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the pathetic caverns - books by author - Charles Stross

eclectic reviews and opinions

Stross, Charles

The Atrocity Archive

The Atrocity Archive is an unusual blend of H.P. Lovecraft-style xenophobic horror with post-Cold War espionage fiction. It's wrapped up with Stross' trademark dark humor and committed antiauthoritarian stance — the protagonist, Bob Howard (the name is a nod to Lovecraft's friend Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan) is never sure which is worse: the nameless eldritch horrors from beyond time and space, or the bureaucracy of The Laundry, the supersecret spook organization he works for. It's also perhaps not coincidental that Lovecraft himself was an open source software advocate of sorts: he freely allowed other writers to use elements of his Cthulhu mythos. The Atrocity Archive is written in clipped first-person present tense — the antithesis of Lovecraft's somewhat florid style — that's often curiously flat.

"Plaid Shirt snorts again: "Is that all?" He walks over to the door. "Yeah buddy, that's all," he says, and opens it. Then there's a wet slapping sound and he falls over backward, leaking blood onto the carpet from both ears.

It has some nifty twists on genre tropes of horror and spy fiction, but like Singularity Sky, it's long on chunks of exposition (Stross's "magic" is rooted in esoterica of information theory) and paramilitary action in which blokes with guns get in way over their heads.

The short novel is paired in this edition with "The Concrete Jungle," a previously unpublished and much lesser sequel novella. It can't seem to decide if it's an actual story, a political diatribe, or a shaggy dog story missing a punchline. Worse, it violates the internal consistency and tone of Stross's supernatural spy world. Among other things, it tacitly suggests that even an invasion by Lovecraft's unutterably hideous Old Ones wouldn't justify the mandate of pervasive Digital Rights Management along the lines of the Trusted Computing initiatives currently underway. I'm nearly inclined to agree — I think I'd actually have a slight preference for DRM over the Old Ones, given the choice. But "The Concrete Jungle" would be more successful as political commentary if it had fewer tentacular horrors, and it would be a stronger story if its politics were less heavy-handed.

In his afterword, Stross argues that Cold War spy fiction and supernatural horror are essentially the same thing — both rely on the trope of secret knowledge and the threat of the extinction of humanity. It's thought-provoking if not entirely convincing. Stross also recommends that his readers investigate Tim Powers's Declare, a novel with similar themes, which he was warned off reading while writing The Atrocity Archive. He doesn't mention William Browning Spencer's Resumé with Monsters (a sort of Dilbert-Office Space-Cthulhu hybrid) or John Shirley's Demons (a supernatural/horror/adventure/satiric novel with no spies or explicitly Lovecraftoid critters but substantial common moral and political ground). I highly recommend both.

Stross, Charles

Singularity Sky

Singularity Sky is an interesting — if not entirely successful — exercise in having your cake and eating it too. It offers a sly, in-joke-spiked take on a space navy (with obvious nods both to Stars Trek and Wars) encountering a foe utterly beyond its comprehension.

Stross clearly intends some contemporay social satire. The crew of his inherently anachronistic and self-contradictory, brass-fitted, spit-polished starship is a stand-in for current social structures and their inability to rapidly react to technological change. Stross's two protagonists — a tough computer hacker and an anti-terrorist operative — are from the other side of the information technology revolution we're currently grappling with. They spend many paragraphs snarking about the blindness of the space navy's government — a Kafka-infused imperial Russia-Britain hybrid — toward the futility of controlling information flow, and how primitive their technology is.

Stross has been wildly hailed as an exciting new voice in science fiction, and Singlurity Sky offers ample evidence that he's got ideas aplenty and can string coherent sentences together. Unfortunately, he's too vested in establishing the plausibility of his future tech, so the narrative frequently slows down to allow the reader to digest unwieldy chunks of exposition. Most of this is delivered in an omnsicient third person, but Stross sometimes resorts to the hoary device of having his smarter characters explain how things work to their less-informed counterparts. He's also not much for character development, and despite Stross's forward-looking politics, this combo gives him an old-school hard-SF quality that's almost weirdly reactionary. And in a few places, the placement of expostion is structurally odd. If you're not already familiar with the concept of using quantum tangling to communicate across great distances, it might be frustrating to wait until page 284 to learn what Stross's characters mean when they refer (as they do frequently) to a "causal channel."

Another problematic aspect of the book is its indulgence in the conventions of movie-style military sci-fi and space opera while simultaneously skewering them. I'm guessing that readers who enjoy reading long dialogue stretches of combat jargon — accelerate at so many k.p.s., vector this-a-way and "paint" target alpha with lidar so we can shoot at it — might be peeved that the characters with all the cool toys are mocked so thoroughly. On the other hand, if space combat scenes bore you, there are quite a few to wade through. And for readers familiar with recent memes of science fiction — upload civilizations, cornucopia machines, transhuman machine intelligences, ubiquitous computing, etc. — Singularity Sky might not be very suspenseful because the situations' eventual outcomes won't be in question, only the paths by which they're reached.

It's still entertaining, sometimes funny, and even a little scary in places (Stross also writes horror, and it shows). And this might be a particularly good book to recommend as sort of "gateway drug" to a friend who wants something brainier than a Star Wars novel, but more action-oriented than "literary" SF.


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