An Exercise in Governmental Restructuring: The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross

Another eagerly-awaited installment in Charles Stross’s Laundry Files, The Delirium Brief returns us to Bob Howard’s point of view in a direct continuation of the events of The Nightmare Stacks. With the previously-clandestine Laundry, the British occult secret services, made public due to the invasion of a nasty species of elves, Bob and our familiar cast of characters must take on a unique threat: governmental interference and restructuring.

Faced with the lethal consequences of poor government intervention on their institution, the agents of the Laundry must make a drastic decision—to go rogue and consider “the truly unthinkable: a coup against the British government itself,” as the flap copy says. Other pieces on the board are also moving, including a servant of the Sleeper in the Pyramid previously presumed dead and the American equivalent agency going off the reservation. Howard also has his personal life to contend with, given that he’s become the Eater of Souls and his estranged wife Mo has suffered a great deal of field trauma of her own.

If you’ve read one of the previous reviews I’ve written of the novels in this series, you’re aware that I’m a fan. It’s one of the few ongoing stories I’ve kept track of for years, and one of fewer still that I await releases for with chewed nails. The mixture of science and the fantastic in these books is perfect. The smart and often wickedly incisive commentary on genre tropes, particularly those related to gender, is another reason to come back over and over again. Given that the genres in question—the spy or police procedural novel, Lovecraftian cosmic horror, science fiction—have an absolute mountain of questionable traditions of representation, Stross is frequently walking a delicate line between commentary and reference that makes these novels crunchy food for thought.

The Delirium Brief is one of the heftier books in the series, as it’s juggling several significant large-scale plotlines at once. The complex intermarriage of espionage with the strange horror of government bureaucracy takes time to unravel for the reader, with primary actors ranging from the American agency and the Reverend Raymond Schiller to the current British government itself. The punches are coming from all sides and Bob has to assist the skeleton crew of rogue Laundry assets with a survival-stage mission to keep creatures from beyond time from suborning the government.

In short: a whole hell of a lot of things are happening simultaneously in this book, and the reader would be well advised to pay close attention. It’s tempting to race through and find out what happens—I speak from experience, here—but Stross is constructing a delicate web of consequences, lies, and doomsday alliances here. He is careful to explain and occasionally repeat some details; the work is well done, certainly. It is a far cry from the straightforward “space Nazis!” plot of the long-past Atrocity Archives, though. The closer the end of times come for humanity, the less pleasant and the more hideous the complications in Bob Howard’s life become—and not just his life, but also the lives of our other occasional protagonists, such as Mo.

The plot kept me on my toes and was great fun overall. The helplessness of being betrayed by uninformed bureaucracy, particularly for an American readership at the moment, creates a sense of bear-trap-arm-chewing anxiety. Kudos to Stross for that. I’m fairly sure that The Delirium Brief was actually giving me real panic as I read it and muttered, “no, no, that’s so catastrophically short-sighted of them, how—” and then remembering how political life works and stewing quietly. Also, the terror of being a person who perceives himself to be average but is no longer average—is in fact one of very few DSS-level individuals in the world, some of whom are not on the side of the angels—is real, and Bob Howard is deeply sympathetic as a result.

The return of past characters also rewards the dedicated reader and expands heavily on previously assumed truths. Iris, in particular, was a shock; more so was the discovery that the higher offices, such as the Senior Auditor, were aware of her actions and let her rot for six years in an eldritch prison regardless. Raymond Schiller, who fills me with a personal disgust, also returns from the place beyond spacetime where he had previously been assumed dead—worse than ever, and more motivated by the horrorshow of repression and Baptist hellfire leanings that made him up before as well.

Which brings me to the part of the novel that gave me some pause, though I understand it in critical terms: the specific and sexual nature of the parasitic infestation Schiller is spreading. It’s Lovecraftian horror and it’s structured out of Schiller’s own repression and hatefulness, so of course it’s sexual, and of course it’s horrifying. The characters in the novel fully acknowledge it as such and the prose makes no bones about how damn gross it is. I had the crawling horrors as I was intended to. The one misstep that I’m still unsure of, in terms of how it was handled, was in the approach to sex workers as chosen victims. Alternatively, given that it’s about the deeply corruptible (and already-corrupt) nature of the old boy’s club of government, this also makes a hell of a lot of sense and is not intended to be an endorsement.

Given Stross’s credit in the bank on clever and often provocative commentary, as well as his careful writing of women’s viewpoints—I’d reference Mo’s novel in this series, in specific—I’m willing to put it to the side of “I see the point, but am uncomfortable with the approach.” It is, for certain, a part of the genre, and the commentary is very clear in those terms. So it’s understandable; it quite reminds me of the physical sensations of fright provoked by watching Alien for the first time. At the same time, the graphic sexual body horror might be hard to get through for some readers, so it seemed important to note in a review.

As a whole, though, this book kept me on edge and anxious and engaged. I appreciated the return to Bob’s point of view, as well as the contrast between the Bob of our earlier installments and the current one: a quieter, more damaged person, attempting to retain his humanity despite all forces to the contrary. And, as we learn at the close, he might be having to assist Mo with that process as well—since she shouldn’t have survived what she survives in the end if she were still truly a human being with no extras. I was also made quite frantic by the release of the Mandate and the decision by the SA to throw in their hats with a lesser evil to avoid total destruction. It’s terrifying, as it should be, and I’m dying to know what will happen next. It seems grim. Stross has done it again, and fans of the series will appreciate this installment.

The Delirium Brief is available from Tor.com Publishing.

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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