Green Sky at Night, Hacker’s Delight: The Function of Tropes in The Laundry Files

The Atrocity Archives was initially published in 2004, meaning Charles Stross’s Laundry Files series has been going strong for thirteen years. Currently consisting of eight novels and a handful of spinoff novellas and short stories, the series has maintained a freshness that is often lacking in long-running properties—and that is largely due to Stross’s tongue-in-cheek critical appropriation of common genre tropes as fodder for the novels.

Speculative fiction is without fail a referential genre: concerned with the past and future, of course, but also with the sly nudge and wink of one “insider” to another. That tendency is regularly uncritical or self-involved, but with his deliberate, sometimes-savage usage of tropes in the Laundry Files, Stross manipulates and expands the function of the intertextual reference for an action oriented series. The result is a delightful medley of clever commentary and engaging plot that never fails to keep me interested on all fronts.

The two genres that most inform the Laundry Files novels are, rather obviously, Lovecraftian cosmic horror and the spy thriller. Stross takes his appreciation for these genres, as well as his criticisms, and embeds them as the skeleton of the story. Without these copious intertexts, the novels themselves could not exist. Despite this reliance, however, they also stand solid on their own. Stross rises past the nudge-and-wink school of reference—which expects an audience to appreciate a work solely based on knowledge/quoting of past material—and creates something unique in the process. These are “Lovecraftian spy thrillers,” but they’re also aggressively contemporary treatises that stand against nihilism and in support of communal resistance, support, and human will.

There’s a lot going on here, to be blunt. It’s not just fun games with text—though as a critic, I’m a sucker for that regardless—it’s fun games with text that have something to say. The reader can get their kicks from the intellectual tease of references and commentary on tropes while simultaneously engaging with a socially conscious universe and a fast-paced, dangerous tangle of intrigue and action.

This complexity comes across most via two forms of intertextual play that range over the course of the series: pastiche and reinterpretation. Stross has been quite direct about the usage of pastiche in the first four novels in interviews and discussions, going so far as to note the influences present in each text. The Atrocity Archives is an homage to Len Deighton; The Jennifer Morgue riffs on Ian Flemming’s Bond novels; The Fuller Memorandum is cousin to Anthony Price’s spy fiction; The Apocalypse Codex remixes the style of Peter O’Donnell. The use of textual pastiche—the sly quoting and occasional send-up of styles, structures, and motifs—gives each of the first four novels a specific and individual feel. Even if one isn’t familiar with the source text Stross is referencing, the sense of play and conversation within genre is hard to miss.

It’s also the reason, after the series settled four books in, that the use of pastiche stopped functioning as-needed for the development of the characters. After the increasingly grim occurrences of the first four books, the goofy, hapless Bob Howard of The Atrocity Archives is no longer the Bob Howard of the text. The events of his narrative have changed him and the narrative itself has become more serious as well. To continue with pastiche as the primary driver of the series would have been to sacrifice its increasing emotional depth for the sake of play and, luckily, Stross doesn’t do so.

Instead, he turns with more intention to the second form of reference (and deconstruction) in the series: self-aware, critical reinterpretation of familiar genre tropes that, at the same time, has a hell of a lot of fun employing those tropes in an honest fashion. It’s a delicate balancing act, turning a trope on its head without losing the sense of affection that drives the whole project in the first place. Stross does this with thematic structures, such as the gendered expectations of his source materials from Lovecraft to Flemming. He also does it with common figures (vampires in The Rhesus Chart, superheroes in The Annihilation Score, elves in The Nightmare Stacks) or plots (the space Nazis in The Atrocity Archives, or the espionage thriller backbone of The Delirium Brief).

The thematic arguments present in these books are something I have discussed in several past reviews; suffice to say, I appreciate Stross’s efforts in taking a source material with sexist and racist implications as his jumping-off point and making a concentrated effort to revise and correct those tendencies (often explicitly). Frankly, it’s just pleasurable to read books with the spookiness of Lovecraft and the intrigue of a spy thriller that are aware of and commenting on the flaws present in those genres. It’s a breath of fresh air. As a direct example, one of the books in the series, The Annihilation Score, is actually narrated by Mo O’Brien. Bob is her husband, so we’ve encountered her quite a bit through the previous novels, but she shines in her stand-alone with a thoughtful and nuanced portrayal of a woman attempting to navigate the same world we’ve seen to date only through the point of view of a man.

The concern with constructing a thematic argument carries over, naturally, into Stross’s tackling of oft-reused genre figures—vampires, elves, and fish-people, for example—and common plots. In The Annihilation Score, Stross acknowledges the experience of middle-age for women in a sexist culture: Mo develops a superpower, and it’s to amplify the way that people ignore her as she has passed the age of youthful beauty that our culture worships to the exclusion of the majority of women. The trope itself—superpowers!—doubles as part of the thematic argument. This occurs time and time again in the course of the series: when it comes to plot, for example in The Jennifer Morgue, Bob believes he is the James Bond figure for a long portion of the text; however, it turns out that he’s just the window dressing and a woman is the espionage specialist. This reversal turns the expected plot on its head, and in doing so, comments on the expectations of the spy fiction genre when it comes to gender.

The application of hard science to the ephemeral fantastic is another go-to method in Stross’s deconstruction of these genre tropes. It also allows the justification, in-universe, to bring all or any of the creatures he chooses onto the field. After all, if myths are actually quite terribly real and informed by actual science, why not write in a monstrous version of the “unicorn” as the truth behind the stories? This application of science to the fantastic has the powerful effect of allowing Stross to introduce the trope he’s going to deconstruct while simultaneously giving him the narrative tools to do so. It’s even possible to deliver the commentary directly through a character’s observation, as happens quite a bit in The Rhesus Chart, given that vampires have themselves enacted magic to make people believe they’re not real within the Laundry. The reinterpretation itself is therefore both a deconstruction and an argument, while also being a fun new take on a familiar figure.

Overall, the sense of humor in these novels is dependent on the use of tropes—but so, frequently, is the sense of horror. While someone unfamiliar with a single one of the references or materials Stross uses throughout the series would still be able to take pleasure in the plot and characters, for a long-time reader of genre fiction, these books are a twofold pleasure. They’re damn good on their own, but they also contain a crunchy, clever, constant stream of commentary on the genre itself—one that both welcomes the insider to share in the nudging, but also pokes at their accepted ideas and concepts in the same breath.

The deeply self-aware nature of these novels contributes a great deal to their realism, their approachability, and their emotional effect on the reader once the humor disappears and it’s all bleak truth as far as the mind can perceive. Plus, if you’re a nerd for books and texts and prose-as-a-game, you’re going to have a fantastic time picking up all of Stross’s references and criticisms of his material. It’s one of the major factors that keeps bringing me to this series over and over again, for sure.

Books 1-7 of the Laundry Files are published by Ace Books.
Book 8, The Delirium Brief, is available July 11th from Tor.com Publishing.
Equoid,” a novella set in the Laundry Files universe, is published by Tor.com.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.

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