The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross

The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross
The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross

“The Atrocity Archives” contains two stories by Charles Stross. The novel “The Atrocity Archive” has been published for the first time in the magazine “Spectrum SF” between November 2001 and November 2002. The novella “The Concrete Jungle” was published for the first time in 2004. In 2005 it received the Hugo Award as the Best Novella of the year.

“The Atrocity Archive” introduces Bob Howard in his first active-duty assignments on behalf of the Laundry, a secret British government agency with a unique specialization, the occult. The first task is tedious and at the end Howard is soaking wet but the next assignment, which is supposed to be routine, becomes a deadly battle fought in two universes with a creature conjured by the Nazis decades earlier.

In “The Concrete Jungle” the power of the Gorgons was implemented in surveillance cameras. Bob Howard begins to investigate a concrete cow and eventually discovers that behind it there’s a conspiracy that will endanger the Laundry itself.

“The Atrocity Archives” contains the first Bob Howard stories written by Charles Stross. The novel “The Atrocity Archive” is very short by today’s standards – less than 250 pages – and essentially introduces this occult secret agent’s particular fictional world. The story is told in first person from Bob Howard’s point of view so inevitably he’s the best developed character.

Charles Stross had already written a story of that kind titled “A Colder War” and someone mistakenly consider it as linked to the Bob Howard stories. Actually the described fictional universe is different.

The fundamental concept introduced by Charles Stross is that magic is nothing but an extension of the science we already know, particularly mathematics. It’s no coincidence that Bob Howard tells us know that the great mathematician Alan Turing was murdered by agents of the Laundry because he had discovered a theorem very dangerous as it’s bordering on magic.

Luckily after that intervention the Laundry changed its policy and started offering a job to people of value who on their own discovered something they shouldn’t have. Of course this is the kind of offer you can’t refuse but it’s an alternative to physical elimination. Bob Howard himself ends up working for the Laundry as a computer technician after his deeds as a hacker get into the world of magic.

This is not the first time a writer fits the occult into science however Charles Stross does it his way, which is very geeky. Bob Howard is a computer expert and in the two stories in “The Atrocity Archives” there’s a notable use of computer jargon. Actually the book is full of scientific and pseudo-scientific jargon.

Even the supernatural part of the stories has a geek flavor because Charles Stross is inspired mainly by the authors most popular to geeks. The name of the protagonist is a clear homage to Robert E. Howard and there are several references to H.P. Lovecraft. References aren’t just about literature: during the novel “The Atrocity Archive” Bob Howard arrives at the Nazi stronghold and wonders if that’s Castle Wolfenstein.

For his spy stories Charles Stross admitted he was inspired by writer Les Deighton so the style is quite different from James Bond. Bob Howard’s boss is inspired by James Jesus Angleton, the real chief of the CIA’s counterintelligence staff at the time of the Cold War.

Particularly at the beginning Bob Howard’s duties tend to be boring, also because part of his job is tied to bureaucracy. The Laundry agents are often involved in meetings and they must justify their expenses so sometimes the greatest dangers come from the agency’s people in charge of accounting.

“The Atrocity Archive” isn’t perfect: the first part is slow and burdened by techno-scientific and pseudo-scientific descriptions of Bob Howard’s tasks. In part this is inevitable given the complexity of the fictional universe introduced by Charles Stross and the type of work done by Bob Howard but the fact that the protagonist spends more time talking, even to himself, than acting doesn’t help to go on with the novel.

A positive aspect of the first part of “The Atrocity Archive” is the humor, very British but again you can see the geek in Charles Stross. For example Bob Howard complains that his “lusers” colleagues always ask him to help them with even simple tasks on their computer because they can’t learn to do them.

After the initial obstacle in “The Atrocity Archive” there’s more and more action and the reader’s initial efforts are rewarded. The tone changes becoming much more dramatic and you understand the meaning of the novel’s title.

“The Concrete Jungle” has the advantage of being a novella about one-third the lenght of “The Atrocity Archive” and this means that action starts at the beginning. Again there’s technical, scientific and pseudo-scientific jargon but it’s better placed in the middle of the action. Partly this is due to the fact that the characters have already been introduced and Bob Howard has some experience in the field, partly maybe Charles Stross did a better job in mixing the elements.

Like “The Atrocity Archive”, this novella can be best appreciated if you have a certain type of computer knowledge. If you don’t feel like laughing reading that the Security section of the Laundry uses a software called Daemonic Countermeasures Suite that runs on a computer with FreeBSD as the operating system perhaps this kind of story isn’t for you.

Overall “The Atrocity Archives” is a good book that requires a certain kind of knowledge and a certain kind of attitude to be appreciated so I recommend it in particular to geeks.

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