Sunday, July 11, 2010

Review: The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross

The Fuller Memorandum is the third in Charles' Stross series of thriller/horror crossover novels. You can read Memorandum without having to read the preceding two (The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue). Exposition is generously provided and only a small number of recurring characters need reintroduction.

Each book follows Bob Howard, occult secret agent for 'The Laundry', the codename for Britain's occult secret service. Bob is less James Bond, more George Smiley by way of the IT Crowd. Overworked, underpaid and oppressed by bureaucracy, he uses his l88t coding skills (programming = modern day magic) to fight occult crime.

The series owes a heavy but affectionate debt to the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, borrowing liberally from his bestiary and pantheon of unspeakable gods with unpronounceable names. His overarching narrative of tentacled horrors from the dawn of time ready to wake and DEVOUR US ALL AND OUR CATS lends itself both to grandeur and self-deflating parody.

It's to Stross's credit that he manages both well. The Fuller Memorandum features both a really rather nasty cult of Nyarlathotep (No! Not the Black Pharaoh and Messenger of the Elder Gods!) alongside Bob's knowing asides about how ridiculous his work is.

I have a somewhat embarrassing relationship with Wolverhampton. Back when I was at university in Birmingham I nearly landscaped it by accident. I was trying to develop a new graphics algorithm. Planar homogenous matrix transformations into dimensions dominated by gibbering horrors tend to attract the Laundry's attention: they got to me just in time - just before the nameless horrors I was about to unintentionally summon into this world - and made me a job offer I wasn't allowed to refuse.

If you like Bob's narrative voice and the setting appeals, chances are you'll be sold on Memorandum. It's built on old parts - Gothic horror and techno thriller - but lovingly arranged by a skilled author in new juxtapositions. Bob makes for a endearingly fallible hero, who manages to unleash his hidden badass without ever looking indestructible.

Having said that, this is the third book essentially based on a single concept and it's starting to show a little. Moreover, while it rattles along nicely and has a lot of charm, compared with its immediate predecessor The Jennifer Morgue (which turned the James Bond knob up to 11 for inspired satirical effect) the plot can be summarised, perhaps slightly cruelly, 'stuff happens to Bob and then he saves the day.' I didn't have that 'confusion to clarity' moment that I like to have in thrillers, where all the different threads fall into place at the end.

A good few tentacle lengths ahead of most genre fiction, then, but I'd like to see Stross round off the series with one more book and go out on a high note.

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