Stross’ take on the urban fantasy is engaging. The Atrocity Archives is first in currently seven book series–for those of you looking to sink your reading chops into an established series–that feature Robert Howard, computer programmer and now employee of Her Majesty’s Secret Supernatural Service. Bob found his way into the top-secret government organization when he did something precocious with a computer, and now he’s facing the unusual dilemma of being a stipend collecting desk-warmer or stepping into the dangerous supernatural spy business.
Well, we all know which he chooses, right?
His first international mission is to go to America and make contact with a British expatriate who is having trouble leaving the country. His decision-making sets a chain of events in motion, including landing him back in spy basic training. Without being too spoiler-ific, chasing down the perpetrators will require a stay in Amsterdam as well as a trip into another dimension.
It’s an entertaining premise that I haven’t really run into before in the urban fantasy/sci-fi genre. The blurb and reviews make much of it being “Lovecraftian.” I don’t know that I agree; there’s certainly the sense of evil/malevolence, and there’s an interdimensionality thing going on, but for the first part BIG GIANT SPOILERS AHEAD the ‘bad guys’ appear to be an Islamist extreme group and Nazis. Sigh. Yes, Nazis. I mean, there’s another antagonist as well, but I find that more of the actual ‘horror’ of the book was devoted to the Nazis. Which were horrible, so there’s that. But that does mean that the “Lovecraftian” or supernatural element was a bit of an anti-climax, with significantly less authorial time devoted to developing the ambiance of its awful and destructive potential.
Then there’s the plot flow. You know when you first read the Anita Blake series and you were enjoying the mystery, the zombie raising to discover who the killer was, and all of a sudden its about her having sex with jaguars so your eyes drift past that part of the book until you get to the next murder scene? Well, it’s not about sex, but Stross has whole paragraphs that did that to me:
“The theorem is a hack on discrete number theory that simultaneously disproves the Church-Turing hypothesis (wave if you understand that) and worse, permits NP-complete problems to be converted into P-complete ones. This has several consequences, starting with screwing over most cryptography algorithms–translation: all your bank account are belong to us–and ending with the ability to computationally generate a Dho-Nha geometry curve in real time.”
Yeah, you’ll notice I’m not waving. And this little gem was from page 17. Thus my second problem with the book: there’s a whole lot of computer jargon that isn’t explained well, and moreover, isn’t actually necessary except as a device to prove how smart Bob/Stross is (for instance, the NP/P and Dho-Nha are terms which are not used outside of that paragraph). While I struggled through college physics, I’m a sci-fi reader, can use a computer perfectly well, thank you very much, and I still found sections largely incomprehensible. To make it worse, I couldn’t tell if Stross was being factual (I’m aware of Alan Turing and computers in general) and where the funky was stepping in (as opposed to the InCryptid series with its faux-bio-ecological descriptions)
So I skipped them. I tend towards skimming at times, so it didn’t bother me unduly, and didn’t much hamper the overall gestalt of the plot, but I imagine it would prevent a number of readers–particularly those with a predilection to digest every word–from enjoying it.
Oh yeah: he does the technobabble with organizational structure as well (something about when a department in the British government was was disbanded, remade and/or “disappeared” in 1945). He explains more of it in the Afterward, which rather convinced me he was just info-dumping his research instead of telling a cracking good story.
This rather sounds like I didn’t like it, doesn’t it? On the contrary–I did, but I’m aware that I put blinders on in order to enjoy it. I thought there was more depth to Bob’s characterization than one usually gets in this type of book, and better emphasis on action as part of a team. There’s moments of ordinariness, such as Bob negotiating with flatmates–and moments of escalating action that are appropriate for Bob’s lack of expertise. Setting is generally well done, giving atmosphere without diverting focus from the action. This book also had a short story at the end, “The Concrete Jungle” which I enjoyed even more, It includes a female Detective Inspector who redeems the general treatment of women in Atrocity.
I’ve already ordered the third book from the library–I’m skipping the second for now, as it’s billed as a “James Bond-esque” island sort of thing with sultry evil woman-creature, and that’s just too much for me to deal with, given an author I’m ambivalent about. This is one book that it’s better to choose with foreknowledge, as it is such a specialized read.