Jumping Across the Pond and Pointing the (Metaphorical) Gun At Those Who Deserve It – A Review of The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross

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Like a lot of people of my generation, I’m not particularly religious. Although it says on all of my records that I’m Roman Catholic (and my records will continue to do so), I haven’t been a proper practicing Catholic since I was in high school (maybe even while I was in high school). I can do what my cousin calls “Catholic aerobics” (the sequence of standing, kneeling, and sitting that one does while attending Mass) without really having to think about it, and I can still muddle my way through the Rosary if I have to, but those are mostly ingrained reflex from years and years of studying in Catholic schools (though frankly speaking, there isn’t such a thing as a truly secular school in the Philippines).

What’s replaced it is…well, I’m not entirely certain what to label it. I still think there’s a higher power of some kind, so I’m not precisely atheist, but I’m hesitant to slap any names on that power, nor am I willing to place any kind of label on whatever beliefs I have about that power. I’m also not comfortable with someone else telling me what I should and shouldn’t believe in. This means, therefore, that organised religion is not for me.

Despite my own inclinations, though, I don’t think organised religion is a really bad thing, at least on the level of the average individual. A lot of people take comfort in it, in the structure it gives their lives, and I can’t blame them for that: the world’s a confusing place, and we all need some kind of structure to it, some more than others. I also know individuals who are sincere in their faith, and who, because of it, try to do good for others, and for the world—again, not a bad thing, since the world could us more good in it. It’s because of those people that I treat their religion with some modicum of respect: why I still do Catholic aerobics during Mass; why I still mumble my way through the Rosary when I have to; why I will dress according to the rules before I enter a mosque or a synagogue; and why I refuse to truck with the more extreme anti-theists out there. This respect has nothing to do with my belief in the religion itself, and everything to do with the decent people who believe in it.

However, I’m more than aware of how wrong organised religion can go, mostly because it involves people—fallible, broken, flawed people—trying to convince other, equally fallible, broken, and flawed people, that they, and only they, are in possession of some sort of infallible truth. And that is dangerous, because it’s a combination that is the flaw of every single organised religion out there, every single fundamentalist variation of those organised religions, and of every single cult that’s ever come into existence.

All of the above lies at the heart of The Apocalypse Codex, the fourth book in Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series: questions about religion, and power, and all wrong things people can do when they have both in their possession, along with lots and lots of money.

Set ten months after the events of The Fuller Memorandum, Bob Howard has had time (sort of) to get used to the new circumstances of his life, as well as to recover from the very traumatic events that happened in the last book. However, he’s only just had some time to breathe and recover before he’s hurled once more unto the breach, this time to investigate an American televangelist who has some strange doings in the United Kingdom, and even stranger doings in the United States. Working with two other agents who are not as firmly connected to the Laundry as he might like, Bob hops across the pond and heads to Colorado, there to find what dirty secrets the preacher is hiding—secrets that, it turns out, are far, far more deadly than anyone could ever have imagined.

Since The Fuller Memorandum, it’s clear that Stross has taken a different approach to writing his series. He’s making them more self-contained, in the sense that he’s less reliant on wholesale borrowing of familiar narrative frameworks to help tell his stories, choosing instead to explore the world he’s built, while throwing in a topical plot point to keep things more or less relevant. He does, however, still draw rather deeply from the well of popular culture, though he doesn’t do so in quite so heavy-handed a manner now.

The best examples of his borrowing (aside from the obvious Cthulhu Mythos material that pretty much forms the backbone of his series) in this novel are Penelope Hazard and her companion, Johnny McTavish. These two characters are introduced in The Apocalypse Codex as “freelance agents” who work with the External Affairs unit of the Laundry: basically, they’re the people the Laundry calls upon for the dirtiest of dirty jobs, the kind any self-respecting government agency doesn’t want sticking to itself—especially if the op is going to run in ostensibly “friendly” territory.

Though Penelope’s character can claim descent from a whole host of literary tropes, she strikes me more as a direct descendant of Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider video games: independently wealthy, extremely intelligent, and, despite her not-necessarily-legal methods, largely on the side of the angels. And though Lara doesn’t have a sidekick (unless the latest games have given her one; I haven’t played any of them yet), Johnny fills in that role remarkably well, though as the story goes along it becomes clear that he’s no ordinary sidekick. Their backstory together, though only implied in the novel, sounds deep enough and interesting enough that I rather wonder if Stross hasn’t considered writing a spinoff series for them and their Network—or at least, a few short stories or novellas.

