This might be one of my favourite Charles Stross books. I think it’s the effortless blend of bureaucratic humour and horror, and the slight homages to spy fiction, that makes The Atrocity Archives so appealing. It’s not just any one thing, and it isn’t too much of any of these things. There are plenty of ways to play the "secret government agency that fights the supernatural" angle, and plenty of them are valid. Stross has gone the tongue-in-cheek, cryptopunk route, and his particular brand of relentless, sardonic humour fits perfectly with this style.
The Atrocity Archives speaks to me as a math geek. All the magic in this book is arguably sufficiently advanced science, in the sense that it’s done using math—incredibly complex math. Turing cracked the P=NP problem, and in so doing realized it gave access to other universes. Many of these infinite universes are inhabited by beings like or unlike us—demons and spirits and Lovecraftian Old Ones. And it’s not just what Stross creates; it’s how he describes it: “the many-angled ones who live at the bottom of the Mandelbrot set”. He seamlessly integrates math jargon into the conversation, never pausing to explain the lesser terms (he does give a bit of a crash course to things like the Turing problem in a little exposition). I can’t speak for how the mathematically uninitiated will feel about this—I can only hope that the patter will also be seamless, if slightly less explicable—a gentle background noise that eases on into the atmosphere Stross is trying to create.
That atmosphere is probably familiar to readers of spy fiction, particularly the over-the-top stories of Fleming and his ilk, for whom the perfect spy is the suave and sophisticated but unrealistically flashy James Bond or lookalike. The agents of the Laundry face global, perhaps even universal, annihilation on a regular basis. Standing toe-to-toe with such unimaginable horror, the only thing one can do is shrug and laugh. It’s the Dr. Strangelove, or Catch-22, appeal to absurdity. Stross reinforces this with many allusions to the Cold War and its lasting effects on the Laundry’s tangled org chart and resources.
The Laundry itself is as much a bastion of bureaucracy as it is badassery. Prior to being approved for fieldwork, Bob is little more than a glorified IT technician, running madly around the office trying to keep ancient servers running. His superiors harass him non-stop over missing paperwork; this continues even after he becomes a field agent and begins going on classified operations. Bob doesn’t like putting up with this, and he occasionally manages to wiggle out of it, but the bureaucrats always seem to get the last laugh. (Stross expounds further on that last idea in The Concrete Jungle, a sequel novella that is included in this edition of the book.)
So he’s sold me on the setting. The main character is slightly more generic than I might like for a protagonist. But Bob did grow on me—partly, I think, because he isn’t uber-competent, and his intuitive leaps of brilliance always make sense, thanks to sensible foreshadowing. For example, there is one point near the climax of the book where he needs to quickly construct a charm that will render him invisible to some bad guys. Earlier in the book, we established such a charm exists and how it’s made—and, conveniently, Bob had the principal ingredient on his person for an entirely unrelated reason. It all comes together nicely, in a way that signals tight writing and editing that I always appreciate seeing.
I’ll admit to getting a bit lost with the plot a few times. Stross draws on obscure points of history and nuances of politics that occasionally escape my grasp (especially when reading this on a transatlantic flight when I should be sleeping but can’t). This doesn’t mar my enjoyment of the story, though; the fun of the action and tone of Bob’s narration is quite enough to see my through to the end. I suspect I’m also just lazy and used to authors who feel the need to explain every detail to the reader, whereas Stross decides to leave the bigger picture disassembled and let the reader put it together—or not—at their own pace and leisure.
The Atrocity Archives is the first in a fun series. It’s James Bond meets Dilbert or Douglas Coupland, a story where black humour screens the oppressive knowledge of all the immensely powerful things that go bump in the night. It teeters on the yawning chasm of despair, its appeal to absurdity only just holding it back—and that powerful juxtaposition of light and dark tones creates a story worth reading and discussing.