Great Games, Cold Wars, and The Coming Doom – A Review of The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross

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Many people have their own personal indicators that tell them whether or not what they’ve got on their hands is something really good. For some, it’s how much they smile while they’re reading something, or playing a video game, or watching a TV show or movie; for others, it’s whether or not they cry at the end; for yet others, it’s a combination of both. Others might have somewhat more unusual indicators: I know of at least one person who knows they are reading something good if, from time to time, they have to put down what they’re reading and walk around a little bit, muttering “Oh my God!” over and over again as they do so, before they can calm themselves down enough to sit down again and pick up where they’ve left off.

My indicator is, I would like to think, relatively normal: I smile. Smiling in public over a book is considered charming in most circles, and in private no one is going to see, so it hardly matters. This is, however, only a baseline: a book has to, at the very least, make me smile in order for me to think of it as a good book. If it escalates from there, to grinning, to giggling, to laughing, all the way to incoherent keysmashing on my liveblogging Twitter account and (metaphorical) screaming at all my friends to read the book right now on pain of losing my friendship, then it’s a very good book indeed.

So where does that leave The Fuller Memorandum, the third book in Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series? In a place somewhere between “pleasant surprise” and “give me more”, mostly, because I wasn’t quite expecting this series to become as good as it has, especially considering how problematic I found the first book. But I’m rather glad I stuck it out, because it’s been a while since I read anything that played so well with the Cthulhu Mythos, and The Fuller Memorandum has all the things I love about the Mythos, with wonderful extra bits thrown in.

The Fuller Memorandum is set six years after the events of The Jennifer Morgue. Bob and Mo are married, and appear to have settled down to their lives working for the Laundry, the United Kingdom’s defence ministry against all manner of dangerous and creepy entities that would like nothing more than to see humanity stamped out for good. Bob’s life as an applied computational demonologist hasn’t changed much, but Mo has become one of the Laundry’s most lethal assets, going from philosopher to what Bob calls a combat epistemologist, armed with a bone-white electric violin that gives everyone near it the willies, and for good reason.

For six years since their marriage, everything has been relatively normal—or at least, as normal as they can be, working for a government institution that is entirely aware of, and is preparing for, the ultimate apocalypse, codenamed CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN in the Laundry. But when a seemingly ordinary exorcism goes horrifically wrong for Bob; an assassin shows up on their doorstep after Mo comes back from a gruesome job in Amsterdam; and Angleton suddenly ups and disappears—all in the span of a few days—Bob realises things are about to get really, really bad: CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN bad.

The first notable thing about this novel is that it is the first one thus far in the series that really stands on its own in terms of its overall world building. The Atrocity Archive, the first book in the series, contained so many echoes of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy graphic novel series that it was hard not to keep seeing the characters from the graphic novel at the edges of my vision while reading the book. However, the second book The Jennifer Morgue took a step away from that and instead played with the tropes and narrative of James Bond (both books and movies) in a way that made the whole thing relatively fun to read, if one is familiar with the way the James Bond narrative tends to go.

But none of that is really an in-depth attempt to draw out the world as Stross imagines it to be. One is given a basic idea of the overall structure, but it’s obscured by references to other things (Nazis in the first book, James Bond in the second). It’s only in The Fuller Memorandum that Stross really lets the reader inhabit the world he imagined for the Laundry, and I have to say, it’s a pretty good world. I know, from reading the first two books, that this version of reality is interesting, but I haven’t really been given a chance to see it for what it is until now. Sure, that whole James Bond business in the second book was rather fun, but it really was time to get down to brass tacks, as it were, and I’m glad Stross finally does so in this third book.

One thing, in particular, that I deeply appreciate about Stross’ world building is that he adheres to one of Lovecraft’s tenets regarding the Elder Gods: that they are an unstoppable force, and nothing—no weapon, and certainly no Judeo-Christian god—is going to prevent them from coming through and destroying the world and our species once the time is right for their return. The problem I have with some writers who play in Lovecraft’s sandbox is that they assume that there is a just and moral god out there, and that invoking said god’s power will somehow save us all from the many-tentacled ones waiting to eat us all. Stross makes it very clear, right from the beginning of this novel, in fact, that in his world’s version of reality, there is no such thing, and anyone who says otherwise is ignorant, or lying. The whole appeal of the idea of the Elder Gods, at least to me, is that they are part of a universe that doesn’t care about a puny species that’s only existed for what, to them, is a mere eye blink of time, and there’s something so humbling about that idea that gets muddled (often to my annoyance) when one tries to wedge the idea of godly salvation in there.

