Ace, 2015, 416 pages, 34.95 hc, ISBN 978-0425281178
There’s a notion of a quote rummaging around my brain, something along the lines of “in difficult times, you will recognize your true allegiances”. Although that’s far too dramatic for what I’m trying to get across: I haven’t been reading a lot these days, displaying an uncommon ability to tell myself, “Oh, this book can wait until I have more time”. Except for any new Charles Stross book, which I end up ordering almost on the day it’s available. So it is that I practically haven’t read any fiction in a while, but I had Stross’s latest novel in my hand a mere four days after its North American publication.
But then again, I’ve already written about how Stross’ The Laundry Files is my favourite ongoing series. Blending humour, horror, technical references and a wry understanding of contemporary fiction, it’s a series made for a very particular set of readers, but a set of which I am part. It’s also a series that keeps evolving. The first volume wasn’t meant to lead to a series, and the first four volumes had very different intentions (and methods) from the latter ones. But here we are now, with The Annihilation Score, sixth novel in a cycle that may or may not stop at the ninth instalment.
A few things are different in this volume. For the first time, the story isn’t narrated by “Bob Howard”: As anticipated by a few previous volumes in which the story escaped Bob’s narration to feature other perspectives, and finalized by Bob’s ascension to a high-level Laundry position, this new novel is narrated by none other than Dr. Dominique “Mo” O’Brien, Bob’s now-estranged wife following the dramatic conclusion of the previous volume.
Mo is not Bob (even though Bob’s technical patois and sense of humour has clearly influenced her narration) and it shows: Much of the book is spent seeing her trying to hold it together as she must deal with simultaneous crises. Not only does she have to deal with the fallout of her decision to separate from Bob, but the United Kingdom has to face the appearance of super-powered individuals in the build-up to Case Nightmare Green. She’s stuck trying to coordinate a government response while, oh yes, keeping demons both literal and figurative at bay. She doesn’t entirely succeed, especially when she also ends up developing superpowers of his own.
As with most Stross books, the joy of the novel is in seeing a different take on familiar topics. Eschewing super-heroic conventions, Stross does his damnedest to figure out how a nominally competent government would react to the appearance of superheroes. How to integrate them in law, procedures and government operations. How to combine the British ideal of policing by consent to the power fantasies of supernatural powers. For those Laundry Files fans reading from within Westminster bureaucracies, there’s some glee in seeing how Stross imagines setting up a new public service department from scratch, down to making sure the furniture is delivered and installed.
If you’re reading to keep up with the increasingly complex cast of character, The Annihilation Score has a heck of a payoff in seeing Bob’s girlfriends team up to fight evil. It also provides a different (and far scarier) perspective on Bob himself—it’s becoming clear that Bob isn’t quite who he used to be, and that the way he has portrayed himself in the past few novels is a mask trying to pretend that he’s the same likable tech guy of the first three books. The Laundry universe expands to accommodate everything coming out of Stross’s idea factory, and the result still hangs together decently.
In many ways, The Annihilation Score is a test for readers of the series—is the series about Bob or The Laundry itself? Is Bob still a hero? Is the series designed for comfort reading, or for a few upsetting shocks along the way? It’s not the same kind of novel that the first volume in the series was. Fortunately, Stross trains his readers well—over time, the probability of nuclear annihilation in Stross series approaches 100%, and the series has shifted gears so many times by now that The Annihilation Score feels like a natural extension of the series. Even as I have dramatically curtailed my fiction buying habit, one certitude remains—I’m ordering the next Laundry File novel the week it comes out.