Month: May 2019

The Atrocity Archives

The Atrocity ArchivesThe Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross was published in 2004. It is the first in the Laundry Series of novels. I think I acquired my copy (Ace 2009) of the novel in 2016. This is the first Stross novel I’ve read although the stacks have a few of his other works.

Stross seems to have a following of die-hard fans much like Neil Gaiman has.  I can see why; Stross’ work is rather original and it is clear that Stross is an intelligent person. I had high hopes for this novel, and I felt odd after reading it because so many readers have given this one such high marks – did I miss something? Thinking about this for awhile, it seems readers are reviewing the book they think that they read – or wanted to read, and maybe not actually the book that they really read. It happens more than one wants to realize….. My review is utterly honest, so if anyone disagrees with me, they can at least be satisfied I am not being disingenuous.

I read a lot of reviews saying this book is funny/comedic. Readers really seem to warm to the obnoxiousness of the bureaucratic silliness. Being bluntly honest: I don’t see it. There is some snark, which maybe is a little smirk-level amusing. There are some eye-rolling scenes wherein the “paper-clip-counters” are shuffling paperwork. But there’s nothing hysterical or laugh aloud here; a little sarcasm isn’t going to make me laugh my head off. Another novel that I read that has this issue is Midnight Riot / Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovich. (See my review.)

Stross is an ideas man – he’s very smart and he has some interesting concepts. As far as a writer? Well, honestly, this isn’t an example of great writing. The worst of it is dialogue; most of the characters seem written very stilted. They are archetypes, at best, not characters. In other words, they act/sound just like you think they should. Stilted writing. And wow, Dominique “Mo” is written awfully. Every dialogue or conversation is cringe-worthy. Its like…. if you took all the ill-conceived and incorrect stereotypes about autism and then made them even uglier. If the other characters are stilted, Mo is like a bad stereotyped autist developed by a computer that is beleaguered with viruses. Ugh.

The book rambles around and takes some time to find its feet. Seriously, the first third is perhaps introducing us to characters, but the storyline just sputters and spins. Now, once the story gets moving, it does turn into an action-thriller sort of business. Techno-fantasy-alternate history plot.

Stross has some great ideas that were fun to explore. I liked a lot of the concepts in the story. But they are not all written smoothly and seamlessly. A spy agency (the Laundry) that is full of techno-mages is super cool. But, for what its worth, I found the entire Nazi/Reich stuff to be off-putting. Its…. just too much… It made the novel feel a lot heavier and darker than it should have been. Its hard to laugh when Nazis are summoning demons.

At times I was wondering if the real flaw of the novel is that there is just too much stuff stuffed in it. Nazis, Old Ones, computer-jargon, physics, the Laundry, Middle Eastern terrorists, museums, summoning spirits, PDA-style tools, bureaucratic satire, references to a whole pile of what used to be consider geek/nerd material, etc. I do not doubt Stross knows about these things, but jammed on top of one another, all of it is cumbersome and tedious.

Overall, I liked many of the ideas, I liked the action scenes – I liked the Robert Howard homage, the Wolfenstein castle imagery, the pseudo-science mixed with real physics/math. I appreciated Stross mentioning Martin Heidegger (he doesn’t really feature in novels much, but I often feel like he would be awesome in science fiction stuff). But I did not find this very amusing and as a whole it seems like the author was trying too hard. It seems forced everywhere. Now, I have book two, so I think I will give Stross and The Laundry another shot.

2 stars

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Equations of Life

"Equations of Life" - Simon Morden; ORBIT

“Equations of Life” – Simon Morden; ORBIT

Equations of Life by Simon Morden was first published in 2011.  It is the first of a short series of novels called the Metrozone series featuring the main character, Samuil Petrovich.  This novel won the 2012 Philip K. Dick Award.  According to the Award’s website:  “The Philip K. Dick Award is presented annually with the support of the Philip K. Dick Trust for distinguished science fiction published in paperback original form in the United States. The award is sponsored by the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society…”

This novel belongs to that gloriously alluring subgenre of science fiction sometimes referred to as “cyberpunk.”  I put that in quotes because I am certain that many fans of science fiction have all sorts of opinions about the definition of that subgenre. But speaking to the general, and maybe somewhat superficial, reader of science fiction, cyberpunk has some identified members that everyone always mentions. Neuromancer – William Gibson (1984) is usually the first novel people discuss. But there’s others that one might like to know about such as Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992), The Shockwave Rider – John Brunner (1975), and Islands in the Net – Bruce Sterling (1988).  I reviewed Neuromancer on this blog, but also The Electric Church – by Jeff Somers (2007), which is another entry into cyberpunk.

