The Atrocity Archives: A sysadmin saves the world

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross science fiction book reviewsThe Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross

The Atrocity Archives contains the first two novellas in Charles Stross’ THE LAUNDRY FILES: The Atrocity Archive and The Concrete Jungle. The series is based on the premise that, before he died, Alan Turing solved a theorem that proved that mathematics could be used to gain access to other space-time dimensions. Unfortunately, what’s out there is exactly what H.P. Lovecraft said there was — sleeping tentacled horrors that might be inclined to enter our universe if gateways were opened. To avoid mass panic, this has been kept secret from most humans. The ones who accidently find out are scooped up and brought into a secret organization where they are paid to help keep the world safe. In England, that organization is a government agency known as The Laundry.

Bob Howard is a computer geek who was brought into The Laundry after he accidentally hacked into another dimension while generating some new fractals. Because he was previously in IT, Bob has been given a sysadmin role at The Laundry. He spends his days dealing with all the usual sysadmin and IT issues such as helping his inept colleagues who don’t know how to solve their own computer problems or who manage to screw up the computers they’ve been given. Occasionally Bob is asked to help with a mission, but so far only when they need him to hack into a computer or steal files or something else geeky.

In The Atrocity Archive, Bob manages to impress his superiors with his quick thinking when he stops an otherworldy being from entering our world during a demonstration he was asked to attend. Now Bob has been given his first field assignment — to protect a beautiful and brilliant young Irish physicist who works in Santa Cruz, California. She’s attracted the attention of governments and terrorists but neither she nor Bob knows why until they get sucked into a dimension inhabited by Nazi necromancers.

In The Concrete Jungle, which is shorter, Bob is asked to discover what caused the strange death of a cow in Bancroft Park. He teams up with a tough cop named Josephine to uncover a dastardly world-threatening plot which involves basilisks, Gorgons, zombies, brain tumors, DRM, and more Nazis.

The Atrocity Archives pushed all the right buttons for me. I loved the mix of computing, math, physics, neuroscience, history, technology, and Lovecraftian horror. It’s a real geek fest. I loved Bob and his cynical sense of humor as he dealt with a nosey supervisor, nasty office politics, a crazy girlfriend, a couple of strange mechanically-inclined homosexual roommates who he affectionately calls “Pinky and the Brain,” and  all the bureaucratic nonsense involved in working for a government agency… not to mention Nazis and zombies. I enjoyed every moment of The Atrocity Archives; even the long info dumps didn’t bother me because I found them so interesting. I can’t wait to read more of Bob’s adventures.

Gideon Emery narrates the audio version of The Atrocity Archives which is 11 hours long and produced by Recorded Books. His voice is perfect for Bob Howard and I love the way he interprets the story. I’ll be choosing this format for the rest of the books in the series.

~Kat Hooper


The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross science fiction book reviewsThe Atrocity Archives is the first book published in the LAUNDRY FILES series, and it contains one long novella/short novel (the title piece) and a short novella called The Concrete Jungle. Both stories do a fine job of introducing Bob Howard, the Laundry and its mission, and Stross’s clever system of magic.

The Atrocity Archives starts off in an episodic manner; first we see Bob on a bland field mission; then he spends some time with his roommates (vital Laundry operatives who we will see again in the series) and then at a training demonstration where things go horribly wrong and Bob saves the day. The action gets rolling when he is sent to Santa Cruz, California, USA, and meets Dominique O’Brien, a philosopher and mathematician who has started playing with a theory that makes her very attractive to powerful nihilistic entities from neighboring dimensions. The story gets rolling when “Mo” is kidnapped, rescued, and kidnapped again, and kicks into high gear when Bob and a squad of Laundry-trained soldiers enter a neighboring (and decidedly un-neighborly) dimension.

My favorite part of this story was the tense, thriller-like section in the icy vacuum of that dimension. Stross captures Lovecraftian-style writing perfectly (reddish stars overhead slowly winking out) while selling an intoxicating mix of military-ops story with the scary who-can-you-trust tension of the old movie The Thing. Isolation, a hostile environment, allies whose faces you can’t see because of their suits, and a body-jumping villain all blend together to form an intense, scary and altogether entertaining adventure. Bob’s internal monologues, full of both sarcasm and vulnerability, and his battle with the staff of Human Resources, make him engaging and likeable.

The Concrete Jungle exists mostly to introduce some more characters, specifically a cop named Josephine Sullivan who also appears in later books. There were plenty of action scenes, and Stross takes the opportunity to indulge in some fanboying over Alan Turing and Bletchley Park, but the real conclusion seems to happen offstage and is basically there to show us how very dangerous Bob’s boss Angelton is. There wasn’t anything wrong with The Concrete Jungle but I much preferred the cold scary darkness of the other world we saw in The Atrocity Archives.

~Marion Deeds

Published in 2004. In the title piece, Alan Turing, the father of modern computer science, completes his theorem on “Phase Conjugate Grammars for Extra-dimensional Summoning.” Turing’s work paves the way for esoteric mathematical computations that, when carried out, have side effects that leak through a channel underlying the structure of the Cosmos. Out there in the multiverse are “listeners” who can sometimes be coerced into opening gates. In 1945, Nazi Germany’s Ahnenerbe-SS, in an attempt to escape the Allied onslaught, performs just such a summoning on the souls of more than six million. A gate opens to an alternate universe through which the SS move people and material-to live to fight another day. But their summoning brings forth more than the SS have bargained for-an evil, patiently waiting all this time while learning the ways of humans, now poises to lunch on Earth. Secret intelligence agencies, esoteric theorems, Lovecraftian horrors, Middle East terrorist connections, a damsel in distress, and a final battle on the surface of a dying planet round out this story.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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