Every twenty years or so, science fiction literature experiences a re-birth, a re-imagining. In the 1980's, cyberpunk exploded on the scene with writers such as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling heralding in an era of computer-politics-entertainment fusion. Before that there were groups like the New Wave, the Futurists, and others.
Rising from the cross-platform, multimedia, post-millennium world is the New Weird. A synthesis of pop culture, literary references, technology, politics, postmodernism, and history told through a lens of footnotes, sidebars, multi-genre pollination, and fast paced plotting, this new movement features some of the finest speculative and popular writers working today. Authors such as Chuck Palahniuk, Jasper Fforde, China Miéville, Jeffery Ford, Jeff VanderMeer, Cory Doctorow, and Zoran Zivkovic are among the best practitioners of this new breed of storytelling.
Last year, U.K. short story writer and programmer Charles Stross joined those ranks with the publication of his second novel, the Hugo Award nominated Singularity Sky. His first novel, the alternate-reality-hard-science-fiction-Lovecraftian-thriller The Atrocity Archive, was originally serialized in the British magazine Spectrum SF in 2002. That novel and a shorter story set in the same universe were recently published as The Atrocity Archives.
In Stross's world Alan Turing, the father of cryptography whose theories are still used in modern encryption, has completed the "Phase Conjugate Grammars for Extra-Dimensional Summoning," better known as the Turing-Lovecraft theorem. Turing's theorem can open interdimensional doorways that enable otherworldly nasties to enter this world. Before Turing's findings could be made public, most of the civilized world's covert governmental organizations suppressed his work.
Out of this event emerges the Laundry, a top secret U.K. governmental agency, created to monitor and control unlawful uses of Turing's work. Almost all of its employees are mathematicians who have cracked the Turing-Lovecraft theorem and been caught at it. Their choice: Join Laundry or die.
In the first longer story, The Atrocity Archive, Bob Howard, an insubordinate desk jockey, stumbles across a plot involving Nazis, secret societies, terrorists and an Unspeakable Evil bent on destroying the Earth. His life is further complicated by office politics, two crackpot roommates calling themselves Pinky and the Brain who tend to blow things up, and his developing feelings for the beautiful mathematician Mo. All this lunacy ultimately leads to a climax on an interdimensional world against an evil more terrifying than any Nazi.
Charles Stross masterfully guides the reader through this complex, strange new world of quasi-cyberpunk ideals, horror tropes and Len Deighton-esque espionage with clarity and humor. There is a scene when Stross uses almost nothing but acronyms to describe the inner workings of the Laundry such as OCCULUS (Occult Control Coordination Unit Liaison, Unconventional Situations) and LART (Luser Attitude Readjustment Tool). This is a very funny novel written in a deadpan style:
"Fine. fine." He passes me a somewhat shop-soiled video camera manual. "Give this a read. And this." He hands me a bundle of typed pages with bright red SECRET headers, then passes me the lash-up. I look it over dubiously: There's an arrow on top of the neural network box with the caption THIS SIDE TOWARD ENEMY, and flat-panel camcorder viewfinder on the back so you can pretend you it's just a computer game you're playing while you kill people.
The Atrocity Archive is much more than a parody of espionage thrillers. Stross is well versed in technology and mathematics. He uses this to his advantage in explaining how things work. Most of his explanations are interesting and informative, though he occasionally gets bogged down in the details:
What this gadget does violates the second law of thermodynamics: Nobody's quite sure why it's so specific, but the medusa effect seems to be some kind of observationally mediated quantum tunneling process. It turns out that something like 0.01 percent of all atomic nuclei of carbon in the target zone acquire eight extra protons and a balancing number of neutrons, turning 'em into highly electronegative silicon icons. A roughly balancing proportion of carbon nuclei just seem to vanish, wrecking whatever bonds they were part of.
Then there is the Lovecraft connection. Writing in the 1930's, H. P. Lovecraft pioneered the idea of fictional ancient creatures from different dimensions terrifying the denizens of Earth. While his work tended to the florid and bombastic, Lovercraft's influence on popular culture is large as seen most recently in the hit movie Hellboy and the fiction of Stephen King and many other writers. Although a clear antecedent of the plot of The Atrocity Archive, Stross' prose is nothing like Lovecraft's. Written very much in the style of a contemporary thriller, Stross' moves his story along at a breakneck pace, only pausing long enough for a humorous interlude or a technical explanation.
The second story, The Concrete Jungle, appears here for the first time. In this shorter tale, Stross further explores and satirizes the inner workings of governmental office politics. While amusing in its own right, the novella was a let-down after the roller coaster excitement of the first story.
Charles Stross's hip, fluid prose typifies the New Weird as he effortlessly slides between genres and tropes. Science fiction, thriller, adventure, romance, and horror, this one has it all in one neat package. With an introduction by Ken MacLeod and an afterword by Stross exploring the distinctions between thrillers and horror fiction, The Atrocity Archives serves as an excellent introduction to a unique literary movement.