The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross

The Apocalypse Codex

Read August 2015
Recommended for agnostic fans of Lovecraftian spy thrillers
 ★    ★    ★    1/2

I’m thinking 2013 was a weak year for the Locus Awards. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed The Apocalypse Codex, and there was a lot there that made me smile and snicker. But it didn’t contain the ideas that challenge, or writing that mesmerizes, or even characters that intrigue. It mostly just seems a high-level spoof, full of witticisms and social commentary, oft applied with heavy instrument.

I mean, yes, a phrase like: “Fucking netbooks; you can’t even use one to beat an alien brain parasite to death without it breaking” is going to make me pause, then giggle (reminding me of “[it] hung in the sky much the same way that bricks don’t“). There’s a great deal of that incidental humor, demonstrated again in a throw-away conversation while ordering coffee:

‘Mocha venti with an extra shot for me, no cream,’ I add.
‘Anything else?’
I shake my head and she wanders off. Johnny looks suspicious. ‘Since when do you speak Starbucks?’
I shrug. ‘It’s not as if I can help it; they’ve got our office surrounded, and they don’t like it if you try and order in English.’

I laughed, no doubt; I’ve purposely ordered a “medium,” curious to see if the barristas speak English.

Poor Bob; he seems destined to re-confront the scary forces that inhabit the deep. This seemed a re-tread of earlier adventures, particularly The Atrocity Archives (review), so it didn’t really engage me. It was pretty clear to absolutely everyone but Bob what was going on: portentous conversation with new manager, bureaucratic training, travel (to America), sacrificial goat, confront evil, portal to a wasteland, yada yada. This time, Bob meets with a man in charge of External Assets, and Bob is told that his job is to maintain contact with a free-lance witch-bodyguard team while maintaining official plausible deniability (“your mission, should you choose to accept it…”). It’s a chance for him to show managerial skills, and Bob’s willing to take the bait opportunity as the team investigate an American evangelist who is getting suspiciously close to the British PM. Arriving in Colorado under deep cover, each member of the team soon discovers their opponents are more than they appear.

Stross’ writing seemed particularly choppy this book. The introduction warns that Bob will be narrating bits alternating with reconstructed third-person view. Other perspectives include the evangelist, each member of the free-lance team, the administrator who gives Bob the mission and even an opposing operative. Considering this is book four, there is also a lot of world-building/back-story in the beginning chapters. It had two effects: one, it added to the sense of choppiness. A section covering a caper by the witch-bodyguard team showcased their skills but did little for story development. Two, the repeat world-building added to the feeling of re-creating the same story. We’re told a number of times how the Big Bad is coming, which will then proceed to eat humanity like a bag of fish and chips–otherwise known as How Bob Lost his Atheism. Then there is the routine: Bob has dinner with his wife; he trudges into the office and is surprised by visitors; he drinks coffee; he complains about management training; he accepts compliments telling him how talented he is, he has dinner with friends. I have to say, this is one book where I didn’t wonder how the protagonist managed the minutiae of daily life. In other series, authors often use the orientation time to develop other aspects of the protagonist’s life in order to create the feeling of a well-rounded character. Here, not so much.

Once we got to America, action was steady, always escalating, and if there were narrative changeovers, at least it tended to further the plot. I enjoyed some of the devices the team used to manage problems, particularly the tattoos and the paper chain.  Persephone, the witch, gave insight into using power differently than in the technological world. Unfortunately, the ending was no less choppy than the beginning: it culminated in a chaotic action scene with a vague sense of resolution and then closed with a “classified” type file that explained events from another point of view. With an epilogue to boot, so while I feel satisfied by knowing the events, it’s the kind of satisfaction that comes from a debriefing, not from a build-climax-finish.

Writing is smart (see above quotes) with above average vocabulary and plenty of ideas bouncing around and references. I understand this isn’t the kind of style where I’ll get that artistic word-smithing that makes me sigh in awe. Stross does a decent job of evoking the otherworldly horror, so points for that. It just seemed like the same otherworldly horror, so no chills or anxiety. Really, they are clever works but mostly seem like a smart upgrade of the Robert Asprin I read when I was younger.

So, kudos and all for entertaining me, but really–is this the best they could come up with? Might have well been the 2015 Hugos.

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About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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6 Responses to The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross

  1. fromcouchtomoon says:

    I have very similar thoughts about Stross. Not a wordsmith and definitely relies on the same old tropes we all know, so there’s no sense of awe reading him. Choppy is a good descriptor for him. The reason for his popularity escapes me.

    I read somewhere that he specifically writes for the American market because that’s where the money is, but I also don’t think he has the skills to match that of the wealth of talent in the UK. It seems to work for him, though. He’s not interested in developing those skills, and he does well enough without them.

    • thebookgator says:

      I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one. Funny you should mention that about developing skills; I’ve gotten the same impression. I’m not sure why–maybe the lack of technical improvement in each book. I was surprised to discover he’s published so many books because I do think his style is very choppy and incomplete.

  2. ncmncm says:

    I am mystified by the ending. He wastes two tongueless revenants in the hotel hallway just by thinking at them, but has to crawl behind bleachers dodging bullets to try to use his buggered camera on better-armed but otherwise identical ones. Why not just waste them the same way?

    • thebookgator says:

      well, I’m not Stross, so I can only guess. 1) his brain is tired (our main’s, not Stross’). 2) Crawling gives him a chance to bond with the agent. 3) his brain is tired (Stross’, not the main’s). I’ve heard that Stross even admits some of the logic is not his strong point–I think he goes for fun. Not that I disagree with your point, mind you.

      • ncmncm says:

        Thank you. I wondered if I had just missed something, e.g. that eating wouldn’t have worked there, or would for some reason be too risky there. It’s not hard to invent justifications, but it is interesting if it didn’t actually say.

  3. thebookgator says:

    No, I recall wondering the same thing. I was mostly serious in that I’ve heard that Stross doesn’t sweat the details.

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