Jun 24 2010 5:11pm

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 on a semi-biweekly basis and strongly identifies with traumatized programmers.

Joshua Starr
1. JStarr
L-O-V-E-D this book.

Bob & the JesusPhone cracked me up massively. There's a lot of other really funny stuff in the books, but I remember being unable to stop giggling there.

I love Mo as a character. I love Bob as a character. They're both really likable, and admirable in a realistic sort of way. And neither is anything close to perfect.

Yeah, Angleton is a badass.

Also, this book has a really awesome first two pages - if the Lovecraft mythos does anything at all for you, you'll probably like them.

I actually preferred this book to The Jennifer Morgue, which just felt odd/off/too silly in several places. Don't recall feeling like this one ever bogged down. But I'm willing to believe it may have, and I skimmed to get back to the good stuff : )
David Goldfarb
2. David_Goldfarb
I agree with JStarr that this one felt more even and flowed better than The Jennifer Morgue.

Reader's of Stross's LiveJournal know that he's just sent off the manuscript of Rule 34, the sequel to Halting State, and is now getting stuck in on the next Laundry book, The Apocalypse Codex.
Charlie Stross
3. cstross
There is going to be a next book, right, Mr. Stross? Bob is going to be okay, long-term, right?

There is going to be a next book (I'm, er, actually taking a screen break from writing it right now).

I do not promise that Bob is going to be okay. The universe is getting darker ...

And the Thing in Hangar 12B hasn't flown yet.

(Actually, it's not going to get a chance to fly in "The Apocalypse Codex" either. So that's me down for at least a fifth novel ...)
Arachne Jericho
4. arachnejericho
JStarr, JesusPhone had me giggling out loud whenever it showed up. (I am all the more amused because, like Bob, I had sworn I'd never get one. Then I walked into an Apple store...

David Goldfarb, I agree with both you and JStarr that The Jennifer Morgue is choppier than The Fuller Memorandum, but I'm the type of person who loves crazy. Morgue was taking the series part way in a new direction, so I made allowances. Plus I really liked The Black Chamber and have always had a squishy spot in my heart for fishy folk.

cstross, thank you for the answer/tease! I see we may have to add an entry under "Break the Cutie" on TVtropes if this keeps up. Especially of the world keeps getting darker for another two books.

And somehow in all the excitement of the last act of the book, I forgot about that fateful hangar!
Alex L
5. Quercus
The pacing might be due to TFM being a nod to Anthony Price. Anthony Price's thrillers follow this pattern, a slow beginning as the story starts with something odd in the archives, leading on to more directly alarming and current revelations and a burst of violence at the end (and the end is not a neat fix, or a win, but a temporary holding of the line at best).

I also made the mistake of reading TFM in one go late at night, and had to read a bit of Jeeves & Wooster as an antidote to the existential bleakness. The underlying initial premise (Goverment bureacracy v the Great Old Ones) starts out humorous but the book doesn't flinch from following through on the very dark outcomes that logically follow. If the universe is getting darker as promised above, Bob is going to have some seriously unfun times...
Arachne Jericho
6. arachnejericho

Ah, the Price nod would explain it, then.

Poor Bob. Although with my own peculiar history, I identify even more with a traumatized Bob.
Michael Turyn
7. Michael Turyn
Well, Jennifer Morgue was a riff off of a much lighter (and in its movie incarnation) even funny sort of book; I haven't read Price, but the odds are now increased that I would. Now a Laundry book (I dislike "The Laundry Files", sounds like Ted from Marketing's bright idea to make it sound very very vaguely like X-Files) jumping off from Alan Furst would be something...time travel might be necessary, as the Furst World is locked in a permanent 1934-1945 loop.

I didn't mind the introspection one bit. Only two beefs, as if Charlie cared: 1.) really, did you think anyone could miss the top human villain?, and 2.) I would have preferred still having absolutely _no_ idea who/what Angleton were.

(Incidentally, the next time you have to swear loudly and in public, I suggest "James JEEZUS Angleton", and no, that's not a clue to what we find out about the Laundry's Angleton---in this book, at least---but a mispronunciation of his name-sake's full name in all its metric glory.)
x x
8. xxxxx
I thought this was one of Charles' weaker books... Jennifer Morgue is fun to read, like watching a Bond movie (of course), Atrocity archives is dark and great fantasy. Though I still like the real darkness posed by FM's premise, honestly, I think the pre-amble of the book is brilliant, the book drags a little bit in parts (visiting the library) and the showdown doesnt really deliver.
Has it to do that Charles is maybe one of those writers who have great ideas but sometimes find it hard to put them in an equally exciting plot? I find this with Accelerando or Glasshouse too... Don't get me wrong, think he is still outstanding, and his imaginativeness makes up for a lot, but I sometimes have to 'work' to keep with the story... never with the settings and ideas though...
x x
9. xxxxx
@ Michael Turyn: you are mentioning a 'movie incarnation' of Jennifer Morgue. How is it called, by who was it made? Really interested in it, but can't seem to find anything about it. Or did I misunderstand...
cheers m
Paul Andinach
10. anobium
Michael Turyn wrote: Jennifer Morgue was a riff off of a much lighter (and in its movie incarnation) even funny sort of book

damon1347 wrote: you are mentioning a 'movie incarnation' of Jennifer Morgue. How is it called, by who was it made?

I don't suppose you're still here after all this time, but for the record and for anybody else who might have the same question: There isn't a movie incarnation of The Jennifer Morgue, but instead of the book that TJM was riffing off.

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