The Jennifer Morgue - Charles Stross

~~Moved from GR~~


The Jennifer Morgue

by Charles Stross


What would you get if you substituted a computer nerd for James Bond, then sent him off to fight Lovecraftian Deep Ones? Well, in fact, you'd get this book.

There's this fun (well, depending on how humorous you find Lovecraft) little story ("Dreams in the Witch-House") in which a mathematician discovers that very abstruse topological mathematics can transport one to far-off dimensions and manifolds in which (you guessed it) the uber-horrors lurk. In the Laundry series, Charles Stross takes this idea one step farther. In his world, sufficiently advanced technology is not only indistinguishable from magic, but has the adverse effect of breaking down barriers to dimensions where all the demons and cthulhuian monsters and so on live. It's like the ultimate wish fulfilment for computer scientists, because the difference between a program and a spell is just a little Enochian, a bit of blood, and a lot of know-how. 

Bob Howard is a programmer--uh, computational demonologist-- at the Laundry, the top-secret British department that focuses on the occult. As far as I can tell, he's kind of a sysadmin (see, it goes to show--all the sysadmin all have occult powers!) but also does a bit of field work: demon banishing, spell patchups, cult dispersals, that sort of thing. When, during an apparently routine assignment, Bob is forced into "destiny entanglement" with a demon, he knows things are about to get tricky. Soon enough, he's forced into an arrangement with a beautiful and deadly foreign spy, on an island full of hostile powers, dressed to the teeth in his tux, losing horrifically at baccarat, and driving his seriously decked out car (a Smart car rather than an Aston Martin--governments have a budget to stick to!), and a license to implant rather deadly computer viruses into the evil mastermind's mainframe. All this is adding up to make poor Bob quite shaken, and not particularly stirred.

Because this book is so much of a spoof, I think it really requires the necessary background to enjoy it. As is explained in the book, Bob is being slowly forced into the James Bond "eigenplot" (math-ish speak for an archetype). If we performed PCA (principal component analysis) on this book, we'd get James Bond as the first eigenplot, Lovecraft as the second, and tech-nerd farce as the third. Personally, I'm definitely fine on the CS/math, ok on the Lovecraft, and weak on Bond. I'm not a fan of Bond; I've only read one book and seen no movies, so that limited my ability to recognize and enjoy the jokes here. Because it pervades so much of our culture, I was able to follow the story, but a Bond aficionado who doesn't take himself too seriously will get a lot more out of this.

Because of the heavy Bond emphasis, there ends up being a heavy focus on sex. Bob is paired with a ridiculously sensual succubus who feeds through the act of sex, and because they're sort of sharing brain space, Bob gets a close-up--and gets off on it. So, so TMI. What is it with male authors writing in female characters who (graphically) feed off sex? The other thing that bothered me, was, as usual, the very casual use of rape terminology that seems to pervade this series. "Mindrape" seems to be a general trend, but there are other uses also. For example, in the next book, Bob faces a cult he nicknames the "goatf*ckers", and ends up (in his own terms) being set out as the "sacrificial goat" for them...readers can draw their own conclusions as to what happens (metaphorically, thankfully) to him. In this story, one character captured by the villains keeps repeating, "Lie back and think of England," and yes, that phrase, which originated in 1912 with a woman who did not enjoy intercourse but needed to provide heirs, means exactly what you think it does. I found that extremely distasteful, unnecessary, and irrelevant to the actual circumstances. 

[Much to my chagrin, I think I found it more shocking coming from a man. I think it's distasteful in either case, but our society so pushes the "lie back and enjoy it" female rape trope that it was deeply disconcerting to have a man be thinking it. I suspect this was certainly left me with something to think about. ]

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Other than these issues, I really did enjoy this. I love the CS jokes, especially those about the evils of Powerpoint or the differences between Lovecraftian monsters and tech CEOs. I also continued to like Bob in this book--impressive, as I positively detest Bond. Although the book fails the Bechdel test, there are two strong female characters and a hilarious twist. 

[Although interestingly enough, I actually felt a little dissatisfied--does Bob always end up as Damsel in Distress? He does in Fuller Memorandum as well. I loved the girl-powerness of Mo being the big hero, but I do wish Bob could have been a little less ineffective. ] 

(show spoiler)

Last, this book has a very intriguing afterward in which Stross discusses and analyses Bond, noting how very Mary Sueish Bond is, discussing the tropes created, and more. 

Should you read this book? If you like Bond but can enjoy some humour at his expense, then I'd give it a try. If you've also read (and can laugh at) Lovecraft and/or know a little nerd culture, then most definitely. I really enjoyed this and am looking forward to continuing to dig into the Atrocity Archives.