The Atrocity Archives

Charles Stross
The Atrocity Archives Cover

You don't apply for a position at the Laundry


You don't apply for a position at the Laundry. If you are a math genius, you stumble onto a particularly dangerous equation. If you are a computer whiz, you work out some algorithms that higher ups prefer to keep secret. If you are just a man on the street, you see too much -- say a cow turned into stone by a security camera -- and you are in whether you like it or not.

It turns out that magic has always been real, but very few ever stumbled onto its working methods or knew what to do with them when they did. Computers, advanced physics, and the math that supports them mean that magical formulae get discovered more frequently, and dangerous doorways into other universes can be accidently or maliciously opened by those who do. This is seldom a good idea. What's out there are beings more or less as H.P. Lovecraft described them only much worse.

This is the first in what is so far a three book series on The Laundry. It is a mash-up of spy fiction, The X Files, and The Office. Bob Howard is a young man who maintains the aging computers for The Laundry, but he wants to do field work. He gets his chance and finds himself spending hours standing in the rain, flying to California where he has to fight off some tentacled horror on a stairwell, and finally stepping into another universe via a portal in an Amsterdam B & B. He must also attend endless meetings and fill out tedious paperwork. Not even protecting life as we know it is as glamorous as it sounds.

Stross is known for hard sf novels that gather considerable praise but also leave readers disgruntled by the amount of computer talk that goes on. I assumed the science talk in The Atrocity Archives was all gobbledegook in keeping with the occult atmosphere. I pretended the incomprehensible passages were dialog from Monty Python. Then I started looking some of the words up on my dictionary app, and most of them were there with very real if obscure meanings. So there could be levels of comedy available only to geekier or wiser readers than myself.

Stross's novel could easily become a pretty good British TV series that would then be made into a dreadful SyFy Network series. What keeps this first book lively is the voice the author gives Bob. He is a smart and funny narrator, and the humor in the story comes more from his attitudes and observations than elaborate set pieces with outrageous creatures.