The Atrocity Archives - Charles Stross, Ken MacLeod

Atrocity Archives: Laundry Files Series, Book 1


Charles Stross

Add a few dungeon dimension critters, a bit of Hitler on the moon, and (worst of all) an acre of bureaucratic red tape to this comic

and you've got the Atrocity Archives.

If you dabble in computer science, you probably already know that if we were able to prove that P (polynomial time) = NP (nondeterministic polynomial time), it would be a serious game-changer and result in some grade-A chaos: for one thing, RSA would go straight to hell. In Charles Stross's Laundry Files, it turns out P=NP, and the results are rather more dire than just destroying the monetary system: with sufficiently advanced mathematics, you can break down reality and create holes into other universes. And in those universes the Lovecraftian beasties lurk.

Bob Howard was a standard computer geek when he started dabbling into what he thought was a fun graphics algorithm. Before his little experiment could accidentally let Ntharlotep loose on our reality, the Laundry--the super-super secret British ministry of magic--swooped in and forced Bob into its organization. Now he's basically a sysadmin to the supernatural with a growing interest in field work. But in his very first assignment, Bob deftly manages to display his talent to screw things up: with Bob on hand, a routine meeting turns into a kidnapping, rescue mission, and desperate attempt to save the world from the creatures from the Dungeon Dimensions.

As a computer scientist myself, I really got a kick out of this book. It's sort of like what you might get if you crossed Dilbert with James Bond and forced him to fight Lovecraftian monsters: algorithms, adventure, and administratia all in one neat little package. Stross's writing isn't precisely elegant, but I hugely enjoyed the tech jokes and references. I saw some other reviews complaining of technobabble, but it isn't just techy nonsense--most of the computerspeak is actually completely valid. In terms of the plot, I thought it was a lot of fun, and towards the end, got very caught up in the breathless drama of the climax.

In terms of characters, I found Bob sympathetic and greatly enjoyed his wry, self-deprecating voice. I read this series in the opposite order, so was surprised to see the poor characterization of women in this story. There are really four main female characters: Bob's sociopathic, neurotic, semi-suicidal semi-ex-girlfriend Mary, Mo, the book's principal Damsel in Distress, and the two ambitious, arrogant, obnoxious, Evil HR Women (TM). Maybe I'm oversensitive because Stross is portraying the women in my field, but it seriously bothered me that the only positively portrayed female ends up naked and compliant and needing to be rescued multiple times. Plus, portraying what Stross terms "Alpha females" (yup, he seriously uses the term, because heaven forbid a woman be forceful) as flaky, stupid, and overbearing and pinning them as the villains--isn't that trope a little overplayed? And what, the only women we meet are in HR? However, if this irritates you, don't worry--it's better in the later books. There were tons of other things I loved--the descriptions of bureaucracy and the various convoluted procedures and forms, forms, forms that were required, the portrayal of Americans as the significantly more abusive and secretive world power, the coworker who manages to singlehandedly take down any computer system he touches, the portrayal of various famous computer scientists as major occultists, the snide remarks about the Windows OS,... the list goes on and on.

Altogether, The Atrocity Archives is the start of a very fun series and sure to appeal to anyone who dabbles about in computers and loves urban fantasy.