The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross
Series: The Laundry Files #1
Published by Ace on January 2004
Genres: Science Fiction
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Bob Howard is a low-level techie working for a super-secret government agency.
While his colleagues are out saving the world, Bob's under a desk restoring lost data. None of them receive any thanks for the jobs they do, but at least a techie doesn't risk getting shot or eaten in the line of duty.
Bob's world is dull but safe, and that's the way it should have stayed; but then he went and got Noticed. Only one thing is certain: it will take more than control-alt-delete to sort this mess out. . .
Note: This review is for The Atrocity Archive – the short story included in the book “The Concrete Jungle” will be reviewed separately.
How can I describe The Atrocity Archive? What I’ve been telling people thus far is to imagine Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, take away his tendency to be completely insulting, turn him into a hacker and then force him to become the sci-fi version of a secret spy.
I can’t quite say I enjoyed my read of The Atrocity Archive. It was…often bogged down by what I’ve been calling “techno-babble.” Stross clearly wrote The Atrocity Archive for people who are very knowledgeable in the practical application of advanced technology/mathematics. Or he was making crap up out of whole cloth. Either or.
The [Turing] theorem is a hack on discrete number theory that simultaneously disproves the Church-Turning hypothesis (wave if you understood 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 accounts are belong to us – and ending with the ability to computationally generate a Dho-Nha geometry curve in real time.
There are reams of this kind of “techno babble” littered throughout The Atrocity Archives. And it is mind-numbing and irritating and caused me to almost DNF this book. The only reason I didn’t DNF The Atrocity Archives is that there were little gems also littered about that really caught my attention.
“We’re going to try a lesser summoning, a type three invocation using these coordinates I’ve sketched on the blackboard. This should raise a primary manifestation of nameless horror, but it’ll be a fairly tractable nameless horror as long as we observe sensible precautions. There will be unpleasant visual distortions and some protosapient wittering, but it’s no more intelligent than a News of the World reporter – not really smart enough to be dangerous.”
-pg 29 [emphasis mine]
These little glimmers of humor really made me press onward reading. I could tell that Stross had a story in The Atrocity Archive that I really, really wanted to read. But it was completed surrounded by techno-babble on all sides. I would have to brave the techno-babble sea if I wanted the rest of the story.
“They’re like an old married couple. Once a year Pinky drags Brain out to Pride so he can maintain his security clearance.”
“I see.” She relaxes a little but looks puzzled. “I thought the secret services sacked you for being homosexual?”
“They used to, said it made you a security rick. Which was silly, because it was the practice of firing homosexuals that made them vulnerable to blackmail in the first place. So these days they just insist on openness – the theory is you can only be blackmailed if you’re hiding something. Which is why Brain gets the day off for Gay Pride to maintain his security clearance.”
And I really did want the rest of the story! There’s a lot more to the story than the amazing amount of confusing jargon. The action scenes were pretty interesting – in fact everything except the techno-babble was pretty interesting. I loved the fact that Bob (the hero) had a paper-pushing terror as a boss (and all of the office humor). I read that The Atrocity Archive was one long joke, in a way. Knowing that, the appearance of Nazis served (to me) as a tip of the hat to Godwin’s Law. I can appreciate that and I was totally willing to play along…except for the techno-babble.
The other issue I had with The Atrocity Archive was the treatment of women. IIRC there are a total of four (4) women characters in the entire novel. Two of the four – Bob’s bosses – are paper pushing bitches and are the only two women who speak to each other. The other two women in the book are our MC’s love interests: Mhari and Mo. Mhari is described as slightly insane, suicidal, slightly homicidal, violent and a swinger to boot:
Mhari moved back into my room after the night of the party and I haven’t dared tell her to move back out again. So far she hasn’t thrown anything at me or threatened to slash her wrists, in any particular order. (Two months ago, the last time she polled my suicide interrupt queue, I was so pissed off I just said, “Down, not across,” using a fingernail to demonstrate. That’s when she broke the teapot over my head. I should have taken that as a warning sign.)
Then there’s Mo. Mo is the whole reason for the book. Mo’s existence as a character is limited to being Bob’s motivation for heroic acts. She’s described as incredibly intelligent and 100% sane – but this also seems limited: her intelligence and good conversation appear to exist to as someone for Bob to talk to. *sad face*
All in all, I sorta enjoyed The Atrocity Archive. I would certainly recommend this to sci-fi lovers and those with decent backgrounds in mathematics and computer programming.