Like a Hellboy Side-Story, But With More Math and Questionable Female Characters – A Review of The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross

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I’ve had an enormous soft spot for Mike Mignola’s Hellboy series ever since Hope introduced it to me some years ago. As far as comics and graphic novels go, it’s the only one I try to keep up with, mostly because it’s relatively easy to keep up with: unlike the franchises of Marvel and DC, Hellboy has spawned only a handful of related comic books and story arcs, and it’s easier to determine which ones are considered part of the “main” plot, and which may be safely ignored or picked up a later date.

The first story arc for the Hellboy series, the four-issue Seed of Destruction, pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the series, as well as lays down the beginning of plots and concepts that become important further down the line, mostly in the series B.P.R.D. It mixes elements from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos with the more sensational stories of the Ahnenerbe, a branch of the Nazi government dedicated to historical and archaeological research, though they were also involved with the horrific medical research conducted at the concentration camps. Much of this, however, is entangled with rumours that the Ahnenerbe was involved in occult research, which of course makes it perfect fodder for conspiracy theorists and fiction writers alike. And just like Mike Mignola, Charles Stross plays with those same connections for his novel The Atrocity Archives, the first book in his Laundry Files series.

The Atrocity Archives begins with the protagonist, Bob Howard, crouched behind a bush, in the rain, waiting for an office building to close down. This isn’t a place he wants to be (not that any sane person wants to be crouching behind a bush in the rain, as he points out), but he has to be here. He has a job to do, after all: steal and delete a file on one of the computers in the office building. This might seem like a small thing, but the paper contains some very, very dangerous information: the beginnings of a mathematical theorem that, if pursued to its end and applied correctly, can create a rip between universes and bring unnameable horrors into our universe. And Bob gets to do this job because he works for a branch of the British government called the Laundry, which prevents aforementioned unnameable horrors from crossing over and making everyone’s day even worse than it already is.

The only problem is this: Bob is not a field agent. His work for the Laundry is primarily to do with technical support, and he wants to become a field agent because he thinks it will be less boring than his desk job. Unfortunately, he quickly discovers that the life of a Laundry field agent is not all fun and games, and he gets caught up in trying to stop a scheme that has its roots in the Second World War, and the shadowy activities of Nazi Germany’s Ahnenerbe.

The most notable thing about this novel is its world building. As a fan of urban fantasy I’m familiar with the ways writers can spin what most readers understand as “reality” and make it into something unique and fun, but Stross’s take on reality wasn’t something I’d encountered until I picked up The Atrocity Archives. In the world of The Laundry Files, everything that Lovecraft ever wrote about—the Elder Gods, tentacled horrors, and all the rest—are real, and it’s up to the Laundry and other organisations similar to it around the world to make sure that those horrors never impinge upon the normal world. Unfortunately, those entities are also powerful, and humans like using power, however they can get it. This means that the Laundry does occasionally play with those mysterious entities, under carefully controlled circumstances—or as controlled as they can manage it, because when one is playing with powers from the vasty deep, there’s always the chance something will go very, very wrong.

I will probably be the last person to say I am a purist when it comes to the Cthulhu Mythos—in fact, I like it when people take it apart and use it to their own ends. After all, Lovecraft was open to all sorts of collaboration when it came to that particular aspect of his work: enough that it’s become practically tradition amongst writers of weird horror to do as they please with the Mythos. However, there is one aspect of the Mythos that I refuse to compromise on, no matter who is writing and how they are using it: that there is no true way to actually kill any entities from the Mythos once they have been unleashed, especially the Elder Gods. The only thing one can do is take desperate measures to stop them, and then send them back where they came from. I might be amenable to killing, say, a shoggoth, but only if it came at sufficient sacrifice, because even shoggoths are deadly dangerous and difficult to suppress.

At any rate, my point is this: one doesn’t mess with these powers unless one is ready and willing to make enormous sacrifices to get them contained, and one most certainly does not call up any Elder Gods unless one is willing to sacrifice the entire universe. The whole point of Lovecraft’s writing, after all, is that these entities don’t care one whit about our universe and our puny human lives, and could snuff us all out as easily as sneeze. And when one is playing with powers as enormous as those, one does not take them lightly unless one is absolutely insane, has absolutely nothing left to lose, or is fairly sure one can manage both the expected and unexpected results.

Fortunately, this is the stand that Stross takes in The Atrocity Archives, and, I assume, in The Laundry Files as a whole. The only thing different is that, in order to call upon these powers, one must have a knowledge of higher mathematics and computer programming, as well as a working understanding of quantum physics. How this applies to the eldritch horrors that populate the Cthulhu Mythos is made clear in the book itself, but either way, it is knowledge that Bob Howard has, if not in spades, then at least enough of it to get himself in trouble, and, hopefully, out of it.

