Morning! It’s pretty cold this morning here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia, and I have spent most of the morning thus far cooking. See, it gets hot here in my little valley; 90 degree heat with 70% to 80% humidity in mid-July to early August is not only not unheard of, at times it’s practically de rigeur. The last thing I want in that kind of weather is to stand over a hot stove and heat up the house. So I prep as much food as I can well ahead of time (like now, when the mornings are cold) so that, when that hot weather hits, all I have to do is pop something pre-prepped into the oven for thirty minutes. NO running the stove all afternoon, no standing in the heat minding a grill, no fuss, very little muss, and I can go back to my preferred pastime of lounging on the front porch with my Kindle and a glass of lemonade.
But enough of my ongoing food fetish. Onward, to the Punk!
So here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia, it’s hard to find an expert on the pulp genre. The only one I knew personally was my father, who was an absolute junkie of the genre. But he’s gone, God rest his soul, so who am I to ask these strange questions.
Hey! I’ll ask the Interwebz: do spy novels belong in the pulp genre? Is there a cut-off, this one belongs in the pulps, that one doesn’t? Why?
I think some of them do. The original James Bond novels by Ian Fleming were written in the early fifties, and were firmly pulp. Just check this book cover and tell me that doesn’t scream “pulp!!!!” The books were high on action, light on characterization (though I have to say that Bond is a much darker, less slick character in the books than in the movies), and not afraid to titillate. Ian Fleming’s writing style was minimalist, clipped, terse, not at all uncommon in the pulps; to me at least, the feeling was a cross between a spy story and a Sam Spade type hardboiled detective.
All that says “pulp” to me.
What confused me for a while is the fact that, while Bond is anchored in the pulps, the series has gone WAY mainstream, and has done almost since its inception. It was a breakout hit when the series first appeared. Then the movies, spin off novels (oh yes, there are Bond books by other authors, mostly John Gardner or Raymond Benson, though occasionally other guys contribute). Then came the book spoofs, the send ups (Our Man Flint (1966) and its sequel, In Like Flint (1967), affectionate send-ups of the Bond style, predated the hyperactive Austin Powers movies by nearly half a century; by the way, James Coburn ROCKS in the lead role in these movies. I’d watch him for days before I’d bother with Mike Myers. (I don’t have a problem with the Austin Powers movies; I’ve seen them all and they’re cute as heck. But ultimately, I’m underwhelmed)
But you see my confusion: how can something so mainstream, a character so embraced by the general public, still be “one of us,” still be a pulp. I have this thing in my mind that says that pulp is not mainstream, and shouldn’t be mainstream. No, I’m too old to be a hipster. I’ve just been in the pulp ghetto for so long that I’ve come to like the place.
Anyway, the point is, spy novels, some of them at least, belong to us. And this allows me to include the works of Charles Stross on this page (the lengths I go to to justify what I wanted to do anyway! I should be ashamed). In fact, Stross’s Laundry Files series belongs here anyway, thanks to its Lovecraftian connection. And boy, does it deliver. Stross creeps me out in ways that…..
Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Who is Charles Stross and what is this Laundry series I’m talking about? Charles Stross is a British author of hard science fiction. He has a Wikipedia page here. He has written a crap-ton of hard science fiction, most of which I’m not even gonna fool with here; there’s a bibliography on his Wikipedia page, go check them out.
What I’m singling out here on the blog is Stross’s Laundry series. How can I describe Bob Howard’s life in the Laundry? Hmmm…. Imagine Dilbert and James Bond had a baby, and that baby grew up to use an iPhone to fight Cthulhu.
Yeah, it’s like that. For realz.
There are five books in the Laundry series…
- The Atrocity Archive
- The Jennifer Morgue
- The Fuller Memorandum
- The Apocalypse Codex
- The Rhesus Chart
and half a dozen or so short stories, most of which are available online for free (again, check the bibliography on the Wikipedia page linked above; they’re well worth the effort)
Here’s the thing: in the Laundry series, all the stuff Lovecraft wrote about, the monsters from other dimensions, strange and dangerous races living under the sea and mating with the occasional fisherman, the magic that destroys the mind and consumes the soul? Yeah, all that stuff is for real. Except it ain’t magic. It’s mathematics. Seems that certain very high level non-Euclidean, Fermat’s Theorem-level mathematics can open gateways between worlds. Combine that math with various material components (some wire, a few lasers, an iPhone, a severed hand, just stuff you have lying around the house).
So when Bob Howard (our hero) was in university in England, he was playing around on his computers when he (and I’m quasi-quoting the Laundry Files Wiki), “nearly landscaped Wolverhampton by accident when creating a realtime rendering algorithm that used a logical shortcut which turned out to be an open and ungrounded summoning grid. ” The British government frowns on that sort of thing, and came for him. He had two choices: forcible re-education and prison, or join The Laundry. He chose the Laundry.
The Laundry (called that because it was housed behind a laundry shop during WWII) is a very secret branch of MI5 focused specifically on occult threats. Their job is to find the mad Bond villains who are trying to destroy the world by summoning something incredibly nasty. They’re also tasked with finding the schlubs (like Bob) who stumble onto dangerous knowledge while dicking around on the Internet or in their math classes.
So what’s life like in the Laundry? Well, Bob’s day-to-day really does read like a Dilbert comic strip: cubicles, post-it notes, boring team meetings, mandatory teamwork (or whatever) classes, dealing with clueless supervisors, computer illiterate types who can’t figure out how to turn on the printer without the computer guy’s help, crap-tons of paperwork, plus executive level types who are scary as hell. Only in this case “scary as hell” is much more than just a metaphor.
