The Jennifer Morgue, Charles Stross

Golden Gryphon, 2006, 313 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 1-930846-45-2

The first problem in talking about The Jennifer Morgue is trying to establish how unique it is. The word-blender approach (“geek humour plus Lovecraft horror plus Bond thriller”) works well, but it leads to a second difficulty: the audience either goes “cool: I’m off to buy it” or looks puzzled. The buyers don’t need to be told anything more, while the puzzled are unlikely to ever get why it’s such a cool and unique and wonderful book.

In a sense, The Jennifer Morgue is review-proof: the audience self-selects according to the high concept, their opinion of Stross’ fiction in general, or their take on the prequel volume The Atrocity Archives.

But to briefly recap the elements of the series so far: The world as we know it is susceptible to invasions from other strange dimensions, and advanced mathematics are one of the surest ways to open portals between dimensions. To protect the rest of us sheep against those extra-dimensional threats, governments around the world have set up secret agencies. “Bob Howard” (not his real name) is a member of the British “Laundry”, and his geek personality makes him an odd fit for the shadowy world of spooks. The Atrocity Archives was his introductory adventure, a mixture of nerd hilarity, high horror and knowledgeable nods to the spy genre as written by Len Deighton.

In this follow-up adventure, Bob finds himself assigned to a mission where he gets to live out the Ian Fleming lifestyle more or less against his will. Fighting a high-tech villain in the Caribbean may sound like fun, but for Bob it’s more of a distraction keeping him away from computer screens. His discomfort quickly becomes something more serious when he finds himself bonded (er…) to an American female demon with unhealthy feeding habits. His sanity becomes at stake, not to mention his relationship with his girlfriend.

Laughs, thrills and chills are once again to be expected from Stross in this second entry in the Laundry sequence: The Jennifer Morgue manages to find new and interesting areas to explore in the chilling mythology of the series while parodying another strain of British spy thrillers. This time, it’s Fleming’s James Bond series (along with the film adaptations) that provide much of the book’s structure and humour, although Stross is too clever to keep this from staying strictly a joke for the readers: there is an ingenious in-story reason (which I’d trying really hard not to spoil) why the plot veers into Bond territory and stays there… though maybe not conventionally so.

I was particularly impressed at how far The Jennifer Morgue was willing to go in order to explore the consequences of its premises. One of the strengths of the series so far is that it features a lot of very disturbing material right underneath the veneer of geek humour. Here, Stross occasionally presents very disturbing developments and though Bob’s narration may soften the blow (“I’m not cleared for sex magick,” [P.90] he protests), it doesn’t make it any less dramatic. This unease also goes deeper than the simple horrible-monsters level: Bob is in a committed romantic relationship, and the implications of having a Bond-like adventures on his domestic life form a significant part of the novel’s underlying tension, which carries through to the very last pages of the book.

Also impressive is how Stross manages to fit the entire Bond connection into the existing mythology of the Laundry universe. The underwater focus of the novel is both very Bond-like, and rich in occult possibilities: The first half of the novel crams in clever ideas about humanity’s true place on the planet, and through this aspect fades as the novel advances, it’s gradually taken up by the Bond mechanics and Bob’s reaction to those clichés.

The Atrocity Archives was my favourite book of 2004, so it’s not a real surprise if The Jennifer Morgue doesn’t manage to out-do its predecessor’s impact in putting together this wonderful mixture of geek culture, deep horror and thriller parody. But this follow-up is satisfying in its own way, and not simply as a continuation of Bob Howard’s adventures. Not many novels, after all, feature death-by-PowerPoint: That should probably be a selling point for the eventual paperback edition.

…and that brings us back to the critic-proof nature of The Jennifer Morgue: Are you more likely to read a book if it comes with a sticker warning “Contains death-by-PowerPoint”? If so, my job here is done. Otherwise, there’s nothing I can tell you to top this.

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