Bob is, well, still Bob, and that’s just fine, though there are now some tweaks to his story that I’m not entirely sure I appreciate. Part of the reason why I like reading about Bob is that he isn’t some crazy-genius tech (like his pals Pinky and Brains), nor is he some Weapon of Last Resort secret-agent person with a metaphorical license to kill (like his wife Mo). Everyone around Bob is, generally speaking, more badass than Bob, but sometimes, being badass can get in the way of getting the job done right, or even doing anything right at all—and that’s where Bob comes in. He’s got his heart in the right place, and he always tries to do the right thing, instead of just doing what he’s told, even if it means walking into a dangerous situation armed with nothing more than a Hand of Glory and a basilisk gun. That’s what makes him so appealing to me, as a character: he wants to do the right thing, and he’s going to do the right thing, even if it means disobeying orders or putting himself in danger.

But apparently, Bob’s picked up a few new skills since his encounter with the Cult of the Black Pharaoh in The Fuller Memorandum, and I’m not sure if I like the fact that he’s got them—or rather, I’m not very happy with how, as a reader, I learned that Bob had them. Sure, having new powers and new talents is all well and good, but there’s a faint stench of deus ex machina about how Bob got his newest gifts, and I’m not particularly fond of deus ex machina in the things I read. I think it would have grated on me less if Bob discovered those new powers in this novel, instead of him mentioning in passing that he’s aware he already has them. Maybe it’s in a short story that I missed? Stross has a tendency to put in new characters and plot points in short stories, which are then mentioned in the novels, so perhaps I’ll have to check the short stories and novellas to see if one of them tackles that particular revelation.

As for the plot, it’s really rather fun, but I’ve come to expect that of Stross’ writing. What makes it really interesting this go-round, though, is what Stross puts at the heart of this particular novel: Christian fundamentalism, mega-churches, and the “prosperity gospel”. His opinion, in a word, is dim: very, very dim indeed. I rather think Stross chose to set the novel in the United States so he could point his metaphorical gun at the growing Christian fundamentalism that’s sprung up in that country in recent years, and he puts them at the heart of this novel so he can show everything that’s wrong with them—not least their cult-like nature, which he then likens to the cults as depicted in the Cthulhu Mythos. He also does so to point out how religion, politics, and, most importantly, money, are coming together in a way that is dangerous to other people in the United States, most especially women and members of the LGBTQIA community.

There is one scene, in particular, that I extremely disturbing: a hospital ward, where young women—usually single, vulnerable, and, perhaps most importantly, pregnant—are paralysed almost totally, and then are put on life support so that they can bring their child to term without being able to protest, whereupon (it is implied) they are impregnated again so they can give birth to more children: all of this, done against their will. Stross is obviously aiming this at the so-called “pro-life” movement, which is primarily driven by the aforementioned Christian fundamentalist movements.

Is any of this uncomfortable? Yes, I would imagine it is—especially if one is a subscriber to one of the movements that Stross is painting with a very black brush. But I, personally, find myself rather delighted by what Stross has done here: as I have said, I’m willing to respect organised religion, but when a religion, via its followers, puts other people in danger, or worse, threatens their lives and their ability to live that life safely, then I’m more than happy to see them savagely torn down, even if only in fiction. Stross could have aimed this whole thing at the Catholic Church and I would have been equally pleased—I may have been raised Catholic, but I’m not blind to its faults, nor would I be surprised that they have had dealings with eldritch monstrosities.

Overall, The Apocalypse Codex is par-on-course for a Laundry Files novel: the plot is still fun, not least because of how it takes aim at Christian fundamentalists and the pro-life movement, and the new characters are interesting and aren’t a chore to read about. However, there has been some tweaking done to Bob’s story, and I’m not entirely sure if I like it. I think it could have been introduced more smoothly than it was in this novel, and it makes me wonder if I haven’t missed something in the short stories and novellas that Stross tends to use to fill in the story line gaps between novels. Still, I think Stross could have done a better job introducing that new angle to Bob’s story, and I hope that it doesn’t interfere too greatly with his characterisation in further novels.

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