The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross

You could say I’m catching up on stuff I’ve been meaning to read for a while. Much of that includes non-SF books, but there are also a lot of SF novels in the pile of books I’ve been meaning to read for ages. Among them number several by Charles Stross, but I was very curious to see what a Lovecraft/Spy-Thriller mashup would look like. (Especially since I have a specifically Lovecraft-meets-Chun-Doo-Hwan story brewing in the back of my mind now.) So, finally, I grabbed my copy of The Atrocity Archives and dived straight in!

For someone like me–less well-read in the genre of spy-thrillers than in SF (or Lovecraft, anyway) I suspect I probably missed some of the subtler gags and nudge-and-winks in the narrative. Nonetheless, I think Stross’s book delivers on what it promises, which is–it is an action-heavy, intradimensional-horrors-spiced thriller.

Stross himself argues, both very amusingly and very cogently, that if you’re looking honestly at HP Lovecraft and Len Deighton (a cold war spy novelist I haven’t read, though my father was a fan), the gulf between their generic conventions is, well, more of a sidewalk crack: cold war spy-thrillers are about existential and ultimately cosmic horror, and Lovecraft’s work simply bristles with the stuff of espionage, infiltration of enemy-controlled territory, and the importance of covert information and those who can access it.

Yeah, tongue in cheek, but there’s something to it. Many people have therefore described the book as “Lovecraft meets Len Deighton by way of Neal Stephenson” and there’s certainly good cause to think so; the protagonist, Bob Howard, is a sure-fire hacker figure, except the stuff he’s hacking is the mathematics of the occult, er, sort of.

The one thing I wasn’t expecting was for this to be a two-story text: I expected “The Concrete Jungle” to be an extension (or later section of) The Atrocity Archives, and I guess it’s a compliment that I was a bit miffed when it turned out to be a separate tale–after all, that means I ended the earlier text wanting more.  “The Concrete Jungle” is a fine story as well, though it feels more of a romp than The Atrocity Archives.

In any case, I’m definitely looking forward to the other two books that follow up the, er, “adventures” of Bob Howard. And kudos to Stross for finding an excellent balance of the supernaturally horrific, the political, and the SF-geekish. (The book is damned funny in spots, and also clever in that way where you know the author is showing you he’s clever, and winking, and you can’t help but nod and agree: yeah, you’re clever, and funny to boot.

5 thoughts on “The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross

  1. I think I had the same reaction as you when I read this — why the heck did the action just stop 2/3 of the way through the book, and suddenly a whole new story starts up? It wasn’t until after I finished reading the thing that I realized the second story was “bonus material”.

    My review is here.

  2. Matt,

    Yeah, I wonder how many people had the same reaction. I wonder if this is a case of Stross writing the story the length it needs to be, and us just being used to the 100,000 words-for-a-book model that has come to dominate? If you look at a lot of older SF novels (and, I’d guess, spy/thriller novels) they’re not as long as the mainsteam SF novel is now. Not to say that any genre cannot be done well at any length, but there certainly are market forces working to push books to a more uniform length.

    Your review is pretty balanced; I gotta say, I had fun, even if I was sort of wondering how gorgonism became a major plot problem in the last third… I caught on faster than you did that it was a separate text, though. Not sure why, maybe I’d read or heard about “The Concrete Jungle” before or something, and the memory kicked in?

  3. Hi, I’m in the US now, and hooked up to the internet, though my e-mail is a bit buggy.
    I am currently reading “Declare” by Tim Powers which is roughly in the same spy-and-horror vein as Stross’s Cabinet series. (I think Stross said that he may have not written his Cabinet stories if he had known and read about “Declare” first.) I’ll tell you how it goes, but the first 50 pages seem very promising. (It’s also an alternate history of sorts involving Kim Philby, a real world Soviet spy in UK)

  4. I started reading Atrocity Archives at the same time you posted this, Gord. I loved it and am now reading The Jennifer Morgue.
    You mentioned that the stories have a bit of Stevenson in them. I’m finding Jennifer Morgue to be a great complement to Snowcrash. Both involve billionaires on giant ships, computer nerds who aren’t so nerdy and an interesting view of history. Also, both have strong but not overwhelming humor.

    Junsok, Powers is one of my favorite authors and I enjoyed Declare. I think the hero of the book ends the book with more of his appendages intact than any other Powers hero. Perhaps Powers is becoming a softie. Three Days to Never, another secret-history/spy novel by Powers was good but I don’t feel so driven to reread it.

    Finally Gord, I am reading Machines of Death and enjoyed your story even before I saw your name on it.

  5. Junsok,

    Sorry, I think I might have been traveling or something when you posted your comment, and missed it. I’m curious what you think of Declare, as I haven’t read it. (Or any Powers, yet, though I have a few things on the shelf.)

    How’s the States treating you? I did indeed end up staying on here… long story. I’ll bore you with it in 2012.


    Yeah, I am looking forward to the other Laundry books, though I have other stuff on my plate right now. I agree about the balance and character of the first book, and the second book sounds interesting.

    I guess I’m going to have to check out Powers sometime too.

    Thanks very much for your compliment on the story. That was something like the second or third story I ever sold. Maybe even the first, though I don’t think so. It was a long wait to see it come into print, but worth it. (I need to order a couple of copies for myself, in fact.)

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