The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross (a review)

 

The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross.

The quicky version!

1. I liked it.
2. It’s really a novella + 1 short story.
3. It pays smart homage to HP Lovecraft and updates the Cthulhu mythos in a creative way. 
4. It gets very technical in parts.
5. Charles Stross is a smart, funny, imaginative writer who does his fan-base a great service.
6. Some plot elements (particularly in the area of conflicts/ battles) could be much stronger.

Stross does a great job of piecing together different mythologies and ideas in fresh and original ways, and I think maybe that’s why people like him so much: because he inspires new ideas and sets off bright, new colors in my head . Yet- simultaneously- he does a fabulous job of paying homage to H.P. Lovecraft, giving a modern edge to those nightmarish, tentacle, brain-sucking possibilities that Lovecraft crafted in the 1920’sand 30’s.

The long and loving version.

I first became aware of The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross about three years ago, when the novel was recommended by a friend who described it to me as “Cthulhu meets “The Office””. I can confirm the Cthulhu part, but I have never actually seen “The Office”, so I’ll to take my friend’s word for that one .

Anyway, The Atrocity Archives gradually made its way through my reading list (it took three years!) Another friend gave it to me as a Christmas present finally finished reading it now.

I have a number of things to address, so I’m going to break this review into sections:

1. It’s really a novella + 1 short story.

To begin with, this isn’t really a novel. It’s actually two linked stories. The first part of The Atrocity Archives is a novella concerning the appearance of an alternate, parallel universe that is threatening to consume our own. This takes up about two thirds of the book. The final third is actually short story that contains some of the same characters, but has its own distinct story arc (about a technology-based Medusa-gaze) . This is neither good nor bad, but is kind of interesting because if you come to expecting one complete story, you’re not going to get it.

2. It proves Michael Chabon’s theory of fan fiction.

Michael Chabon’s book of essays, “Maps and Legends” is a touchstone for me. Why am I mentioning it here? Because I often refer to it when I review works of fantasy and science fiction. One interesting thing that Michael Chabon notes is that we live in the “era of fan fiction”. And- in many ways- The Atrocity Archives proves his case. You see, the novel is set in a universe where HP Lovecraft’s monsters exist. In fact, you could consider it an extension of the Cthulhu mythos, with a high tech/computer upgrade. That being said, Stross does make it his own, so please don’t be turned off when I use term fan fiction. It is only fan fiction in the broadest sense, in the same way that Anne Rice’s vampire books are fan fiction of Dracula.

3. There is a lot of smart-person stuff going on, to the point it got a little distracting.

One quibble I have with this book is that there is a lot of technical detail. I mean a lot: references to physics, mathematics, technology, mythology, the structure of British government, not to mention computer hardware galore. I felt like- to really understand what was going on, I mean to get the clearest possible picture- I would need to read this book sitting by my computer and checking into Wikipedia every so often to figure out what exactly Stross means when he uses the term “Mandelbrot Set” or “Artisan’s Rifles” or “quantum tunneling effect”. 

Actually, having phone access to a physics PhD might’ve helped too. Actually, I do have phone access to a guy with a PhD in physics, but I don’t think he’d appreciate me calling him every 20 minutes to discuss a novel.

You can still understand story without knowing all the technical details, but here and there it does get irksome. The effect is kind of like going to a party and running into somebody who’s very, very smart and very, very witty, and having a rollicking, involved conversation with them, but after the whole things done- on your way home- you scratch your head and admit to yourself, “I didn’t understand some of the things that guy said.”

4. The writing is engaging, imaginative and strong. And he writes to his fans.

Stross has earned multiple writing awards, and it shows. His writing is strong and intelligent, and it works well, caring seamlessly from page to page. Stross does a great job of piecing together different mythologies and ideas in fresh and original ways, and I think maybe that’s why people like him so much: because he inspires new ideas and sets off bright, new colors in my head . Yet- simultaneously- he does a fabulous job of paying homage to H.P. Lovecraft, giving a modern edge to those nightmarish, tentacle, brain-sucking possibilities that Lovecraft crafted in the 1920’sand 30’s.

You also have to give Stross points for sticking to his target audience. I feel like he wrote these books for the IT/ fanboy/ geek crowd, which is a bit like building cars for racers. It’s a specialty area. It’s not for everybody, and not everyone will appreciate it, but those who do appreciate it will become hard-core fans. It takes a certain amount of bravery to write to a certain group of people, because it means excluding others. You have to admire the Stross did not cut corners or dumb-down his writing (or plot elements) to find a wider following.

Now, having said all that, I didn’t entirely engage with the novel.

5. One weak point (for me)- quickly dissipating tension/ easily resolved conflicts-

One thing that I did not like about The Atrocity Archives is that the conflicts were resolved a bit too quickly and smoothly. When it comes to fantasy thrillers, the books that stand out to me like champions are the ones in which the hero has everything on the line, and in which the protagonist has to struggle mightily to save his (or her) proverbial bacon.

In the case of Bob Howard, our IT-necromancer hero, however, both tales of the Atrocity Archives begin with THE PROMISE of that type of high-stakes, “everything-on-the-line” conflict, but the actual climaxes (the final battles) are often resolved both a bit too neatly and (more infuriatingly) off-the-page. In fact, Bob isn’t usually there when it happens. Stross has a tendency of “cutting away” during fight sequences. The classic example (and I’m not giving much away, so this is a mini-spoiler) happens when Bob attempts to rescue a woman from the clutches of an evil cult. As he closes in on the cult headquarters in an effort to save her, he is knocked unconscious. The chapter ends there. The next time we see Bob, he’s recovering from a head injury. We then learn that he was knocked out by his American counterparts who then moved in to save the woman. Where was Bob during this dramatic scene? Out cold, so we- the readers- missed the conflict.

When I write it that way, it seems funny, but when it happens over and over again- for me anyway- that pull some of the drama and tension out of the plot. It does happen throughout the book. When bad guys are killed, when bombs are diffused, Bob is the other room or stuck in a closet somewhere, or completely unaware of the situation.

I do wonder if Stross does this intentionally, because it’s more realistic? I mean, in the real world, it’s more likely that complicated events would get resolved in messy ways, and it’s highly unlikely that any one person could resolve multiple conflicts. On the other hand, this is fiction, and I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to expect our protagonist to be there and participating in the proverbial excrement hits the fan. 

6. Stross is funny in a dry, ironic way. 

I’m sure there were some jokes I went right over my head, but the comedy works really well especially when contrasted with the stark horrors that Bob faces. And he has a gift for describing then lousiness of office politics.

metaphorica

If this novel were a drink, it would be a lousy-tasting cup of coffee loaded with nanotech particles that would allow you to interface with the many-faceted ones that dwell at the bottom of the Mandelbrot Set. {And- no- I don’t really understand what the Mandelbrot Set is}

If this book were an animal, it would be a clever monkey (who wears cargo pants that are loaded with tech gear). The monkey is employed in the IT department of a major corporation and he uses his long arms and amazing climbing ability to work his way between the walls and to fix the ever changing landscape of wires and circuit boards and fight against the rising tide of ghostly machine-chaos (think Super Mario but with wiring instead of plumbing). Said monkey would wear hipster shades. 

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About Armand Inezian

Armand Inezian is an English instructor by day, and a grant administrator by later-in-the-day, and a writer by night! VampCon- a dark, fantasy thriller- is his first novel. He resides in Boston with his wife, two children, three cats, and one house that needs a lot of work.
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