“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.

In defense of Chernobyl Diaries

I rather enjoyed Chernobyl Diaries. I was appalled to see that it had a measly 19% on Rotten Tomatoes. Even that turkey Paranormal Activity 3 managed a 68%.

The premise: a handful of backpackers take an “extreme tour” of Pripyat, the Ukrainian town that housed workers that staffed Russia’s doomed Chernobyl reactor. Their guide is Yuri, a swarthy (if likable) Spetznatz trooper turned tour operator. After wandering around creepy-ass Pripyat for a while, the gang discovers Yuri’s van won’t start. So they’re stuck. Overnight. And to make matters worse, they start seeing and hearing signs they’re not the only ones overnighting in the abandoned city…

Chernobyl Diaries is all about atmosphere. The plot is relatively uninspired — irradiated cannibal mutants stalk hapless victimsWhat this flick has going for it is Pripyat:



Pripyat ferris wheel

Pripyat ferris wheel

Pripyat panorama


Soviet officials ordered the evacuation of Pripyat about 24 hours after the Chernobyl reactor melted down. Wikipedia has a fairly chilling translation of the evacuation order, which it cribbed from a National Geographic special:

For the attention of the residents of Pripyat! The City Council informs you that due to the accident at Chernobyl Power Station in the city of Pripyat the radioactive conditions in the vicinity are deteriorating. The Communist Party, its officials and the armed forces are taking necessary steps to combat this. Nevertheless, with the view to keep people as safe and healthy as possible, the children being top priority, we need to temporarily evacuate the citizens in the nearest towns of Kiev Oblast. For these reasons, starting from April 27, 1986 2 pm each apartment block will be able to have a bus at its disposal, supervised by the police and the city officials. It is highly advisable to take your documents, some vital personal belongings and a certain amount of food, just in case, with you. The senior executives of public and industrial facilities of the city has decided on the list of employees needed to stay in Pripyat to maintain these facilities in a good working order. All the houses will be guarded by the police during the evacuation period. Comrades, leaving your residences temporarily please make sure you have turned off the lights, electrical equipment and water and shut the windows. Please keep calm and orderly in the process of this short-term evacuation.

Chernobyl Diaries effectively leverages on this history for the first half of its running time. In fact, some of the creepiest scenes are of Yuri simply leading the backpackers around the abandoned city. This makes for a far more compelling film than a handheld camera pointed at an eight-year old’s bedroom. Or watching blankets rustle in a suburban home. It also offsets shortcomings in plot and characterization. That’s more than you can say for most horror gimmicks (ahem–found footage).

Many horror films live or die by atmosphere. Chernobyl Diaries is one of them. I’m not saying this is a great movie. It might not even rate as average. But it’s certainly not abysmal. It deserves far more credit than it’s gotten.

Paranormal Activity 3 = unmitigated lameness

paranormal activity 3 screencap

The face of unmitigated lameness.

On one hand I give the Paranormal Activity franchise a lot of credit. It’s made oodles of money with the simplest of gimmicks. Perhaps even more impressively, it’s proven people will pay good money to watch a movie where nothing much actually happens.

I had the misfortune of watching Paranormal Activity 3 the other night. Actually, in the interest of full disclosure I should qualify that. I watched part of Paranormal Activity 3 the other day

I gave up at about the half hour mark. Mostly because nothing much had happened, unless you can count a spring-loaded wife as a plot point. Granted there were some bits about a kid talking to her “imaginary” friend, and at one point some dust did fall on something that could possibly be construed as a ghostly shape. But at the end of the day it takes more than a couple scare chords and an ambiguous video artifact to offset a half hour of unmitigated lameness.

Is it fair to bash a movie I gave up on a third of the way through?


A horror movie can be many things. Boring is not one of them. In order to be boring a horror movie must fail on a fundamental level. Other examples of things that were fundamentally flawed:

Fortunately, watching Paranormal Activity 3 does not directly threaten one’s financial security or personal well-being. It’s just not very much fun. In fact, about the only fun I had during Paranormal Activity 3 was trying to convince my girlfriend we could make a better sex tape than the couple in the movie (she didn’t go for it). Also realizing director Ariel Schulman is the brother of that guy from Catfish.

Monster mash: Silent Hill Revelation’s strange brilliance

Silent Hill: Revelation is a classic case of style over substance. I could not describe its plot in detail. Something about a blood cult trying to impregnate a hapless teen with the latest incarnation of some unnamed diety. Yog-Sothoth, perhaps. Sean Bean is involved. He spends most of the production waiting for his check. You can’t really blame him. The writing is laughable. The dialogue displays all the nuance of a haphazard translation of video game cut scenes from Japanese.

And honestly I couldn’t care less. Somehow, against all odds, Silent Hill: Revelation works.

Really it’s a creature feature. It’s all about atmosphere. The plot is just a mechanism that propels us from monster to monster. Fortunately they are damned interesting monsters (pun, anyone?), including:

nurses silent hill

Blind, faceless nurses that hunt by sound!

silent hill mannequin spider

A spider made of mannequin parts!

Pyramid Head

That pyramid-headed fellow with the outsize butcher knife!

woman in spider web

A chick trapped in a spider web!

Carrie Ann Moss holding Sean Bean captive in the lap of - er, whatever that thing's supposed to be...

Carrie Ann Moss holding Sean Bean captive in Magic Mike’s lap!

Hopefully this brief photo montage has effectively conveyed the inspired lunacy that is Silent Hill: Revelation. 

You may still be looking for a plot. In that case give up now. You won’t like what you find.

Instead, crack open a  beer and enjoy the monster mash. The Silent Hill franchise is perfect for a drinking game. Perhaps I will create one.