So you’re saying the Russians have these, uh, Shoggoths, but we don’t have any. And even those dumb Arab bastards in Baghdad are working on them. So you’re saying we’ve got a, a Shoggoth gap? A strategic chink in our armour? And now the Iranians say the Russians are using them in Afghanistan?
–Charles Stross, A Colder War
It takes a lot of nerve to write a paragraph like that with a straight face. What’s a shoggoth, you ask? If you don’t already know you ought to quit reading now. Neither A Colder War nor this review are meant for you.
Charles Stross’ novelette (available online here) imagines the Iran-Contra scandal in a world where H.P. Lovecraft’s entire Cthulhu Mythos is real. Not much more to it, really. Rest assured there is a plot. I won’t describe it here because frankly A Colder War is at its best sketching the impact of Lovecraftian horrors on Cold War politics. Readers ought to have the pleasure of discovering that for themselves.
Stross combines a strong voice with deadpan humor and more Lovecraft references than you can shake a shoggoth at. The quote at the top of this post is one example. If you’re not satisfied with that, here’s another:
“It is not the Russians that we quarrel with,” Mehmet says quietly, “but their choice in allies. They believe themselves to be infidel atheists, but by their deeds they shall be known; the icy spoor of Leng is upon them, their tools are those described in the Kitab al Azif. We have proof that they have violated the terms of the Dresden Agreement. The accursed and unhallowed stalk the frozen passes of the Himalayas by night, taking all whose path they cross. And will you stopper your ears even as the Russians grow in misplaced confidence, sure that their dominance of these forces of evil is complete? The gates are opening everywhere, as it was prophesied. Last week we flew an F-14C with a camera relay pod through one of them. The pilot and weapons operator are in paradise now, but we have glanced into hell and have the film and radar plots to prove it.”
If there is a downside to all this it’s that A Colder War is essentially one big gimmick (albeit a very enjoyable one). The story doesn’t feel fully fleshed-out, especially in comparison to Stross’ later Laundry novels. The novelette also ends abruptly, as if afraid to wear out its welcome.
Finally, it requires at least passing familiarity with Lovecraft’s fiction to enjoy. I can’t imagine someone ignorant of “At the Mountains of Madness” and “Call of Cthulhu” would get much out of A Colder War. As I mentioned above, half the fun is spotting the Lovecraft references. The average reader may simply find the whole thing bewildering.
If history and Lovecraft are up your alley, however, you owe it to yourself to spend an evening with A Colder War.