While this summer’s weather has thus far been rather disappointing, I will say that it delivered something I’ve been waiting eagerly for: the opportunity to follow up on some predictions I’ve made in the past.
Two weeks ago Charles Stross added a new volume to his Laundry Files novels, the Rhesus Chart, featuring Bob Howard, a geeky computer programmer and computational demonologist working for the Laundry, otherwise known as the Counter-Possession Unit of Special Operations Executive. Its mission: to defend the United Kingdom against the supernatural vermin from beyond spacetime that threaten to eat our brains.
To recap briefly, the Laundry novels are based in a Lovecraftian universe, which stresses how insignificant humankind is in the vast emptiness of the universe and the immensity of time. And then, it fills time and space up with a hierarchy of beings so anathema to humankind, that they’re dangerous even when they aren’t trying to be.
Initially, the Laundry books were a kind of spooky comedy – Bob’s dry sense of humour and pop-culture references form his coping mechanism and his work politicking stressed him out more than the supernatural alien horrors. Bob’s – and his wife’s – rising status in the organization has brought them into contact, not only with terrifyingly powerful intelligences from beyond, but also the humans who fall down and worship them, usually in nauseatingly cruel rites. And the ultimate cosmic alignment – ‘when the stars are right’ in Lovecraft’s language and CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN in Laundry codetalk – is beginning.
In the Rhesus Chart, Bob has begun to move up into management, and to experiment in the use of the powers his rise has brought with it. And from that point of view, things are amiss: his experiments in occult early warning systems end up exposing a frightening rash of deaths by intantaneous dementia, and the cause – a form of vampirism – is running up against some strange walls of denial inside his organization. Just to make it worse, Bob’s unstable ex-girlfriend, now employed by one of London’s major investment banks, is back on the inside, and she’s brought her blood-hungry team along with her…
The previous book, the Apocalypse Codex, struck me at the time as being a bit of a middle-chapter laying in a lot of stuff that needed doing before it could be applied to book-yet-to-come. And indeed, that seems to be the case: Bob’s marital tensions, his new ally Pete and new higher-up Lockhart were all introduced in the last book and most of the payoff is to be found in the Rhesus Chart.
And it seemed at first that the Rhesus Chart wasn’t going to get a whole lot further. For one thing, the number of times Stross has used the ‘internal threat’ storyline (four if you count the novellas) is getting a little wearisome. For another thing, while the intricacies of the previous books are part of the reason I have re-read them many times, I feel like this one has been bulked out with lots of ‘let’s recap’ conversations, to the point I can’t get lost because I’m being whacked around the head with the all the important points on a regular basis, as well as the personal drama that Bob contends with as his ex returns to the Laundry fold (see what I did there?) which doesn’t really seem to pay off, at least not yet. I’m also starting to detect what seems like the odd inconsistency: it sometimes seems like the nature of the Laundry org chart mutates every book, as do some of the rules and terminology of the organization, and Bob’s former manager, Andy (with whom he’s now on equal terms) seems to have lost several IQ points since last I saw him.
From a storytelling standpoint, the sense of creepiness-out-of-sight which is, I think, a key factor of Cosmic Horror, has been losing its efficacy a little since the last book since, although the remained in shadow from our perspetive, the villains and characters outside of Bob’s immediate circle have been getting chapters from their perspective a lot more. It’s been an odd change and one which is, to me, removing the creepiness that gave the books a lot of their punch.
That said, I’m enjoying Bob’s character development: as the stakes to Bob, personally, have gone up, he’s gotten a lot more focused. The humour has been dialling down slowly since the Fuller Memorandum, and it’s done so at a pace entirely appropriate to the rising stakes. The twist ending of this book, and the personal cost to Bob and his wife Mo, have done a great job of getting me excited for the next round. Bob’s changing perspective has been interesting as he advances up the ladder has been fascinating, and increases the foreboding for when CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN kicks off properly. The power play happening behind the scenes in the Laundry increases the sense of insignificance, and the cost has ramped up the tension for things to get really hairy – or tentacle-y – down the line.
While it’s not laugh-out-loud funny any more, the confluence of business and civil service procedure and supernatural weirdness continues to amuse – I particularly like the vampire team brainstorming sessions. All things considered, apart from some pop-culture references, including to Bob’s American counterpart, Harry Dresden, surprisingly little hay is made of all the vampire-related content, but it’s a geeky good time regardless.
So I’m seriously excited for how things are going. The maintenance of that excitement will be that the next book makes something of the various threads set up or spun through this book. Another small battle laying groundwork for the big showdown is, I think, going to be one too many and it will start feeling a bit workaday. But Stross has done well so far, so let us wait and see.
Just don’t sit with your back to any dimensional portals.