The Atrocity Archives, Charles Stross

Golden Gryphon, 2004, 273 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 1-930846-25-8

Stop the presses! It’s only August, but unless I hit another brain-burner before December (and Charles Stross’ own Iron Sunrise may very well do the trick), I’ve found my Book of the Year.

Oh, the chances are that you won’t like it. It’s been a pet theory of mine that what is great to one cannot be great to all: Given that the great stuff appeals to unique facets of a personality, such quirky likes and dislike won’t be shared by all, ergo stuff that reaches you won’t necessarily affect everyone.

And -whoah- does The Atrocity Archives push most of my buttons: Computer Science, Office Work, Lovercraft Mythos, Spy Thrillers, Tech Jokes, Historical Trivia are all thrown in a particle accelerator and the result of this experiment is a book that just about grabbed me by the ears and demanded to be admired. It wasn’t much of a fight: Scarily enough, Stross thinks a lot like I do, or at least like I would if I were a lot smarter.

Consider the premise: Today’s world is a fragile reality. Right underneath the surface, evil creatures are just waiting to emerge, and the way to bridge the gap is through higher mathematics. Or, in practice, advanced computing. The only reasons why we haven’t yet been crisped and ketchuped by tentacled creatures is that there are shadow agencies working to keep the unmentionable, well, unmentioned.

We find our narrator in the middle of all this. Bob Howard is a computer wizard working in the bowels of the British “Laundry”, wizard being no mere metaphor in this context. As the novel begins, he’s drafted in a complex operation involving three secret services and a lovely red-haired philosopher who has unknowingly discovered a very dangerous piece of knowledge. Before soon, Howard finds himself neck-deep in very dark matters best left to professionals. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say that Nazis are involved. The short title novel (“The Atrocity Archive” is 70,000 words long) is followed by “The Concrete Jungle”, another spooky novelette combining Total Surveillance paranoia with a -literal- Medusa effect in the middle of an ultra-dirty bureaucratic war. (A passing reference to “something” set for 2007 is one of the most frightening things in the book.) An afterword describing links between thrillers and horror caps the rest of the book. Whew!

But plot summaries usually fail to do justice to Stross’ fiction, and The Atrocity Archives is a perfect example of this. Scarcely a paragraph goes by that doesn’t include throwaway references to layers of imagined back-story integrating mounds of arcane knowledge. Sentences have to be unpacked for maximum meaning. Stross doesn’t write as much as he encodes entire novels in lossy compression schemes leaving just enough hints to make us wonder at the rest. He effortlessly discards more stuff in a chapter than most lousy writers manage to pack in trilogies. Even though the book clocks in at less than 300 pages, there is plenty for your money in here: You will end up reading the book as slowly as possible to get every reference. And, if you really get into it, you won’t want to stop before you’re through.

Of course, your mileage may vary. Unless you can get references to “maze of twisty little passages”, “Old Ones”, “the Wannsee Conference”, “NSA Echelon”, “the Church-Turing hypothesis”, “are belong to us” and so forth, it’s a safe bet that you won’t get maximum enjoyment out of the novel. If, on the other hand, cryptic expressions such as “BOFH becomes Bond” are enough to make your eyebrows shoot up, Golden Gryphon is the small-press publisher you should patronize.

The Atrocity Archives isn’t just good: it’s “oh goodness my mind is blown”, “this is turning me in a drooling fanboy”, “I’ve been waiting to read this book half my life” good. It’s the kind of book fit to be lent, or gift-bought in massive quantities. Scary reactions: As a reviewer, isn’t it my job to be professionally jaded by now?

Aw, stuff it: Book Of The Year. If it’s not, I can’t wait for the better book.

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