than being for the most part — it’s a bit on the long side — highly entertaining.

That’s more than enough to justify picking it up.

Recommended.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover


Annihilation Score cover

(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 [2004]; The Jennifer Morgue [2006];  The Fuller Memorandum [2010]; The Apocalypse Codex [2012]; and The Rhesus Chart [2014].)

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

Free Radicals front cover