Charlie Stross is one of the current Hot Authors in SF, but he’s been pretty uneven for me. I liked Iron Sunrise quite a bit, but thought the highly-regarded Accelerando was actually pretty bad, and I didn’t care much for The Hidden Family, the second volume in the Amber-with-Usenet-economics series. The cover copy of Glasshouse was enough to get me to put it down and look for something else.

So, he’s had a bad run of late. Still, when I heard there was a sequel to The Atrocity Archives, I knew I needed to get a copy, and made a special trip to Borders just to pick up a copy of The Jennifer Morgue. It made for a weid sort of thriller trilogy, coming on the heels of The Android’s Dream and the new Casino Royale movie, but it was just what I was looking for.

Bob Howard is an agent for the secret British intelligence organization known as “The Laundry,” which is dedicated to protecting humankind from all manner of eldritch horrors and squamous things from other dimensions that want to eat your soul. Of course, he’s not your typical James Bond secret agent, as you learn when Q section show up to outfit him:

“There’s a USB memory drive preloaded with a forensic intrusion kit hidden in each end of your dickey-bow, a WiFi finder on your key ring, a roll-up keyboard in your cummerbund, the pen’s got Bluetooth and doubles as a mouse, and there’s a miniaturized Tillinghast resonator in your left heel. You turn it on by twisting the heel through one-eighty degrees; turn it off the same way. Your other heel is just a heel: we were going to hide a Basilisk gun in it but some ass-hat in Export Controls vetoed our requisition because it was going overseas. Oh, and there’s this.” Brains reaches over to a briefcase on the bed and pulls out a businesslike nylon shoulder holster and a black automatic pistol. “Walther P99, 9mm caliber, fifteen-round magazine, silvercap hollow-points engraved with a demicyclic banishment circuit in ninety-nanometer Enochian.”

“Banishment rounds?” I ask hesitantly, then: “Hang on.” I hold up one hand: “I’m not cleared for carrying guns in the field.”

“We figured the exorcism payload means it’s covered by your occult weapons certification. If anyone asks, it’s just a gadget for installing exorcism glyphs at high speed.”

In this one, Bob finds himself acting out a James Bond plot in a surprisingly literal way. If you’re entertained by that excerpt, it’s fair to say that hilarity ensues. If that doesn’t make you crack a smile, avoid this book.

I’m not sure quite why I find this stuff so much more agreeable than Accelerando or the Amber knock-offs, because if I look closely, it suffers from most of the same stylistic tics that irritate me in those other books. Here, though, it all comes together beautifully, for a very silly and exceedingly geeky secret agent adventure story that really isn’t like anything else you’re likely to read.


  1. #1 Rich
    December 21, 2006

    Anybody intrigued by that excerpt who wants a longer taster might like to know that Stross’ excellent short story “A Colder War” is available for free online.

  2. #2 Josh
    December 21, 2006

    I’m not sure quite why I find this stuff so much more agreeable than Accelerando or the Amber knock-offs, because if I look closely, it suffers from most of the same stylistic tics that irritate me in those other books.

    I don’t know if it’s the reason for you, but one of the big differences I see between the Laundry books and Accelerando is that the Laundry actually has a character I care about. (I haven’t read the Amber knock-offs.) Plus, the Laundry books have a sense of humor.

  3. #3 agm
    December 21, 2006

    I see Stross has seen or was inspired by similar material to that which inspired Chrono Crusade. Beware — I enjoyed, but if you watch, skip the last episode. Seriously, you just don’t want to see most of it.

  4. #4 Peter Erwin
    December 22, 2006

    I haven’t read the Amber knock-offs.

    Ack. They’re not Amber knock-offs — certainly not the way Damien Broderick’s nearly unreadable Godplayers is.

    (What they remind me more of is the background to the old roleplaying game The Fantasy Trip, a very obscure first effort by Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games.)

    Just to confuse matters, I’ll mention that I like practically everything Stross has done: The Atrocity Archives and Accelerando, for example.

  5. #5 Brad Holden
    December 23, 2006

    The Hidden Family or whatever it is called was inspired by H. Beam Piper’s Paratime stories. Those had the same idea, people could slip from time stream to time stream but would land in the same geographical location. The most famous book was Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen.

    The Laundry Series of Stross’s is one of my favorites, and I think that the humor plays a huge part. My wife didn’t like Singularity Sky and hated the crosstime stuff, but devoured both Laundry books. I have to really hand it to Stross, he can write in a variety of settings with a variety of styles.

  6. #6 martyh
    December 26, 2006

    Hello, All,

    The online story “A Colder War” is *not* part of the Bob Howard/Laundry series, but is an earlier short story along a similar vein, but far more serious (and deadly); there is no humor at all in this shorter story. However, if you want to read a Bob Howard/Laundry story online, you can still read Charlie’s Hugo Award-winning novella, “Concrete Jungle,” that’s included as a bonus story at the end of THE ATROCITY ARCHIVES book. The story has been, and remains posted, online at the publisher’s site, Both a PDF and HTML version of the story is available for download; just scroll down a bit in the right frame.

    As editor of both of Charlie’s Laundry novels, I just wanted to take this opportunity to let you know that I appreciate your postivie feedback on these books/stories.

    Cheers, and all best,
    Marty Halpern

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