Charles Stross

A Colder War

shoggoth

A shoggoth

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.

“Mathematics can be magic”

Atrocity Archives cover

The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross

“Charlie had this great idea for a novel: ‘It’s a techno-thriller.’ The premise is that Turing cracked the NP-Completeness theorem back in the forties! The whole Cold War was about preventing the Singularity! The ICBMS were there in case godlike AIs ran amoke!” – Ken MacLeod, Foreword to The Atrocity Archives

Charles Stross writes fascinating stuff. The basic premise of The Atrocity Archives, MacLeod writes, “is that mathematics can be magic.” I would classify the novel as Lovecraftian horror/fantasy, though that still doesn’t quite do it justice (reasons to be found below).

The gist, in brief: given the proper combination of mathematic and occult knowledge, one effectively becomes a modern day wizard. This can involve manipulating objects or people around you. It can also involve knocking on the doors to other dimensions.

Stross describes it thusly:

This isn’t the only universe we have to worry about. Information can leak between one universe and another. And in a vanishingly small number of the other universes there are things that listen, and talk back –see Al-Hazred, Nietzsche, Lovecraft, Poe, et cetera. The many-angled ones, as they say, live at the bottom of the Mandelbrot set, except when a suitable incantation in the platonic realm of mathematics–computerised or otherwise–draws them forth. (And you thought running that fractal screen-saver was good for your computer?

The Atrocity Archives and its companion piece, The Concrete Jungle, are sci-fi/horror novels for nerds. They relate the adventures of on Bob Howard, IT flunky cum secret agent. See, someone has to keep any eye on all the Great Old Nasties from beyond the dimensional pale. In the UK that’s the Laundry (us Yanks have the Black Chamber). Howard, like most other Laundry employees, got his job after becoming a little too interested in certain obscure mathematical theorems. Now he spends his working days struggling to both navigate the Civil Service bureaucracy and thwart many-headed threats from other dimensions.

This is Lovecraft meets Fleming meets Dilbert. For Bob middle management is every bit as frightening as the Lovecraftian horrors lurking in Dimension X.

I’m not going to spoil details about plot points. By now you should know if The Atrocity Archives is a book for you (hint: you may be drooling all over your tablet). Don’t waste any more time reading reviews. Just wipe your mouth and go get it on Amazon.