Allegedly, according to the almighty Internet, the term itself was first used in context by Bruce Bethke in 1980. Sterling wrote that cyberpunk includes a “combination of lowlife and high tech” and I think this is very much the best broad-strokes definition. The genre tends to feature urban settings – sometimes in decay. The atmosphere has machinery, neon lights, gritty streets, and cyber-cafes/computer-ware. Usually, while the tech seems very futuristic, it often is cobbled together by loners, anti-establishment people, and/or hackers. See glimpses of the scenery in movies like:  Hackers, Blade Runner, The Matrix, Ghost in the Shell, and Johnny Mnemonic.

So, one of the things that Morden gets absolutely correct is the setting. It feels exactly how it should for this novel. It does a lot of work for the novel. The setting is  post-apocalyptic; in this case meaning some meta-scale event (likely a war) has reshaped the planet’s countries politically and geographically.  Morden does really well in this book by keeping the details of the event vague and only alluded to. This works so well and is such a good idea that I feel he deserves extra praise for not getting too deep into the backstory. On a smaller scale, the main character, Petrovich, exists in the Metrozone. What is this? Its a rearranged, divided, torn-up resemblance to what may have been London; places like Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, and Piccadilly are referenced.

The book begins building the setting by appealing to all the reader’s senses. Petrovich describes the light, the smells, the noises.

“…all he could hear was the all-pervading hum of machines:  those that made power, those that used it, pushing, pulling, winding, spinning, sucking, blowing, filtering, pumping, heating and cooling.” page 1

This is a deeply urban setting where the sounds you hear are machinery. And throughout the rest of chapter one and into the start of the second, it feels gritty, over-populated, and cityscaped. In chapter two is the event that is the catalyst for the whole novel.

Petrovich is a young Russian guy. He is very intelligent within mathematics (and likely computer programming and some physics).  Petrovich isn’t his real name – and frankly, even by the end of the book, we do not know a lot of the “paperwork” things about him. The reader gets the impression that he is a mix of refugee and survivor.  We do, however, know more about his personality, character, reasoning, and strengths and weaknesses.  As I read, Petrovich first seemed overdone, his Russian-ness, his attitudes, his basic fiction-character archetype seemed too blatant. However, the character grew on me, and no matter what, I was rooting for him.  What I liked about Morden’s writing of Petrovich is that several times, Petrovich’s decisions are very honest and realistic decisions – and not, as found sometimes in fiction books – plot devices, plot machining, or character misrepresentations.

While Petrovich is the main character, there is another character that readers will likely really enjoy. The entertaining and awesome nun, Sister Madeleine.  I definitely want to know more about this whole situation. Nuns that are bodyguards? Or genetically-enhanced with Vatican-issued/approved firearms? Yes. Great. I’m all-in on this neat concept.  I do have a smallish complaint about how a particular aspect of this character goes, though.  Writing flaw? I am not sure.  But I absolutely loved the parts wherein Maddy is driving the manual transmission vehicle.

The supporting characters, Pif, Grigori, Wong are all successes. I do not have any issue with them. At one point, Wong is surprising and deepens the cyberpunk/espionage element of the novel. I love how Pif is utterly disinterested and distant to the outrageous incidents that occur around her. It isn’t that she is ignorant and that is what makes her character so fascinating as well. She may be, also, one of the most honest characters (particularly regarding Petrovich) in the novel.

Morden shuffles the possibilities for villains and enemies really well. In cyberpunk, everyone and everything can be an enemy. The reader is, for the most part, never on solid ground deciding who the bad guys are. This is a good idea, but not easy to execute and I think the author did a good job with it.

All of the above are why I gave this novel four stars. However, there are some major issues. Often enough the sentence structure – or sentence placement itself – seems really off. Not just awkward, but as if totally incorrectly located. Its absolutely jarring when it occurs. It takes getting used to and I just kept reading, but there are bone-shaking sentences that don’t “work” with the prose. Luckily, they are not frequent enough to spoil much at all.

Another issue is that for the majority of the novel, literally nothing much seems to be happening except Petrovich going here and there in town and meeting with various people. Its a way, obviously, to introduce characters and motives. But honestly, it also feels redundant and after awhile, I did ask myself:  is the plot actually going anywhere here?

I own books two and three of this series. I definitely want to read them. I think readers of cyberpunk will enjoy the novel because it is a solid entry into this subgenre. It is not a perfect novel, but it is highly entertaining and many elements (setting, characters, villainy) are well-done.

4 stars