Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross: FACT reading group discussion and my personal opinion

On August 15, 2006 the FACT reading group discussed The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross, which consists of novels The Atrocity Archive and The Concrete Jungle. Everybody but one person in the group finished the book, and the one person who had not was planning to finish it. Everybody has read Charles Stross before. Most people in the group loved The Atrocity Archives. Like "Family Trade", and unlike some of Charles Stross' Singularity-themed science fiction, this book is a crowd pleaser. People described it as clever, loads of fun, and (to borrow a word occasionally used to characterize good space opera), rollicking. (The Atrocity Archives is not space opera, but it's rollicking nonetheless.)

Somebody took an informal survey on which genre did people think this book belong to: satire? comedy? horror? spy novel? Most people thought this book belonged to one of those genres first, and science fiction second or third.

Many in the group had fun with the computer / mathematical jargon and geek jokes. (Person 1: "I kept waiting to see whether the middle initial of the main character's name (Bob Howard) is E." Person 2: "No, his middle initials are OF.") Even those who didn't have the background to understand the jokes, appreciated the writing style. One reader said she liked the texture of the writing, "the way it was densely filled with all the science and pseudoscience vocabulary, thrown in with bits of Lovecraftian and magical vocabulary. I couldn't tell whether the way he was throwing things around was right or not scientifically, but I didn't care. I loved that texture to the writing."

Half of the group got a good chuckle out of the "pi = 4" moment. One reader spent some time pondering a universe where pi is equal to 4, and how bizarrely stretched the space must be in that universe. Another reader argued it's not possible mathematicaly, because a lot of mathematical results depend on the value of pi being what it is. Many series converge to pi, or to some number divided by pi. If its value changed, not only geometry would be different, but most of the mathematics, e.g. calculus or number theory, wouldn't work at all. Still, the first reader really enjoyed an opportunity to think about it. He said Charles Stross probably didn't even realize how fun it was for a reader to ponder this problem. Stross most likely put it in as a throwaway remark.

Other readers gave Stross credit for a convincing description of how to defuse a hydrogen bomb so that it would not explode, or rather, explode in a "benign", not-too-destructive fashion. In this he demonstrates knowledge of bombs beyond a typical Hollywood movie.

Everybody appreciated the irony of the fact that a certain technology the government uses (quite pointlessly) in the "war on terror", turns against it in a very bad way. (This was in The Concrete Jungle.) Somebody jokes that it was like making every land mine remote-controlled by WiFi from a computer running a Windows operating system. (To say more would be a major spoiler.)

Charles Stross in the British SF panel at ArmadilloCon 2007
Charles Stross in the "Current Trends in British SF" panel at ArmadilloCon 2007

Overall, to quote one reader, Charles Stross "is a skillful writer and he gets a lot of details of computer technology and theroetical computer science right. This combination of a strong writer who knows technology, only Neal Stephenson comes close. Rudy Rucker knows what he's talking about, but can't write, and William Gibson, the other way around." Nonetheless, it was agreed that science in this book was used mostly as a joke, and maybe that's the reason why most readers would not classify this book primarily as science fiction. Stross uses a lot of SF tropes in what is essentially a modern fantasy horror story. While you can't not like a book that starts with a mention of Turing-Lovecraft equations, Stross kind of "fluffs over" that stuff, to quote another reader.

While enjoying the irreverent tone of the book, most readers were moved by the chapter that was entitled, as the novel itself, The Atrocity Archive. A reader said: "It was chilling and very good. At the end it made as much sense as any other explanation of the Nazi Germany I've ever heard."

One reader thought the exposition lasted too long. On one hand, sending your character to a training course that covers the material he already knows is a clever way to introduce that material to the reader; on the other hand, there were too many training courses. A character in an espionage novel should not spend half the book in a classroom. Some writers, for example, Roger Zelazny, are better at mixing action with exposition. At the time Stross was writing this book, he hadn't quite mastered it.

However, no one else in the reading group seemed to think the exposition slowed down the action. And another reader, who, according to herself, has recently rejoined the ranks of bureaucracy, appreciated the fact that the protagonist is forced to waste time in a training class while there are monsters to be fought. That's very typical for a bureaucratic organization.

This prompts a discussion, is the portrayal of bureaucratic absurdities in the Laundry an exaggeration, or are there really organizations like that? The part of the group that hasn't worked for the government thought it was obviously an exaggeration, but others who have worked for the government swore it was all true. There really are managers who say "You should have called in this morning to tell me you'll be sleeping late this morning". In the middle of sharing stories about real-life pointy-haired bosses, somebody asked the group, are there any actual managers in our midst? In the past, lambasting middle managers has caused bad feelings among some members of the group who happened to be middle managers themselves. So this time the person who asked the question wanted to make sure nobody was getting offended.

And of course, no discussion of a Charles Stross book could be complete without chuckling over memorable quotes. Such as "Fred's dead, so he works the night shift", or my favorite "[the hard drive array] scratches its read/write heads", or "The London Underground is famous for apparently believing that human beings go about this world owning neither a kidney nor colon." Or the line from a top secret report, where you have this long, dragged-on paragraph of bureaucratese ending with "when the Great Old Ones return from beyond the stars to eat our brains".