Review: Charles Stross’ The Fuller Memorandum

“This is the story of how I lost my atheism, and why I wish I could regain it. This is the story of the people who lost their lives in an alien desert bathed by the hideous radiance of a dead sun, and the love that was lost and the terror that wakes me up in a cold sweat about once a week, clawing at the sheets with cramping fingers and drool on my chin. It’s why Mo and I aren’t living together right now, why my right arm doesn’t work properly, and I’m toiling late into the night, trying to bury the smoking wreckage of my life beneath a heap of work.”

—Bob Howard, The Fuller Memorandum

You could sum up Charles Stross’ The Laundry Files series as “Dilbert meets Cthulhu,” but while I’ve never been much of a fan of Dilbert (though Scott Adams’ strips are funny and often too apt), I am a total fan of Bob Howard. It’s not just that I identify with him, a former young, talented hacker who would have been at home in Linux/BSD open source projects, and who’s now been co-opted into The System. It’s not just that I sympathize and sometimes cringe with his more normal day-to-day trials and tribulations, which any office worker slaving away in a cubicle would be familiar with.

It’s because his job is to kick the ass of supernatural threats to the entire world, and he does it from the worldview of a sarcastic, down-to-earth working stiff who happens to know about recursive algorithms, stack traces, and VMS. And those things—that ultra, deep-down tech nerdy knowledge—are actually useful for the exorcism of demons, the stopping of incursions of the Elder Gods, etc.

You know how mathematicians and physicists are in love with hard SF because it often pontificates about how their disciplines are actually the foundation of everything in the universe? And how often these dramas can play across a stage of academia?

The Laundry Files series is like that, except for engineers and the environment of the office. Spy fiction Cthulhu-punk pulp for those of us who’ve had to tinker with sendmail.

The Fuller Memorandum (Ace Books) is the third book in the series (chronologically, it comes after The Jennifer Morgue and before “Overtime”).

It both thrilled and disappointed me.

When the story of The Fuller Memorandum moves, it really moves—the objective stakes, i.e. the end of the world, are as high as ever, and the personal stakes are higher than ever before. This is the first book where Bob does not get through everything in one piece, and there’s a point where, irrevocably, you know that he’s fucked. It wouldn’t be The Laundry Files if Bob didn’t manage to turn out a Crowning Moment of Awesome, but here it’s pretty much a Crowning Moment of Pyrrhic (But Still Awesome) Victory. It gets intense, man. These parts are fully what I expect out of a book in the series.

However, when the story becomes reflective, everything bogs down to a crawl. It’s as if the plot only has two speeds: pedal to the metal with the mass raising of the dead, insane cultists, and Mo rocking away on the Violin That Kills Monsters; or Bob in the tube complaining that the air conditioning doesn’t work for, I don’t know, six pages or so. While there is interesting world-building that goes on during some of these reflective passages—after all, Bob’s world is a parallel universe where the Elder Gods are a direct threat, if unknown by the general populace—it often brings the plot to a standstill. 

It’s a strange dichotomy: the action parts of the plot are more powerful, more frenetic, more moving, than has appeared in the series before; but at the same time, the world-building parts and quite a bit of Bob’s internal monologue are more waterlogged than ever before. And considering The Laundry Files is a series where, in the previous book, a Powerpoint presentation erupted in but one page into a full-fledged attack by soul-eating monsters, I find the latter disappointing.

Fortunately, the dead stops become less frequent as the plot progresses, after which it’s all good, solid Laundry. Despite a couple of big mistakes (I would actually call them Idiot Ball worthy moments), when Bob finds himself in dire straits, we find out what he’s made of. And I like what he’s made of, which is… well, let’s just say that I don’t ever want to piss him off.

The Fuller Memorandum is not a perfect book, but there are more things I like than dislike about it. It’s definitely not a sequel that skulks in the shadows of its predecessors, trying to repeat what was done before; it’s braver, and branches out into more unfamiliar territory. And fails a little bit, but manages to get pounding on shore in the end.

Other things I liked about this latest in the Laundry Files:

  • We find out more about Angleton. Deeply Scary Sorcerer? Ah, it goes rather farther than that. It’s an awesome backstory, but I wonder how progressive the guy is after so many years. Also, foreshadowing.

  • Mo has a more active role earlier on in the story. This runs into an issue that all first-person narratives do, which is how to incorporate non-narrator point-of-view passages, and it’s done adequately and more often here.

  • JesusPhone. Actually, this is for anybody who owns a JesusPhone. We find out that there is, indeed, an App For That. An entire suite of apps.

  • We meet operatives from The Thirteenth Directorate, the Russian version of The Laundry. Unfortunately, we don’t get to run into the Black Chamber again (go USA!) but they already played heavy hands in the first two books.

  • Who the Big Bad is.

  • The Violin That Kills Monsters. The End.

For people new to The Laundry Files, The Fuller Memorandum is definitely not a jumping-on point. I suggest starting out with The Atrocity Archives.

For fans of the series, you should get this book. Seriously good stuff, if slow in parts. And damn. Angleton. Just damn.

I can’t wait for the next book in this series. Um. There is going to be a next book, right, Mr. Stross? Bob is going to be okay, long-term, right? Mr. Stross?

*hugs her poor Bob Howard*


Arachne Jericho writes about science fiction and fantasy, and other topics determined by 1d20, at Spontaneous ∂erivation. She also thinks waaay too much about Sherlock Holmes. She reviews at Tor.com on a semi-biweekly basis and strongly identifies with traumatized programmers.

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