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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.

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