In a previous post on Charles Stross’s Laundry Files series, I noted that one of the strengths of the books is that they are “aggressively contemporary treatises that stand against nihilism and in support of communal resistance, support, and human will.” By this I mean that the series is grounded in our political and cultural moment—for example, smartphones and CCTV and the rise of right-wing extremism across the globe—but also ups the ante exponentially in its addition of cosmic, incomprehensible threats that cross dimensions and realities to devour us all.
In the face of this scale of destruction, with an unwitting populace on one hand and a gridlocked government on the other, the protagonists must reject defeatist beliefs and band together to steal their victories, Pyrrhic though they might sometimes be. Because, in truth, nihilism is the creeping force that underlies the horror of the stars coming aligned in the Laundry Files universe. While the various color-coded case plans for different potential apocalypses are monstrous enough on their lonesome, the rejection of principle and ethics on the basis that it’s all meaningless anyway is the true danger.
The protagonists of the series, in particular Bob Howard, are all in explicit, constant battle with the tendency toward nihilism that begins to seem almost natural in a world very likely doomed to a gruesome end at the appendages of creatures from beyond spacetime. The existence of cultists—humans with various loyalties to creatures such as the Sleeper in the Pyramid—is the ultimate expression of this encroaching nihilism: while some are seeking power of their own, others are dedicated to the collapse of humanity under the weight of itself. Nihilism twists the apathy of “it’s inevitable, might as well stop trying” into “it’s inevitable, might as well join in.” In several of the novels, cultists themselves are the cause of the horror and trauma; while well-meaning but dumb people accidentally do bad math (a youthful Bob Howard, for one) and pull holes in reality, the danger is far greater with the ones who do it on purpose.
The function of the metaphor, then, is twofold: nihilism and its supporters, such as the cultists, provide antagonists that are more visible than the ancient and unspeakable horrors they represent. The argument that Stross makes, though, in resisting them—that’s the interesting bit. It would be easy to use cultist as some narratives use Nazis (bonus points to The Atrocity Archives for intentionally turning this trope sideways): a faceless and inexplicable evil in humanity that is purely monstrous. However, this lets the real danger off the hook—these people in our real world aren’t actual monsters, they’re people who have decided to do monstrous things, and nihilism undergirds some of those decision. Stross isn’t giving us easy villains; it would be easy to do, but instead, he’s making the reader consider what makes someone do horrible things.
(Spoilers ahead for the series.)
Realism and the occasional bout of cynicism nonetheless abound in this universe, which adds dimension to the active resistance to nihilism. Bob and Mo, for example, refuse to have a child together due to the almost unavoidable certainty that the world the child would be born into has no future. At the close of The Delirium Brief, the senior auditor has concocted a plan to release a handful of captured enemies as the lesser of two evils and then executed it. The close of the novel involves Bob finding out that Mo is likely no longer human either and crossing the grounds of the building they’ve just reconned to join the Black Pharaoh’s court. Desperation makes for odd bedfellows—and so, too, does cynicism.
This ending appears to be a pivot point, in some sense, for the remaining idealism in the text: the idea that humans alone could salvage their world and turn back the tide of encroaching horror. While The Nightmare Stacks had its share of sudden brutality and the explosion of conflict into the civilian sector, The Delirium Brief goes deep into government for the scarier side of things changing. There was a shift at the fourth book, to a less comedic and more critical standpoint on politics and survival. At this, the eighth book, it seems there’s been another shift as the characters struggle to find a method for survival of the species—even if that involves losing one’s humanity in the service.
And yet: even with this powerful and terrible shift in alliances, the overthrow of the government and the reinstatement of the Laundry, there is not a sense that our protagonists have given in to the crushing weight of their dread. Neither Bob nor Mo, nor the fresh-faced young agents like Alex, have given up. No one has decided that it’s worthless to resist and that the best options are to either intentionally speed the process or sit back and sip wine watching it happen. Even if it means compromising one’s integrity, the agents of the Laundry are willing to do so to prevent the coming apocalypse—or to make it possible for at least some of us to survive it intact.
The elves, as a culture, couldn’t handle it. However, the implication of the novels is that perhaps humans might be able to, if we’re united and cognizant of our weaknesses together. As the plot darkens—the end of the world approaching exponentially fast—I’ll be interested to see how the handling of nihilism shifts or evolves as well. There’s an awesome sort of power in the idea of resistance to the end, in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, because there’s still some sliver of hope left. And, barring even hope, refusal: we’re going to go down swinging, and it won’t be clean, but we won’t give up.
Books 1-7 of the Laundry Files are published by Ace Books.
Book 8, The Delirium Brief, is available now from Tor.com Publishing.
Top image: cover art from the UK edition of The Nightmare Stacks.
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.