Superheroes at the End of the World – A Review of The Annihilation Score by Charles Stross

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Lately, superheroes are a thing. Every year Marvel comes out with a handful of new superhero movies, with DC currently playing catch-up. Aside from Marvel Studios’ Iron Man-Captain America-Thor triumvirate, one non-related studio is putting out yet another Spiderman reboot, while another studio is continuing the X-Men franchise. On DC’s part, they have Superman and Batman movies, with a crossover film coming out soon, but they will be releasing an Aquaman movie soon, and there are hints that there will be a Wonder Woman movie in the near future. It’s gotten to the point that some folks are actually building entire moviegoing schedules up to three years in advance based on planned release schedules from the studios themselves—clearly an attempt to build hype as early as possible.

Because of the popularity of these movies, it’s no surprise that superheroes (and other, similar entities) are starting to crop up in other media as well. The TV show Heroes, for example, is getting a reboot, while a new show titled Sense8 is steadily gaining popularity of its own. And then there are novels like Adam Christopher’s Empire State, which explicitly deals with superhero tropes and conventions and attempt to turn those conventions and tropes on their heads (Christopher’s novel isn’t a particularly good example, in my opinion, but it’s the one that stands out in my memory right now).

It should come as no surprise, then, that Charles Stross would find a way to incorporate superheroes into his Laundry Files series, which combines tropes and concepts from popular culture with the stranger, darker threads of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. In the fifth novel of the series, The Rhesus Chart, Stross introduced vampires to his world, though he does so to uncertain effect. But in the latest novel, The Annihilation Score, Stross succeeds not just in incorporating superheroes into his world, but in putting forth a new narrative voice: that of Dominique “Mo” O’Brien, otherwise known as Agent CANDID, wielder of a certain white bone violin, and Bob Howard’s better half.

The Annihilation Score picks up where The Rhesus Chart left off. While Mo would like nothing more than to hide under the covers and let the world pass her by as she attempts to recover from the multiple emotional and psychological blows she’s accumulated over the years (the latest being her separation from her husband, Bob Howard: a decision they made together a mere few hours after her return from a diplomatic summit with the Deep Ones), there is no time for that. While she’s been going around the world as Agent CANDID, very ordinary people have been getting not-so-ordinary powers. And with the Laundry in a shambles, it’s up to Mo and a handful of other people to work with the police to help manage the United Kingdom’s superhero problem, before it turns into a disaster no one – not even the Laundry – can handle.

When Stross announced that he was writing The Annihilation Score, one of the things that grabbed my attention about it—and one of the reasons I was looking forward to reading it—was Stross’ choice of narrator. Instead of Bob narrating the story, the reader gets to experience Mo’s side of the story for a change: an idea I found rather intriguing and exciting, because Mo is, perhaps, the only regular female character in the series, and it would be interesting to find out her side of the story, so to speak—as well as find out what she thought of the world she’d inadvertently found herself caught up in, since her introduction to Bob’s world in The Atrocity Archives was less than smooth.

As it turns out, Mo’s voice—indeed, her personality as a whole—is just as interesting as I thought it would be. She is also very, very different from Bob: angrier, harsher, more straightforward, and makes none of the pop culture references that Bob does. Nothing makes this clearer than the novel’s Prologue, as the excerpt below shows:

If I were Bob, this journal would probably claim to be written by “Sabine Braveheart” or some such nonsense, but after OPERATION INCORRIGIBLE my patience with silly pseudonyms is at an all-time low. So I’ll use pseudonyms where necessary to protect high-clearance covert assets, and for people who insist on hiding under rocks — yes, Bob, if you’re reading this I’m talking about you — but the rest of the time I’ll call a spade a bloody shovel, not EARTHMOVER CRIMSON VORTEX.

The above doesn’t surprise me: after all, Mo is her own person, with her own career, her own interests, and a personal background that’s very different from Bob’s. It’s reasonable—indeed, logical—to expect that her narrative voice will be very, very different from her husband’s. Some readers may feel a bit jarred at first because they have gotten used to reading everything in Bob’s particular narrative style, and since Mo’s style is very different from his, it can take some adjusting to settle comfortably. I certainly felt the same way, initially, but I quickly got over it because, as I said, Mo is a different person, and so she can’t be expected to tell stories—her story, in particular—in the same way as Bob.

