DeFlip Side #57: AYSBRBPA: Charles Stross

DS57.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

It’s time for a new installment of Authors You Should Be Reading But Probably Aren’t. This time around I’ll be highlighting the work of Charles Stross.

Trying to keep track of Stross and his work can be confusing, as he admits on his website, which says that Stross has so far sold fourteen novels. But all these sales are recent—from 2001 on, and only six are in print so far.

Which I guess is why I went from never having heard of Stross to seeing a large and diverse body of work spring up seemingly over night. I’ve managed to get my hands on Stross’s novel The Atrocity Archives, and I now understand how he’s made such a big and sudden splash.

It’s amazing what a fresh and entertaining read The Atrocity Archives is, because when you come down to it, Stross hasn’t really created anything fundamentally new. His is a world we’ve seen in varying incarnations, where magical forces are governed by mathematical precepts. There are still rites and rituals and human sacrifices, but they have a scientific basis, and the so-called demons once conjured up by necromancers are now recognized as extra-dimensional beings. That’s not to say that these beings won’t still hurt you or possess you or try to eat you, but they can also be corralled and used if you have the proper cabalistic safeguards in place.

Ensuring these safeguards is Bob Howard, who works for the super-secret British intelligence agency the Laundry. Bob was conscripted into the Laundry when his computer programming skills proved a bit too advanced for comfort. As he says in the book:

“As they later pointed out to me, applied computational demonology and built-up areas don’t mix very well. I thought I was just generating weird new fractals; they knew I was dangerously close to landscaping Wolverhampton with alien nightmares.”

After years of dull work as a Laundry IS tech, Bob has been approved for active duty in the Counter-Possession Unit. His first field assignment brings him to America, where he has to make contact with a British ex-patriot professor working in California, and find out why the U.S. government won’t let her leave the country. But what begins as a simple fact-gathering mission becomes more complicated when the professor is kidnapped by a Middle Eastern terrorist cell working magic of a dangerous magnitude—magic of a kind last seen used by the Third Reich during the Second World War.

It would be all too easy to compare The Atrocity Archives to other popular genre hits with similar premises, like The X-Files, or Men in Black, or Kolchak the Night Stalker. Granted, all deal with horror, government conspiracies and the occult. But you’d be missing the mark, especially when it comes to the intelligence quotient.

Part horror, part spy thriller and liberally peppered with wry English humor, The Atrocity Archives pulls off the neat trick of being at once complex and breezy. The story is detailed and multi-layered, with plenty of obscure references and advanced tech-talk. But for all that, it never looses its sense of immediacy or accessibility. Whether Stross is writing for laughs, shock or thrills, his prose is always pitch-perfect.

This is especially true when it comes to Stross’s depiction of the inner-workings of the Laundry. Where you often see the spy portrayed as a roguish outsider, Bob Howard presents a more realistic vision of the life of a secret government operative. Bureaucracy is endemic to all government agencies, covert or otherwise, and Stross captures it, in all of its mind-numbing minutia—the obsessive bean counting, the endless paperwork, the office politics (which can become especially grisly in the Laundry). In these respects, Bob could just as easily be working for the DMV as for a super-secret organization protecting the world from phantom threats.

Finding humor in the banality of office life is nothing new to those in the Dilbert-reading cubicle set; magic, zombies and alternative realities are stock in trade workhorses of genre fiction. Yet Stross melds these familiar (and some might even say clichéd) elements to create something wholly unique.

The Atrocity Archives is a smart and clever book brimming with interesting characters, humor, creativity, and weird, sophisticated fun. And if it’s indicative of the rest of Stross’s sudden and prolific body of work, he joins the ranks of authors that have made my short list. He should be on yours, too.

Now, from the It-Shouldn’t-Matter-But-It-Does Department: I know we’re all avid readers and we never judge books by their covers, but sometimes it’s hard not to.

It’s kind of a silly observation to make on the radio, but the cover for the original Golden Gryphon edition of The Atrocity Archives was positively beautiful. It appears abstract at first glance, but it perfectly captures the spirit of the book—shadowy constructs and obscure machinations conspiring to open doors to the unknown.

Sadly, the trade paperback edition released by ACE features cover art with no art whatsoever. Stross’s clever irony and wry humor are reduced to a dumb sight gag: an endless expanse of office cubicles populated by things like tentacles and explosions and spatters of blood. Apparently, it was designed to lure readers hungry for a supernaturally tacky episode of The Office.

Things like this always bother me, but especially so in this case. Golden Gryphon is a small press and you normally don’t see their books in stores. And since most people don’t obsessively troll the Internet like I do in search of the latest specialty house offerings, it’s the mass-market ACE cover that will form the impressions of casual bookstore browsers. If that cover was all I had to go by, I’d probably have passed on The Atrocity Archives, which would have been a shame. I wonder how many potential readers Stross may have lost because of this.

Dumb covers do a disservice to writers and readers alike. Luckily for Stross, and for all of you listening, you have me to set you straight. Go out and buy The Atrocity Archives, in whatever binding is most readily available. You’ll be glad you did.

-30-

Visit Charles Stross’s website!