So: the apocalypse is inevitable, and there’s nothing humanity can do but hope (albeit hope faintly) that it survives the coming storm. In the meantime, organisations like the Laundry try their best to make sure that the coming of the Elder Gods isn’t hastened, whether through accident or by design; unfortunately, there are many elements out there that want to do precisely the latter, for various reasons of their own. Some are individuals, but they’re rare: it’s hard to pull in even a shoggoth on one’s own, even if one has all the money in the world. No, to call in an Elder God, one needs organisational knowhow and logistics of the sort that can only be managed by large groups of people fanatically dedicated to a single goal and ideology. In other words, a cult: a trope that Lovecraft himself liked using, and one Stross introduces and uses in this novel, to great effect.

As for the characters, Bob hasn’t really changed much, except perhaps gotten a bit more sarcastic since the last time readers may have encountered him. It’s been six years since The Jennifer Morgue, after all, and he’s been through some very, very tough times since then. But at base, he’s still the slightly (all right, more than just “slightly”) bumbling, wise-cracking applied computational demonologist the reader remembers from the first two books, albeit with a bit more steel in his spine thanks to work experience. His familiarity will be a comfort to the reader, a familiar space to return to when the plot gets hairy—and it does, in a most spectacular manner, in this novel.

As for the other characters, they’re more interesting. Mo’s role is significantly expanded; it’s implied in the second novel that she’s become a weapon for the Laundry, and that status is made very clear in The Fuller Memorandum. She is, in essence, a weapon of last resort for the Laundry, sent in only when things get really, really bad—which, frankly speaking, was an utter delight to learn about. Stross is careful to depict the kind of toll Mo’s job has, though, on both her and on her husband. I appreciate that, by the way: Mo is unquestionably a badass, but there is a price for her being such, and yet it’s also true that her choosing to pay that price makes her a truly strong person—something that Bob points out often enough.

The true nature of her violin is also revealed in this novel, and as expected it’s a thoroughly spine-chilling story. I will also admit that, though it’s explicitly called an “Erich Zahn original” in the second book, that name didn’t really click in my head until I read this novel. This only means it’s been that long since I last curled up with Lovecraft’s eldritch delights, and I’m overdue for a reread.

Also revealed in this novel are Angleton’s origins. They’re intimately tied up with the rest of the plot, so I won’t go into them too deeply, but suffice to say that, on one hand, it was to be expected, and on the other hand, completely unexpected too. The sharp reader will not, however, be too surprised by the revelation when it finally comes, since it’s already hinted at pretty heavily in the early parts of the novel, and I’m sure they’ll pick up on it right away. Either way, this new information regarding Angleton also gives some vital information regarding the origins of the Laundry itself, and will, hopefully, be the launching pad of some interesting plot points further down the line.

As for the plot itself, there’s a marked improvement from how it was done in the last book. It rather feels like Stross has (finally) taken the trainer wheels off of himself and has come up with a rather fun story without having to resort to the framework of other stories that have gone before. Much as I liked the whole James Bond narrative of the second book, I’m much happier now that Stross is going off on his own path. To be sure, there are still quite a few references to other narrative tropes—not least the Cold War-themed spy thriller, Russian assassins and all. At the very least, it finally feels like Stross is coming into his own in this novel, and hopefully this trend will continue in other, later books.

Overall, The Fuller Memorandum is an excellent continuation of Stross’ series—in fact, it’s far better than the first two books. This is rather a rare occurrence in series, since the general rule is that books tend to get weaker the further along a series goes. Regardless, it’s still something I appreciate very much, especially since Stross has finally written a story that stands independent of any overt references to anything else, set firmly within the bounds of the world he’s created. To be sure, there are still many references to tropes from other media, but at the very least, it’s clear that Stross has made up his mind about his world, and isn’t going to go mucking about with all-too-obvious James Bond narratives. Some characters don’t really change, but others do, or at least are more clearly characterised than they were before, and Stross plays in Lovecraft’s sandbox in a way that doesn’t make me want to roll my eyes in annoyance. This novel makes it clear that Stross, as a writer of urban fantasy, has arrived, and the ride he promises is very interesting indeed.

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