Ace, 2012, 336 pages, C$27.50 hc, ISBN 978-1-937007-46-1
Of all the ongoing SF&F series out there, I have to rank Charles Stross’ The Laundry Files as one of my favourites. It seems specifically designed to appeal to my strange mix of computer knowledge, public-service career, fascination for Lovecraftian horrors, liking for spy thrillers and penchant for geeky comedy. I’ve been a fan since the first small-press hardcover edition of The Atrocity Archives, and I’ve been fascinated by how the series has evolved from a one-shot singleton to a series with an accelerating plot spanning multiple volumes.
The fourth installment of the series, The Apocalypse Codex, picks up a few weeks after the rather grim conclusion of The Fuller Memorandum. Narrator Bob Howard is back in service (somewhat) after being abducted by a strange cult and re-possessing his own body, acquiring some curious necromancer powers along the way. Still shell-shocked by the events, Bob find himself promoted to middle-management early in the novel and is asked to supervise two independent contractors as they go to Colorado in order to investigate a curiously effective preacher. Operating deep in enemy territory, Bob will have to discover how far his powers go, avoid detection and somehow… manage.
The Apocalypse Codex clearly runs along the same lines as The Fuller Memorandum: It further marginalizes Bob as the narrator (by making him discuss events at which he wasn’t present, effectively switching between first and third-person narration), returns to plot threads introduced in previous volumes, maps out some of the things previously left unsaid and further explains the multiverse in which The Laundry Files are set. While the set-up of the book may look like another mad-cultist romp at first, it is set against the ticking clock of Case Nightmare Green and eventually leads to a confrontation between Bob and a few past horrors, at a time when he is better equipped to deal with them.
A good chunk of the book is a Peter O’Donnell / Modesty Blaise homage, featuring a new character named Persephone Hazard and her trusty side-kick. If you’re a North-American with no knowledge of Blaise, don’t worry: the character is interesting enough in her own right, and would make a perfectly good narrator should Bob find himself unavailable at some point. The tone of the novel does remain consistent with the rest of the series, blending some humor with deep horrors. (Despite the extraterrestrials brain parasites being featured here, the most repellent horror of the novel has to do with non-supernatural forced human reproduction…)
A distinguishing feature of The Laundry Files (by happenstance at first, and then more deliberately) has been the way the series has steadily pivoted away from its one-shot origins into a series capable of sustaining a longer duration. We see this further at work in The Apocalypse Codex by the way it lowers the idea density of the series and heightens the ongoing subplots. I was initially apprehensive about the televangelist premise for two reasons: first, it seemed a bit ordinary and second because televangelists seem to be easy targets for SF writers usually writing from a non-Christian viewpoint. This second doubt eventually went away once it became clear how thoroughly Stross had researched and presented his subject: The novel’s televangelist isn’t as evil as he is thoroughly manipulated by monsters beyond his imagination, and Stross is careful to provide detailed explanations about how his doctrine differs from the usual, to the point of giving a sympathetic voice to a pastor able to explain the quirks of the cult’s interpretation of scriptures –especially the titular codex.
This being said, my first set of doubts weren’t entirely assuaged: As The Laundry Files slow down for the long haul of a planned nine-book series, it’s normal for the freshness of the first few volumes to be normalized and taken for granted. This isn’t exactly the best of news for those who read for world-building rather than plot, but it is to be expected. The Apocalypse Codex does contain quite a bit of imaginative details (including some frightening descriptions of what the American occult services are willing to do) to placate series fans, and the personal growth of Bob’s character is also becoming interesting now that he’s evolving out of the lowly-sysop/operative into a more challenging manager/case-officer.
Astonishingly enough, I can’t help but note the way Bob’s career seems to run in parallel with mine, adding another layer of personal interest in the series: When I picked up The Atrocity Archives in 2004, I was a lowly techie much like Bob, toiling away in a public service bureaucracy at the lowest difficulty setting. A decade later, I ended up reading The Apocalypse Codex at a time when I’m knocking at the doors of middle-management, taking on a small team and trusting them to do the right thing. When Bob muses over his own career growth and responsibilities, let’s say that resonates –and this despite the thankful lack of necromancy, otherworldly horrors and brain parasites in my own line of work.
So it is that I suspect that I will remain a fan of The Laundry Files for quite a while yet. The Case Nightmare Green ticking clock is as effective an overarching plot device as I can imagine, and with every installment, Stross proves that he can make the series evolve at its own rhythm, deepening and extending his universe as needed. The Apocalypse Codex is strong work from a clever writer, and it just happens to push most of my power chords as a reader. Onward to The Rhesus Chart!