The Atrocity Archives & The Jennifer Morgue, by Charles Stross

Stross’s world is a unique blend of Lovecraft-ian monsters, computer science, and British secret service noir. From a strict categorical perspective, which no one takes these days, it’s a blend of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It’s so clever that many an SF/F author probably beat themselves with the now-why-didn’t-I-think-of-that stick while reading it. The theory is that the “many-angled ones live at the bottom of the Mandelbrot set” and that many (assumed) unsolvable mathematical and computer algorithms will create rifts that allow such monsters access to our dimension/world. On the other hand, algorithms can create protective charms and tools, as well as protective screen savers. The POV (point-of-view) character is Bob, who was inducted into service because he came too close to solving a famous (and assumed unsolvable) problem while fiddling around in his previous IT job. Now he works for The Laundry, which is the nickname for the very secret service dedicated to protecting the populace from terrors they can only imagine.

Bob’s voice is alternately dry and sarcastic, and intended to be humorous. I say "intended" because humor is so fickle and personal, and I had two very different experiences with the books. In The Atrocity Archives, we’re introduced to Bob and his world as he tangles with a Nazi death cult. However, I didn’t warm up to Bob or the humor. The jokes seemed to be trying too hard, or perhaps they were a little too painfully close to real life. I got the jokes: I’ve enjoyed watching “Pinky and the Brain,” I’ve encountered some of the IT drudgery that Bob experiences, and I took Automata and was introduced to NP/NP-complete problems. I also have some familiarity with Lovecraft and Cthulhu-horror game-playing. My conclusion, though, was that the book dragged in places and I felt the humor was heavy handed.

So I started The Jennifer Morgue with trepidation and immediately had a different experience. I started cackling on the first page and continued through the entire book. Why? I haven’t a clue why I thought this book was so funny, in comparison to the first. Once again, I understood Bob’s dilemmas and have been in exactly the same places. On the first page he’s on the German Autobahn with “someone shooting at me from behind with a cannon that fires Porches and Mercedes.” I particularly enjoyed the use of Microsoft PowerPoint as a soporific, and then as a possession device with a soul-eating algorithm built into a slide dissolve that starts with the 1984 Apple ad. Sure, it was complicated, but real: I challenge anyone who’s been given a PowerPoint ROI lecture or marketing plan after a big lunch to argue that they weren’t under a sleep charm… After that, The Jennifer Morgue works off a James Bond structure, in more ways than one. This is more than a spoof, because Bond-ian behavior becomes enforced in the characters through multiple geas.

All in all, a mixed bag. I enjoyed The Jennifer Morgue much more than The Atrocity Archives and the writer in me would like to nail down the reasons. I suspect that pacing had something to do with it and perhaps the use of the Bond stereotyping that gave the second novel its structure. It’s certainly a mystery I’d like to solve.

Any opinions?

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