Now, on the surface, all of this is remarkably fun, even if a lot of the deeper math and programming concepts can go over my head unless I take the time to look them up (if they even exist in the first place: quite a few of the ones mentioned are made-up ones that exist solely in the novel’s reality). But there is also a lot of imagery that reminds me a lot—maybe too much—of Hellboy. It got to the point that I was actually imagining the Laundry as a somewhat-smaller, more tech-oriented branch of the BPRD, assigned to handle smaller tasks while the rest of the BPRD takes on the really big stuff. And this is, I think, somewhat problematic—or at least, to me it is.

See, when I embark on a new book, I don’t mind encountering references or overlaps with things I’ve read before: “intertextuality”, it’s called, and playing the intertextual game of figuring out references and nods and homages is one of the most fun things about reading, especially once one has read a lot. Urban fantasy as a genre leans somewhat-heavily on the notion of intertextuality, relying as it does on the reader’s familiarity with mythology and folklore to recognise characters and/or entities, and then appreciate what the writer has done in incorporating said characters and/or entities into the contemporary world. But there are times when one can take that game too far, and for me, I think The Atrocity Archives went a touch too far. Once I started half-expecting Kate Corrigan from the Hellboy and BPRD comics to show up, I knew something wasn’t quite right.

Of course, I’m sure some readers don’t mind this at all, and there are plenty others who won’t be seeing the same things I do because they haven’t read any of the Hellboy comics or its sister series. But for those readers who do mind, and who have read Hellboy, then this aspect of the novel might bother them somewhat.

I’m also not entirely comfortable with the way female characters are portrayed. There’s only a handful of them that are mentioned by name, and of those characters, one is the protagonist’s love interest, while three are portrayed negatively. Now, to be fair, none of this is, in and of itself, a problem: love interest or antagonist (or sometimes both) are roles many female characters have filled, and filled honourably. It only becomes questionable when those characters aren’t given any of the depth and well-roundedness any character deserves, and I’m afraid they aren’t given that in The Atrocity Archives.

Take, for example, the characters Mo and Mhari. Dominique “Mo” O’Brien has a Ph.D, and a very dangerous theory: what she calls “[a] calculus of belief, a theory for deriving confidence limits in statements of unsubstantiated faith”. To use Bob’s example: with her theory, she can “quantify the probability” of the existence of flying pigs. This theory is, of course, dangerous when one thinks how it can be used in this version of reality, where the wrong mathematical formula can call up Yog-Sothoth from the depths of the Mandelbrot set, and this makes Mo a target. Unfortunately, that’s all she is here: a target. She isn’t given a chance to stretch her intellectual muscles, not even offscreen, as it were (the novel is narrated from first-person perspective, so there’s plenty of things that happened that Bob didn’t see but learned about later on, hence the term “offscreen”). And this is extremely unfortunate, because I can imagine how her knowledge might be put to use in a whole host of scenarios, but none of that ever comes to pass, and the reader never gets a sense of why Mo deserves to have all that trouble happen to her. After all, she deliberately came to that theory; it was something she thought up herself, after much hard work and research (to say nothing of the prejudice she had to put up with because she’s a woman in a field that’s dominated by men), and she never once gets a chance to show off.

I’m the least comfortable with the way Mhari’s been written. There are plenty of words thrown about in reference to her, but I’m particularly uncomfortable with the phrase “manic-depressive psycho bitch from hell”, which comes out of Mo’s mouth, of all people’s, but either way there’s something just not right about the way she’s portrayed. I’m not saying a person can’t be what Mhari’s like—there are plenty of people like her out there, I’m sure, people who have done significant emotional damage to the people they’re in relationships with—but I’m just not comfortable with that being her entire characterisation. It’s mentioned, somewhat off-hand, that Mari works for the Laundry; if so, what kind of work does she do? Why is she never portrayed as such? Why is it that whenever she’s mentioned, it’s in the context of her relationship with Bob and her “unstable” personality? Some argument might be made that Bob actually knows nothing about what Mhari does, and since the novel’s told from first-person perspective he doesn’t have to think of her in that context, but that just says some very unflattering things about Bob as a person, and moreover, is at best a feeble excuse for Stross not doing a proper job as a writer in developing his female characters.

The real good thing this novel has going for it, though, is its plot. It doesn’t have as many twists and turns as I might like in a mystery, but it works fine as an adventure novel of sorts, not least because there’s a proper sense of danger. While I was certain Bob wasn’t going to die anytime soon, I didn’t feel the same for some of the other characters, and while some of them didn’t die, some of them did come very, very close to it. It’s rare that I read a novel wherein I’m not entirely sure of the survivability of specific characters, and I’m glad Stross can manage that sort of thing just fine. Some readers, however, might find the info dumps scattered throughout the course of the novel to be problematic, though I for my part don’t mind them in the least.

Overall, The Atrocity Archives is a fine light read: the plot chugs along at a relatively fine pace, though some readers might trip over info dumps that occur on a semi-regular basis throughout the course of the novel. However, some readers who are familiar with the Hellboy series might find themselves squinting sideways at some of the imagery in the novel, and readers who look for decent characterisation in their female characters may find themselves disappointed in the quality of female characters this novel has. Hopefully the latter doesn’t become a pattern, because if so, it’d be a dreadful waste of what would otherwise have been a pretty fun series.

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