At the beginning of the first novel, The Atrocity Archives, Bob had been another cubicle slave, just marking time and hating his immediate supervisor. But, since he had volunteered for active service, one of his supervisors tapped him for a little errand. An “Active Service Errand” in this case means breaking into an office park, stealing somebody’s files and getting out without being spotted. Entry level spy stuff.
From there the whole thing escalates. In the first book, the Atrocity Archives, Bob is asked to repatriate a young, beautiful scientist who accidentally stumbled across a very dangerous mathematical formula; this seemingly coincidental encounter leads to an alternate dimension that was populated by Nazis from WWII and is now about to destroy our own dimension. (an image you won’t forget: the face of the moon carved to look like Der Fuhrer). The cool thing is that Bob hooks up with the girl scientist he rescued at the beginning; she is his girlfriend and later his wife for the rest of the series. I like this, it’s a nice change of pace from the womanizing of most other spy thrillers (yes, Bond, I’m looking at you).
The second book, the Jennifer Morgue, Bob is teamed with a young woman from the underwater realms, to help supervise a megalomaniac’s attempt to find a sunken prize. This book is very deliberately plotted to reflect a James Bond novel. It gets kind of meta: the characters realize they are being forced to follow a Bond novel plot and there is a science fiction-y justification for why it’s happening. There’s even some interesting confusion as to which player is the Bond expy. I have to confess, this is my least favorite of the series, so I have only read it the one time.
The third book, The Fuller Memorandum, concerns a mad scramble by factions inside and outside the Laundry to find a document that will give the holders control of a Nyarlathotep-type nightmare that still walks the earth. Nobody knows who the nightmare currently is, which becomes very important.
The fourth book, The Apocalypse Codex, sees Bob helping an “outside asset” (a very scary woman called Persephone) to infiltrate an American religious movement, one whose leader has gotten rather too close to the British Prime Minister, and seems to have the sort of powers that The Laundry routinely looks for.
The fifth book, The Rhesus Chart, involves vampires as captains of industry. This one is tough for Bob because the toxic girlfriend he had at the beginning of book one is one of the vampires and, as a member of the Laundry herself, knows way too much about how the Laundry does its work. According to Wikipedia, at least two more books are scheduled to follow Rhesus, which is good news as far as I’m concerned.
What I like about The Laundry Files is the tone. Yes, Bob fights tentacled freaks from the 8th Dimension, using only an iPhone and a pigeon foot on a string around his neck (long story, just trust me), all very derring do stuff. But when he talks about it, he sounds like just one of the guys. He’s not got a cape or a big S across his chest; he’s just a guy doing a job. A deeply weird and terrifying job, but still just another wage slave. He worries about spending too much money on a gadget and what is his live-in girlfriend, Mo, going to say about it. He hates his supervisor and enjoys goading her. He’s full of snark and the sort of random mischief that I see my computer geek sons get up to all the time.
For all the Dilbert-level office hell, there’s still plenty of action (my favorite part). It’s cool to see just an ordinary guy go up against the forces of darkness armed only with a pigeon foot and an iPhone (no, I’m not kidding about the pigeon foot). Stross is very good at making me believe that the danger is very very real; I have been genuinely frightened a couple times by the stories, in a Cold War paranoia kind of way. But “Duck and Cover” isn’t going to work against Hastur any more than it would against Kruschev’s little toys. And this is where Stross impresses me again: he’s got me freaked out, that’s good. But then he pits Captain Ordinary against the Forces of Darkness, and he makes me believe it when Captain Ordinary wins.
It’s one thing to throw an ordinary guy up against something terrible and writing him out of it. Any chapped ass monkey with a keyboard can do that. But to make me believe it, to convince me that Captain Ordinary has the wherewithal to pull it off and walk away from a battle with the Forces of Darkness? Yeah, I am impressed.
While I was doing the brushing up for this blog, I found something interesting, something I didn’t know before. Each book in the series thus far have been pastiches of other, more famous installments in the spy thriller genre. The Atrocity Archive was a conscious imitation of Len Deighton‘s “Ipcress File.” As I said before, The Jennifer Morgue imitates Ian Fleming’s Bond series. The Fuller Memorandum is a pastiche of Anthony Price‘s books about Dr. David Audley and Colonel Jack Butler. The Apocalypse Codex imitates the Modesty Blaise stories by Peter O’Donnell.
What’s cool is that I didn’t know this. I don’t often read spy thrillers, and almost never wander out of the science fiction/fantasy/horror ghetto, so I never was exposed to most of these writers (though I recall my father reading them voraciously). But — and here’s the important thing — I still enjoyed the books. I didn’t need to recognize the pastiche to have fun with the books. That’s what annoys me about a lot of pastiches: you have to know the source material to get the joke and thus to appreciate the story. Here, you didn’t. I could read the books, enjoy the hell out of them, and be blissfully innocent of the inside joke. Now that I know, I can go back and read Ipcress, then read Atrocity Archive again and enjoy the book on an entirely new level.
Anyway, I’ve gone on too long about this. Go to your favorite source of books right now and pick up The Atrocity Archive. You’ll enjoy it. Delicious modern day pulpy goodness.
And that’s it for me. We just had a thunderstorm start; I hope I can get this out before the lightning ganks out internet connection. So I gotta make this fast: share, tweet, write, comment. My email is ajwriter-at-ajclarkson-dot-net if you wanna talk or if you wanna share some Fun Friday goodness with me. Fun Friday is up next and I’ve got some fun stuff for you (Hence the name “Fun Friday.”)
Be good! And if you can’t be good, don’t get caught.