Imagine a world in which mathematical algorithms became the foundation for magical systems. Equations and symbolic systems make things happen in tangible reality, and computer systems are used to control occult forces. Tech support just got a whole lot more interesting…..
Fellow nerds convinced me to give Atrocity Archives a try. The first book in the Laundry Files series sets up an interesting premise and introduces us to a world that is both occult and familiar. Magic is real in Atrocity Archives, but so is the mind-numbing bureaucracy that parallels tech support in government agencies around the world. In this world, we meet Bob Howard – a regular, stand up guy just trying to keep the computers running and information flowing despite the red-tape and paperwork that his superiors use to try to make his life miserable. It sounded like a cross between The Office and the Dresden Files. While I never enjoyed The Office (frankly … too much like real life), I loved the Dresden books and thought I could resonate with Bob the Tech Guy.
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Title: The Atrocity Archives
Author: Charles Stross
Pages: 354 pages
Genre-ish: Urban fantasy – adult
Rating: ★★★★☆ - fun story with interesting twists but some flaws
Setting: The Atrocity Archives is set in the UK and the United States during the Cold War Era… but with a twist or two. Our hero works in tech support in a typical governmental bureaucracy, associated with the intelligence and counter-intelligence networks, which is exciting in the movies but a real bore in real life.
Premise: Mathematics and symbol systems work to allow people to transit between alternate universes and harness power that flows between the planes of existence. The problem is that these alternate universes are not filled with happy, fluffy bunnies that mean us well – in fact, quite the opposite. Monsters that manage to cross the boundary possess humans and drain energy from our world, which makes it essential to keep the boundaries tightly closed. Unfortunately, the wrong discovery by a theorist opens her up to kidnapping by aliens who intend to open up a really big gate to a universe-gobbling monstrosity. Naturally, our hero, Bob, is just the tech for the job. Now, if he could just remember to file the correct paperwork first!!
- The Atrocity Archives is an interesting take on the genre. It ends up being science fiction crossed with H.P. Lovecraft style horror with a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek humor.
- Our hero, Bob, really is not the type of person to be a hero. No James Bond waiting for the opportunity to get out of his cubicle. Bob is just an ordinary guy who happens to be competent at his job. He ends up being out of his league and copes through a combination of hacking and good luck.
- The monsters of Atrocity Archives are straightforward monsters. No misunderstood anti-heroes in this book. We have possessed descendents of Nazis. We have universe-eating super giants. We have supercilious paper-pushers for bosses. Easy to know who you’re cheering for and who you want to boo.
- Stross captures the feeling of the US/USSR Cold War quite well. For those who did not live through it, this book should be on your reading list.
- The Atrocity Archives is, I think, a collection of longish novellas that are related. This gave it a cut-up feeling, although the series holds together pretty well, it still left me feeling like I miss-timed stepping off a moving walkway.
- The female protagonist was more clueless than I liked. While it is true that everyone was somewhat at a loss about what was really going on until the very end, I think she could have been written to be a stronger, more intelligent character. After all, she turned out to be brainy enough to understand the multiverse and related mathematics – still, she was relegated to the role of being bait. I prefer stronger female leads than this.
- Much of the charm of The Atrocity Archives is that it is a nerd’s take on the whole spy vs. spy deal. Stross throws around a lot of computer jargon, which mostly makes the reader feel like an insider, but I wonder what non-nerds would make of it. I have a background in computer science and have been the unfortunate tech; so, I understood most of the jargon. But even I got tired of it after a while.
It is a slightly rocky start of a promising series. Bob Howard is a strongly sympathetic character – a geeky underdog who does not turn into Superman when the action starts. He just does his best and hopes that things work out. I’m interested to find out what the next episode in his life will bring and will be looking for the next book in the series as soon as I get some room in my calendar.
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