When the Apocalypse Refuses to Meet Expectations – A Review of The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross

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Note: This is the seventh book in a series. While this review is spoiler-free for the book itself, it might contain spoilers for the other books in the series. To avoid getting spoiled, please do not read this review without having first read the other books in the series.

Being raised Catholic means that I have a fairly good notion of what to expect when the end of the world comes. It was never explicitly covered in any of the catechism classes I underwent while growing up, but as an eager reader I didn’t find it too difficult to skip through everything else in the Bible and read the Book of Revelations. Since I did this after I’d been introduced to other world mythologies, what I read wasn’t all that new – indeed, much of the imagery made it seem like John of Patmos had been reading up on the Norse sagas in his spare time. It would take a few years before I learned to appreciate the importance of the concepts in Revelations, and how appealing it is to the downtrodden and the oppressed (Christianity’s target market, if religions might be said to have target markets). After all, not only does it lay down, in very clear, specific terms, just exactly what will go down when the world ends, but more importantly, it tells the reader in equally explicit language who is going to win, who is going to lose, and what to do to be on the winning side.

This fascination with the end of the world intrigues me – not least because of how often it has been portrayed in media. I suppose it’s a good way of exploring themes of human resilience, courage, and heroism against seemingly insurmountable odds, but what really interests me is the sheer variety of ways the world could end. From meteor strikes to alien invasions, and, yes, even the apocalypse as described in Revelations – all of those and more have been portrayed on the big screen, the small screen, in images and in words. It has gotten to the point that lately, it appears that storytellers have just moved on and decided to tell stories of what happens after the apocalypse has come and gone – dystopian fiction is probably the hottest sub-genre at the moment, especially in young adult fiction. It’s as if the apocalypse is already a given; what’s more interesting is watching humanity pick up the pieces years after it’s happened.

In Lovecraftian fiction, the apocalypse is a recurring theme, but played out somewhat-differently than in religion or more mainstream media. In a Lovecraftian universe, the apocalypse is always a hairsbreadth away from happening: read the wrong book, converse with the wrong entity, or even just speak the wrong word, and the veils between worlds get shredded to pieces and Cthulhu rises from sunken R’lyeh to devour us all. The only thing that stops this from happening (at least in Lovecraft’s stories) is that someone (usually the narrator) is able to run away fast enough to ensure the worst doesn’t come to pass, or everyone involved just dies and the whole thing falls through.

In the world of Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series, though, things are a little different. The government of the United Kingdom, having recognised the reality of the threat posed by the Elder Gods and others of their ilk since the 1940s, has set up a secret department codenamed the Laundry, which focuses exclusively on dealing with any and all such related incidents and incursions. It is also the Laundry’s duty to make sure that, when the apocalypse finally happens (whatever form it might take), the nation is ready to weather it and emerge on the other side, if not unscathed, then at least still alive and breathing. The first five books of the series followed Bob Howard, who started out in tech support before rising to become one of the Laundry’s most dangerous necromancers. The sixth book, The Annihilation Score, follows Dominique “Mo” O’Brien, who is also a very dangerous necromancer in her own right thanks to a certain bone-white violin only she can wield.

The latest book, The Nightmare Stacks, follows Alex Schwartz, who was first introduced in the fifth book, The Rhesus Chart. Following the events of that book, Alex has since left the financial world and joined the Laundry (albeit not entirely of his own volition). It is a significant step down from what he used to do as a banker, but it’s better than being dead – just. Unhappy with his job, and unhappier with the fact that it might force him to move back to his hometown of Leeds, Alex thinks he would do just about anything for a distraction – and that’s when a young woman named Cassie Brewer walks into his life. However, it soon becomes clear that Cassie isn’t exactly what she seems to be on the surface, and the secret she is hiding could be more than a little detrimental not only to Alex, but to the entire world.

The Nightmare Stacks follows the new pattern Stross has taken with this series: letting other characters narrate the story instead of Bob Howard, who has been the primary protagonist and narrator from the first to the fifth book. This is an especially refreshing change of pace – not because I don’t like Bob, but because it lets Stross develop the other characters in a way he would not have been able to if he’d continued to let Bob act as narrator. The Annihilation Score showed this to great effect: by using Mo O’Brien as the narrator, Stross was able to fully develop her character, along with the other female characters whose development suffered while Bob was telling the story (specifically, Ramona Random and Mhari Murphy).

The Nightmare Stacks continues this pattern by putting a supporting character from The Rhesus Chart front and centre. I thought this a rather unusual decision, mostly because Alex is practically a brand-new character compared to some of the others already seen in previous books, and who would have done wonderfully as protagonists in their own right. (I had high hopes for Persephone Hazard, who was prominently featured in the fourth book, The Apocalypse Codex.) Still, I decided that Stross must have a reason for choosing Alex to be the star of this latest novel, and decided to just go along with it and see what happens.

Fortunately, Alex is not entirely that bad as a lead character, though he is also not as compelling as I’d like him to be. Here is a description of his social skills, taken from the novel’s first chapter:

He’s not totally unsocialized, but he’s the product of a single-sex schooling followed by graduate and postgraduate studies in a field with institutional gender bias. When you subject a statistically significant sample size of otherworldly male nerds to this treatment what you end up with is a certain proportion of twenty-four-year-old virgins.

The above is emphasised by his first journal entry:

main = putStrLn “Hello, World!”

That’s the Haskell version. In human, that would be:

Hello, World!