What this novel reveals, though, is rather unexpected. I’ve liked and been interested in Mo ever since she was introduced in The Atrocity Archives, and always hoped that at some point Stross would give her a chance to really shine, a chance to reveal what she’s really like as a person, without Bob’s gaze interfering with the reader’s judgment of who she is. What The Annihilation Score reveals, though, is that Mo is not a nice person: she’s jealous, angry, and judgmental, often all three, and very often at people who might not necessarily deserve any of those emotions (although to be fair, she is under considerable emotional and psychological stress thanks to her job and having to carry the white violin). Even Bob is not safe from her contempt, though even as Mo criticises him she emphasises how much she needs him to keep her stable—usually in the same sentence.

But, while Mo isn’t a nice person, she is a very strong character. I learned long ago that it’s possible to like a character as a character, but to dislike them as a person: mostly because the characteristics that make up one or the other are very different. Good people are kind, generous, and considerate; good characters are complex and multifaceted and, therefore, not necessarily likeable. While reading the first five books I always wondered why the female characters were written the way they were, and questioned Stross’ ability to write women as three-dimensional characters in their own right. This book proves that Stross can make a very good attempt at writing three-dimensional female characters, and make those female characters (yes, even Mhari, for which I am very grateful) read like actual people.

It is, therefore, unfortunate that other people don’t see this the same way I do. Some reviewers have criticised Stross’ decision to write a novel from Mo’s perspective, though their criticisms do nothing more than reveal their own misogyny, thus their views do not count and are not worth wasting time or ink (digital or otherwise) on. However, a lot of other reviewers have a hard time drawing the line between a good character and a good person, and have come down hard on Mo for being what she is. Those people have forgotten that Mo is human—moreover, a human who has been under significant and severe stress from both her job and from carrying the white violin, with the latter constantly trying to subsume her to its dark and eldritch will, and the former doing a number on her emotional and psychological state. I am no expert on psychological conditions, but I don’t think one needs to be such in order to see that Mo is suffering from an extreme case of PTSD, on top of some unresolved psychological issues that find their roots in her childhood (hinted at in this novel, but not fully explored). That she has managed to hold on and stay sane for as long as she has is a sign of her innate strength; if she snaps at people or judges them too harshly, I think that’s somewhat justified in light of the kind of stress she’s under day in and day out. As for her possessiveness of Bob, I think that’s somewhat justified too: he is, after all, the only person she can rely on to keep her sane, so she can view anyone she thinks will take him away from her as a threat and treat them as such. This does not excuse her behaviour, but it is an explanation, which is a lot more than other writers do when characterising the “jealous wife”.

Another thing Stross is good at is being able to criticise a particular issue, and run away with it in a way that is both humorous and very cutting. Since The Annihilation Score is about superheroes, it stands to reason that he should turn that very funny and very cutting gaze upon the conventions of comics, and upon certain corners of the comic book fandom. Take the excerpt below, where Stross addresses the superhero approach to crime-solving:

”… Rich, powerful, white alpha males who dress up in gimp suits and beat up ethnically diverse lower-class criminals. Reprehensible lawless vigilantes! … You see, superheroes don’t follow the rules of evidence. They take procedural shortcuts, assault criminals, mess up crime scenes, and generally make it almost impossible to secure a conviction. Not to mention committing a basket-load of offences in their own right: aggravated trespass, assault, violating controlled airspace and flying without a license, breaking and entering, criminal damage…”

Shades of Batman, Superman, Iron Man, and all the rest, anyone? He also addresses the tendency to portray female superheroes as seemingly more indestructible than their male counterparts by giving them less clothing, though he ensures he lays the blame for all of that at the correct door:

”…and you said you wanted to avoid the cheesecake problem.” By which [Ramona Random] means the popular expectation that women with exotic powers should wear six-inch stilettos, fishnets, and implausible corsetry while courting hypothermia as they fight crime. (An expectation which has more to do with the historic age and gender distribution of the weekly comics consumer demographic than with, for example, a PHANG’s desire to avoid exposure to sunlight or my own strong preference not to show off my impending middle-aged spread.)

