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The Atrocity Archives
Charles Stross
Golden Gryphon, 295 pages

The Atrocity Archives
Charles Stross
Charles Stross was born in Leeds, Yorkshire and he now lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. He sold his first short story in 1987 to Interzone. But it was his first sale to Asimov's SF in 2001 that provided his big break into the US market.

Charles Stross Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Singularity Sky

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

Charles Stross has received a lot of well-deserved attention and a few Hugo nominations for recent stories like those in his Accelerando sequence, and for his first novel in book form, last year's Singularity Sky. His first published novel was actually a serial, in Spectrum SF in 2001-2002, "The Atrocity Archive." This story is now in book form, with a sequel novella to expand a shortish novel to more typical book length.

The novel is a neat mix of horrific fantasy -- demons and Lovecraftian monsters and the like -- with smart contemporary SF. Add aspects of spy thrillers and Dilbertian office comedy, and throw in Nazis and nasty Islamists and a very secret branch of British Intelligence. It's told very wittily, though the central horrors are still pretty scary. The overall tone is snarky and fun, not horrific.

Bob Howard is working on a desk job for the "Laundry", but he's bucking for field service. We meet him on his first trial, breaking into an industrial building to destroy the traces of a dangerous discovery a young mathematician has made. It turns out that certain kinds of math knowledge lead to the ability to summon demons from other universes -- the sort of thing once done with chalked pentagrams, but much more efficiently achieved with lasers instead of chalk, and with computers to keep track of the summoning rituals. It's the job of the Laundry to keep such knowledge under wraps.

But aside from the dangerous job, the Laundry is just another Dilbertian government job environment. So the first few chapters show Bob dealing with bureaucratic hassles: stupid bosses demanding silly paperwork, dumb training classes, computer problems, etc. It's all very funny stuff. He's also dealing with his crazy sometime girlfriend, and his weird roommates. Then he gets sent to California to try to pry a beautiful redheaded Irish scientist from the clutches of the US -- it seems she might be studying some dangerous stuff. But his mission turns bad when she is kidnapped by some Islamists who may have bitten off more than they can chew. Before long, Bob is posted to a more curious part of the Laundry, with a boss straight out of classic spy fiction, and it looks like they might be dealing with a secret Nazi project -- or something even scarier...

The Atrocity Archives is a very breezy, fun, and imaginative novel. Structurally there are a couple of problems -- basically, the opening, though always entertaining, drags on too long. The novel proper doesn't start until about a third of the way through. But that's a minor issue -- overall, this is great fun.

The added novella is called "The Concrete Jungle". It is a separate work, not an expansion of the novel. It still features Bob Howard, this time investigating the sudden appearance of a bunch of concrete cows in Milton Keynes. The cows may once have been real -- thus a case of "gorgonism" is suspected. Worse, there is a possibility that someone has figured out a way to automate the basilisk effect that turns flesh to stone. Howard and a new, unwilling helper brave great danger in tracking down the eventual villains. There is more bureaucratic satire here as well, and it's snappily written and clever throughout. Still, though I enjoyed it the story doesn't have quite the impact of the novel -- perhaps a matter of length, or simply that the novel was first to present the ideas. There is also an introduction by Ken MacLeod and a smart afterword by Stross that compares the spy thriller and horror genres. The Atrocity Archives as a whole is definitely to be recommended.

Copyright © 2004 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at

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