I am Dr. Alex Schwartz, PhD, aged twenty-four and three quarters, and this is my secret diary. I’m not normally into self-disclosure or Facebook and so on, but apparently we’re supposed to keep diaries when we work for the Laundry – who knew? It’s secret because my whole new job is secret, by which I mean government NATSEN/UK EYES ONLY secret, not Diary of Adrian Mole secret. Not that its secrecy means that nobody is ever going to read it: I fully expect men in blue uniforms with no sense of humor whatsoever to snoop on it regularly, because apparently that’s the way things work around here. Or if not men in blue uniforms, it’ll be motherly middle-aged ladies wearing twinsets and pearls with clearance for OPERA CAPE and the existence of PHANG syndrome who don’t trust me, anyway.

(So I want you to know that I copied the stolen files into a USB memory stick and duct-taped it to the outside of one of the window frames at Canary Wharf, but I’ve forgotten exactly which one. (Oh, and the Semtex is in the bottom of the fridge behind the body parts.))

If the above reads a touch familiar to longtime readers of the series, they might recognise a hint of Bob Howard in the above. This is unsurprising, because in a way, Alex is rather like Bob’s younger equivalent, but more anxious, more nervous, than Bob ever was. However, this similarity is a double-edged sword: on one hand, it gives longtime readers a touchpoint to ground themselves on amidst the changes Stross is making to his series – like Bob in the first three books, Alex is a fresh recruit with an awkward personality trying to find his footing in the Laundry, and then is suddenly thrust into a potentially apocalyptic situation, and must find a way to deal with it despite his lack of experience.

On the other hand, it’s quite obvious that Alex is patently not Bob. Whatever fondness the reader might feel for the latter might not necessarily transfer over to the former, despite the certain similarities between them. This can be a problem for readers like myself, who are quite happy with Bob, but are happy with him because of what he has become, not what he used to be.

This, I think, is the main problem with this novel: the attempt, intentional or not, to take the feel of the first book and make it work with a different protagonist, setting, and plot, with Alex taking Bob’s place, and Cassie taking Mo’s. I, and perhaps other readers, are quite happy to have seen Bob progress away from who he used to be in the first books, so a return to that place, even with a new set of characters, is not exactly what might be called progress. The Annihilation Score was progress; The Nightmare Stacks, on the other hand, feels rather like a step backwards.

Another issue I have with this novel (which also probably feeds into the issue I mentioned above) is its use of the third-person present tense instead of the usual first-person. Stross has used third-person in his previous novels, usually to describe events that are occurring out-of-sight of the narrator, but those instances tended to occur only as necessary; most of the storytelling was accomplished by the narrator himself or herself. This is the first book in the series where a huge chunk of the storytelling – a good three-fourths of the novel, perhaps more – is told in third-person present tense, jumping from character to character as necessary in order to narrate a particular incident from their point-of-view.

This exacerbates the problem of Alex’s characterisation. In the first book The Atrocity Archive, the reader has an opportunity to get to know Bob, to really understand his quirks and sympathise (and perhaps even empathise) with him because the reader sees the world through Bob’s eyes and hears Bob’s voice telling the story. However, the reader is not given this opportunity in The Nightmare Stacks, because Alex is not always the one narrating the story. Based on the journal entries (which are in first-person), Alex reads like he would make an interesting narrator, if a bit rambly – but that’s part of his charm. Take the excerpt below:

There’s a reason everyone thinks vampires are sociopaths: it’s because only a sociopath could comprehend what they’ve become and still be able to live with themselves. But Her Majesty’s Government has a use for a cadre of tame PHANGs and, as long as I do my job satisfactorily, once a week there will be an ampoule of fresh blood drawn from a donor waiting in my in-tray.

I don’t think I’m a murderer.

(I might be deluding myself, though.)

Rather charmingly self-aware, is Alex, but also awkward in a way that might strike a few readers as adorable, maybe even familiar, as the next excerpt shows:

I have a date this evening and I am not sure what I’m supposed to do – Wikipedia is maddeningly uninformative on the subject, and other sources range from unreliable (citation needed!) to actively misleading. However I am conditionally confident of the accuracy of the advice Pete gave me, which was to treat any behavior showcased by the male lead in a Hollywood romantic comedy as dangerously abusive. (Do not: follow her home; break into her house to watch her sleep; put spyware on her computer or phone; send giant bouquets of flowers signed YOUR SECRET ADMIRER; boil her family’s pet rabbit; and so on.) I am therefore using paperwork as a distraction from life, rather than vice versa.

Unfortunately, the reader is never really given an opportunity to hear (read?) Alex’s voice, because after a certain point the journal entries disappear. While there are some advantages to the third-person point-of-view (the reader gets to read about other characters who’ve appeared in previous books), it does mean that Alex never really comes into his own as a narrator – which is unfortunate, because if this novel had been narrated in first-person from his point-of-view, I think he might feel a bit more interesting and a lot less superfluous.

Fortunately, this book does have a redeeming factor, and that is the plot. Without giving too much away, I can confidently say that this is the most epic plot in the series in terms of scope: the events themselves are quite grand, but even more importantly, the repercussions on future books will be quite significant indeed. I do not know where Stross intends to go with this series after what has happened in this book, but wherever he goes, I’m quite certain it’s going to be worth reading – though hopefully the story will be narrated better.

Overall, The Nightmare Stacks is not in my top tier of favourite books from this series (that honour goes to The Fuller Memorandum and The Annihilation Score), but the epic scope of its plot, and its possible repercussions on future books, make it a great, albeit not overly strong, continuation of the series. I am not quite happy with the choice of narrator, nor with the predominant narrative style, but those are minor irritations in comparison to everything else.

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