He also goes on to address the interesting question of the “epidemic/pollution narrative” to superhero powers, which may have some people looking at the X-men in a different light:

”They paint us as contaminated. It’s deeply unsettling to ordinary members of the public because it has echoes of ritual uncleanliness that go back a long way. The whole superhero narrative is flawed, anyway — it’s a stand-in for the old-time Greek and Roman pantheons, ultra-powerful gods with dysfunctional emotional lives — we’re going to be perceived as unstable by default, and now we’ve got some committee trying to convince us to play the part of contaminated untouchables?”

But Stross doesn’t stop there. As I mentioned earlier, he also tackles the fandom—not all of it, of course, but a specific, very loud and very irritating portion of comic book fandom, which he addresses in this excerpt:

”Remember, reasonable people who acquire superpowers are not our target. This is a propaganda operation aimed at the unreasonable ones: disturbed hero-worshiping nerd-bigots who, if they accidentally acquire superpowers, will go on a Macht Recht spree unless they’re held in check by firm guidance and a role model to channel them in less destructive directions.”

This is extended later on in the novel:

”So, let’s see. We have a three-to-one gender profile, which is bad, but balanced against it we have one LGBT and one feminist activist, one ethnic minority, one pensioner, two youths. Which makes it almost but not exactly off-target for the team makeup you were handed by head office, but at least poor oppressed male trolls won’t have an excuse to go all rage face because it has too many girl cooties.”

And just to even everything out, Stross takes on police militarisation as well, once again ensuring to lay the blame at the correct door:

”Tell me they weren’t also looking into selling this as next-generation riot kit?”

“I’m disappointed in you, Mo: How could you imagine that the militarisation of the police might be seen as a huge potential growth market by defines contractors?”

“How indeed.”

This isn’t the first time Stross has aimed a metaphorical gun at cultural and socio-political issues: he took aim at American fundamentalist Christianity, megachurches, and the so-called prosperity gospel in The Apocalypse Codex; in The Rhesus Chart, he set his sights on greedy bankers and stockbrokers who think that it’s perfectly all right to collapse an entire economy as long as they can abandon ship with all their money before the floor falls out from under them. His decision to target comics and the comic book fandom in The Annihilation Score pleased me immensely: partly because it allows Stross to play with pop culture tropes despite Bob not being the narrator; and partly because I’m a comic book fan, after a fashion, and it’s fun to read Stross take aim at some of the more egregious issues that exist in comics and the associated fandom.

Overall, The Annihilation Score is a great new addition and continuation of Stross’ Laundry Files series. The switch from Bob Howard to Mo O’Brien as primary narrator might be jarring for some readers, but it’s a switch that’s not only timely, but interesting as well, since it provides a new perspective of the world of the Laundry that Bob is simply not equipped to provide. Stross also proves that he can actually write female characters: not necessarily perfectly, but well enough. He still writes Mo as the kick-ass agent she’s been presented as in previous novels, but unveils her darker side: the steep price that she has to pay physically, emotionally, and mentally just to be what she is and do her job without falling to pieces. Readers who have looked forward to seeing Mo for who she really is will likely enjoy these new revelations—so long as one is capable of discerning the difference between a good character and a good person, and so long as one is not a part of that festering pustule of humanity that thinks misogyny is still acceptable in the twenty-first century.

Speaking of misogyny, Stross takes aim at that particular issue, among many others, as it exists in comic books and the comic book fandom, doing so to admirable (and hilarious) effect. Once again he proves that when he decides to tackle an issue, he can do so in a way that is simultaneously entertaining and cutting: if any comic book fans reading the novel feel outraged, then they consider the novel a wake-up call for them to reassess the way they think about comics, and about the fandom they participate in.

Thanks to everything I’ve mentioned above, The Annihilation Score makes me look forward to the next one in the series. Hopefully, Stross can continue what he started here, because to do otherwise would be to undermine the good work he’s already begun.

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2 thoughts on “Superheroes at the End of the World – A Review of The Annihilation Score by Charles Stross

    1. They go by really quickly, that much I can tell you, so six more books don’t really matter. I will say, though, that the first two books are a bit of a hurdle, but if you listen to them on audiobook, they’re very easy to get through. Then you can move on to the third book with a clear conscience :).

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